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Mystery eat 

Pad Thai, ever popular, falters with its fare

Pad Thai has been a fixture at the corner of Virginia and North Highland for as long as I can remember. It's hard to imagine driving through the neighborhood without giving a quick glance to the restaurant's giant exterior mural. The river scene with its long, skinny boats always gave a touch of the exotic to an otherwise mundane street corner. But these days, you can't walk a block in Atlanta without tripping over a Thai restaurant. There are at least five in Virginia-Highland alone. I was curious to know how Pad Thai keeps its customers loyal.

I've always thought Pad Thai's dining room had something distinctive about it -- maybe it's the high ceilings, or the elegant tiled floors. And there's something vaguely hippie-ish about the place. I've always favored the cozy front table in the bay window. But looking around the familiar old room, with its crumbling plaster and dusty Asian knickknacks, I began to feel the first stirrings of doubt. Nothing has changed. Those tired, frayed wall hangings have probably been in the same spot on that wall for a decade. The place could use a facelift.

If the decor has stayed the same over the years, the menu has taken a turn for the worse. I'm a sucker for dishes with cute names, so I couldn't pass up the "petite rose" steamed pork dumplings. But as I took the lid off the little metal pot that the server placed in front of me, I had an Indiana Jones moment. We're not talking eyeball soup, but the dish was definitely scary-looking. It was a mass of congealed noodles with filaments of something I hoped was egg strewn across the top. I prodded it with my fork, and it broke apart into several fat dumplings. I pried one loose, popped it in my mouth, and immediately regretted it. The meat was bouncy and off-tasting, the wrapper unpleasantly gummy. Our other appetizer, a rather bland spring roll stuffed with shredded chicken, black mushrooms and cabbage, was delicious by comparison.

Entrees weren't a great improvement. Masaman curry, instead of being voluptuously creamy, was thin and oily. Grilled lemongrass chicken, a house specialty, suffered from mystery meat syndrome. I hate it when I can't identify what part of the chicken my dinner comes from. The chicken still had its rubbery skin on, and it was sitting in a pool of greasy lemongrass sauce.

Obviously, someone likes Pad Thai. The place has been around for ages. And even on a rainy Tuesday night, it was hardly empty. But the allure was entirely lost on me. This is one mystery I'm not sure I'll ever solve.

Florence.byrd@creativeloafing.com

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