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Traditional flavours shine in thoughtful combos at Thai Pudpong in West Vancouver

Thai Pudpong, West Vancouver’s popular, long-running Thai restaurant, has been showcasing chef and owner Sutthi Srilanpong’s family recipes since 2002.

Thai Pudpong, West Vancouver’s popular, long-running Thai restaurant, has been showcasing chef and owner Sutthi Srilanpong’s family recipes since 2002.

By all accounts, Srilanpong’s mother was a chef for Thai nobility and imparted to her son the techniques and flavours of her accomplished repertoire. The restaurant bills its offerings as authentic Thai cuisine.

But you see, I’ve never been to Thailand. I feel like I may be the only person in my immediate circle who hasn’t. Friends and acquaintances regale me with tales of their visits there, of snorkeling in the clear blue waters of the Similan Islands, of sunning on the sands of Chaweng, or of whizzing down narrow roads in Bangkok in tuk tuks. It all sounds appealingly exotic, and yet somehow my adventures have taken me to other distant lands instead.

It is with resignation, then, that I acknowledge that I am not able to evaluate the professed authenticity of any Thai restaurant’s cuisine, despite the fact that Thai food was one of the first international culinary styles that I learned to prepare myself.

I would regularly descend on the southeast Asian markets of Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood in my teens to procure ingredients like shredded green papaya, palm sugar, pandan extract, fresh galangal, lime leaves, or the characteristically bright orange tea leaves for use in cha yen, the country’s famed iced tea. I made curry pastes from scratch using vicious little

Thai bird chillies, herbs, citrus, roasted spices, and enough garlic to repel Anne Rice’s entire literary oeuvre. I also learned how the thick layer of silken goodness on the top of a can of coconut milk makes a great substitute for oil in sautéing proteins.

To the degree that I have the flavours of homemade Thai-influenced cooking in mind, I do feel adequately
positioned to at least call the bluff of imposters, those restaurants that throw a bunch of colourful ingredients into coconut milk with a teaspoon or two of ready-made curry paste and call their food Thai.

Alas, Thai Pudpong is no imposter, by this writer’s standards. Srilanpong’s recipes take no shortcuts and there are some thoughtful and unique combinations of flavours like in Pudpong’s Tod Mun Pla, deep-fried fish cakes blended with curry paste and green beans, served with spicy cucumber salad. This appetizer dish was my favourite of a recent menu sampling and revealed textures, seasonings and colours outside of the standard range found in most North Shore Thai restaurants.

On the whole, however, I would offer that Thai Pudpong flavours still tend towards the tame, cooked with restrain rather than reckless abandon or provocation, a phenomenon I feel is ubiquitous in local iterations of cuisines otherwise noted for boldness and fiery heat.

To be fair, I asked for most dishes in my tasting to be prepared with medium-to-hot spice rather than straight out fiery, a misguided effort on my part to ensure that my meal didn’t flay the taste buds off my tongue. Given how rare it is to encounter potency of this kind in any dish, however, I ought to know better than to proactively ask a kitchen to pull its punches.

A dish of Pudpong Special Fried Rice featured prawns, chicken, slices of Thai sausage, fried onions, egg, pineapple, green onions, cilantro and curry powder. This was a hearty and pleasant dish, with each of the proteins clearly added at a time appropriate to its proper cooking need, preserving the moisture and succulence of the prawns and chicken, the delicate crunch of the pineapple and the potency of the green onions.

Red Curry with beef proved to be silky and fragrant with its coconut milk base and pungent notes of lime leaf though, again, could have used a spicy boost; this was the one dish I did ask to be prepared hot.

An entrée of Drunken Squid contained Thai basil, bell peppers, onions and chillies, all stir-fried with meaty coils of squid.

There are various stories that surround the origin of the term “drunken” as it applies to dishes of this ilk, many referring to the addition of rice wine to the recipe. However, as many so-called “drunken” dishes contain no alcohol at all, I’m more inclined to subscribe to the idea that the descriptor typically refers to the fact that dishes in this genre, which actually hails from China but has been widely adopted throughout Asia, are so fiery hot that the diner will be reaching for cold drinks throughout the meal. I found the flavours of the squid to be understated and eminently accessible.

Veggie Pad Thai had nice large morsels of cauliflower and broccoli, carrots, green onions, egg, tofu and peanuts, but omitted bean sprouts entirely, an
ingredient I personally find essential to the success of Pad dishes.

A final dish of Goong Phad Phed, stir-fried prawns with Thai basil and vegetables in chili paste, was much soupier than I would have anticipated, the crispness of the vegetable ultimately succumbing to the power of the ample dark, garlicky sauce.

Thai Pudpong was packed on the night of my visit, clearly suggesting that the restaurant resonates with patrons and has a loyal following. It also suggests that just as terms like Canadian, Chinese, or Italian food, etc., are overly broad placeholder names for the rich and nuanced regional contributions that comprise each of these nation’s culinary traditions, Thai Food too is subject to countless interpretations. It is therefore important to explore the many available dining options in this category until you find the one that most appeals to your palate.

Thai Pudpong dishes are modestly priced and range from $10 to $19. 1474 Marine Dr., West Vancouver. 604-921-1069

Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached at North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.

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