Nothing demonstrates the drudgery of everyday life for the corporate drone better than a trip to one of the many food courts in Irvine. Situated strategically near office parks or warehouses, everyday at noon, Irvine's food courts lure the bleary-eyed cube farm denizens like insects to a venus-fly trap.
One example is the food court on Barranca and Von Karman in the Sam's Club Plaza. There, in a poorly lit space, three (Count them! THREE!) out of a half dozen stalls hawk the SAME tired orange chicken as well as other mass-prepared concoctions with gloopy gravy from old, crusty steam trays. The food, made from cheap ingredients is slopped onto rice and sold as "Specials". Sometimes they include a watered-down soda and sometimes not.
Regretfully, a while ago, I tried food from an Indian stall there. Their chicken tikka masala, which looked like vomit, also tasted like it. I also think that it was their saag paneer which gave me food poisoning that night. Fortunately, the Indian place has gone out of business since then, but unfortunately I have a feeling that an equally horrid replacement is on the way.
So it came as a surprise when I got a tip from a fellow Chowhound named Curt, that the Thai stall at this food court does a good cooked-to-order Pad See Ew. Had I heard it from anybody else, I would have dismissed it as bunk. But Curt is a Chowhound who knows his Thai food, so I couldn't resist going back there to investigate.
Zesty Thai, as it is officially called, wasn't one of those that sold the orange chicken, but it did have its own steam trays with equally bleak-looking offerings. Something labeled as Chicken Satay looked suspiciously like buffalo chicken fingers with nary a bamboo skewer in sight. And behind a sheet of glass under a glowing infrared heat lamp was...broasted chicken?! What the?
Okay, so far this place wasn't getting my hopes up, but admittedly I haven't tried any of the steam tray stuff, so it could all taste better than it looks.
So with gritted teeth, we walked up to the counter and ordered the Pad See Ew. The server looked at us and frowned.
"That will take about 15 minutes. Are you sure?" she warned us ominously.
"Yes, we'll wait for it," I said with confidence, trying to hide my trepidation.
Watching the lone cook behind her, who was working feverishly with a single wok which was obscenely warped from years of use, I thought to myself, "This will take longer than 15 minutes."
And I was right, as she had a few orders to complete before ours. At one point, she had to cook up more pad thai to refill an empty steam tray container.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw her assemble our Pad See Ew. With a flourish she threw a bowl of chicken meat into the sizzling wok, then cracked an egg into it. Before long, the rice noodles went in, and then a flurry of seasonings and soy sauce. The long spatula she held moved in quick circles around the wok. And then shortly thereafter, she swept the contents into a waiting styrofoam container.
We paid the $4.65 (plus tax) and took the food to a table.
Upon opening the box, the aroma and breath of the wok wafted into our nostrils. The dish was still piping hot and we dug in. Tasting the first short, stubby strand of noodle we immediately remarked "this was worth the wait."
The flavor was spot-on perfect. The seasonings of soy, fish sauce, sugar, and who knows what else, permeated into every corner of the noodles, also giving it a rich, brown burnish.
I concede that a typical restaurant Pad See Ew is traditionally made with beef and Chinese broccoli, not the chicken and American broccoli that were used in this dish. And I've never seen carrots used in Pad See Ew either. But indeed everything that made this dish non-traditional was trumped by its authentic flavor and execution.
The American broccoli, in fact, functioned like a thirsty sponge, sopping up and concentrating the deep and penetrating essence of the seasonings. Also, the morsels of chicken were springy and light.
I've had the Pad See Ew at Zesty Thai twice now, and the second time, the same cook went a bit too far with the seasoning and the dish came out saltier than before. But for take-out Thai, the Pad See Ew served here is probably still better than most places in Irvine and definitely of higher quality, I think, than the stuff offered at the other stalls in that food court.