(Travel + Leisure) – If you’ve eaten at a neighborhood Thai restaurant, you’re likely familiar with pick-your-protein Technicolor curries. Odds are you’ve tried papaya salad, spring rolls, and pad thai improbably made with ketchup and maybe even peanut butter.
While many ethnic cuisines are domesticated to Western palates, Thai food may be the most bastardized in America. “We have the same basic Thai dishes over and over again, many of which have nothing to do with Thailand,” says Andy Ricker, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind the bicoastal restaurant empire Pok Pok, known for authentic dishes like charcoal-roasted hen with lemongrass and tamarind.
But for as many sugarcoated Thai restaurants operating in the U.S., there’s an appreciable number of spots doing it right—especially in immigrant-heavy cities like Houston, where Asia Market encourages diners to personally adjust their dishes with condiments like pickled peppers, fish sauce, and chili sauce (nam prik). L.A., meanwhile, supports both NIGHT + MARKET, which puts a hipster spin on Thai street food, and Thai Town’s Jitlada, where chef Tui Sungkamee makes traditional fiery southern dishes.
“Thai is not a monolithic culture and, as such, not a monolithic cuisine,” explains Ricker. “It varies vastly from region to region and even from house to house.”