Thai Boat Noodle Soup Is the New Pho
Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
For my last column of 2013, I'm sharing with you a secret. No, it's nothing terribly earth-shattering or lascivious, but it will add a dimension to your culinary repertoire that probably didn't exist until now. And I suspect that it will become an obsession for you, just as it has for me.
It's Thai Boat Noodle Soup, or kuay teow rhua.
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Like you, I had no idea what it was until recently. I got a midday call from my wife; she must have had a bad signal because all I could hear on the phone was "Goat soup. You have to try this goat soup." And it was particularly odd because my wife really isn't into eating goat, or at least not that I knew of.
Featured at lunch at Cha Da Thai in Scottsdale, Thai Boat Noodle Soup is likely to change your perception of soup. For all you pho devotees, this is better, albeit similar in the sense that it provides a deeply comforting, affordable, and satisfying way to eat lunch. Cha Da Thai, in case you had never heard of it, took over a restaurant previously known as Swadee Thai in Scottsdale. The new owners have added a degree of authenticity that seems to be missing from many Thai restaurants in Phoenix; they're making many dishes that I have only previously seen at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, arguably this country's best (and most acclaimed) Thai restaurant. It seems to be catching on; Cha Da is packed for dinner in a way that Swadee never was.
That Boat Noodle Soup gets its moniker from the skinny boats that crowd many of Thailand's waterways. The soup is frequently served from large pots in those boats, and is a popular street food -- the kind of thing that Bourdain might slurp up with reckless abandon. Featuring a rich broth that is a deep red in color, noodles, and an array of meats and vegetables, kuay teow rhua has a depth of flavor that I've never experienced before in a bowl of soup. I'm hooked.
Cha Da offers seven different varieties, each priced at around $10 per bowl. You can choose your meats, noodles, and spice level (and when they say "hot," they really mean it). As with Lotus of Siam, "medium" is enough to generate a good sweat, and I'd caution against "hot" unless you're serious about your heat level. "Thai hot" is only for those needing penance for a year of bad deeds.
My favorite is #2, the Thai Noodle Bowl with BBQ red pork, and I prefer the wide rice noodles. According to the charming waitstaff, the soup is made by the owner's mother, and only she knows exactly what's in it. She starts early in the morning, before the rest of the staff arrives, and only she can make it. Imagine a Jewish grandmother coming in to make the matzo ball soup and you'll understand the passion and tradition that go into each bowl. I doubt there are any shortcuts here.
Vietnamese pho has become almost mainstream; I'm starting to see chefs of other cuisines do their own spin on it, like a version I recently had at James Porter's Petite Maison. (Disclosure: James is a good friend of mine.) But as far as I know, no one is doing Thai Boat Noodle Soup and, if they are, I doubt it is being done with as much breadth and intensity as it is as Cha Da Thai. On a recent visit for lunch, almost everyone in the restaurant was having some.
So there you have it; my little secret is out. It might not be goat soup but I declare Boat Soup the new pho. And as far as I can tell, Cha Da Thai is the place to go. You'll probably see me in the corner, slurping up my noodles and wishing that I had never let this secret out.