Friday night on Pleasant Hill Road of suburban Atlanta, the streets are buzzing with dinner goers narrowing their selection for a weekend celebratory meal. Bright restaurant lights in every corner compete with one another to win over local foodies. Unofficially known as the ultimate street for Far East cuisine, Pleasant Hill Road rarely disappoints when it comes to Asian delicacies. However, once in a while, we find new restaurants that could use a tweak or two.
Shyly standing in the corner of a dark, outdated shopping center near Great Wall Supermarket is the new restaurant Thai Pad & Coco Sweets. Its green and purple neon sign timidly calls in hungry passersby from the main road, which seems like a football field of parking spaces away. Not even Google Map wanted to partake, as it directly me to the better half of the shopping center, where it was well lit and has more foot traffic.
For those who are familiar with the area, Thai Pad & Coco Sweet takes over the old resident of Taste of Pho. The new owner also acquired the next door building, had his fun with a wrecking ball and combined the two properties, separated by large entrances and glass windows. The result is a very generous size restaurant that could be the love child of a Pink Berry yogurt shop and a public school cafeteria.
Lime green walls surround rows and rows of polished white tables, plastic chairs that are almost hip, and long booths that go from one end of the building to another. Two couches sit comfortably on the back corner, complete with its own coffee table. Two young girls hover over their dinner and a pile of school work. One would guess that these two girls are fine examples of the restaurant’s target market: young students looking for a cool hangout place after school, oh and they’re also happen to be hungry for Thai food.
Another group of young Asian sat at the extra dining room where the owner had purchased as an extension. The space seems so isolated from the rest of the restaurants, even though they are conjoined twins. The rest of the restaurant’s guests are older in age, eating at their table, accessing the food and quietly passing judgements among each other. Maroon 5 and Meghan Trainer belch out their tunes in the background, adding to the mix of confusion.
Although the execution could use a little makeover, the idea is clear, this is a modern kink to traditional Thai restaurants. There are no servers in their custom made sarongs, no gold paintings of temples and gods on the wall, no orchid petals and tea light candles at your table. As you come in, a waitress from the “order here” counter instruct you to grab a large laminated menu from a rack, order and sit where you choose. When your food is ready, the man from the “pick up here” counter echoes your name to the hollow dining room and you come collect your meal. Behind them, a few slushie machines spin in continuous hypnotic circles to advertise the drinks. An open cooler of colorful desserts hint at treats to be had after the meal.
Peculiarly, the very first item on the House Specialty section of the menu is Pho Bo, or beef noodle soup that is the Vietnamese national dish. When did Pho got its dual citizenship? The rest of the menu contains most traditional Thai dishes that have been introduced in similar restaurants. The prices are reasonable for a casual eatery. We opted for Thai Egg Rolls, Laap, Mango Salad, Lemongrass Wings, and Curry Noodle Soup. To satisfy my curiosity, I also ordered the Pho. Our name was called a few minutes later and we brought back our food in small white trays.
First, we tried the Thai Egg Rolls. Two very nicely fried egg rolls that contain ground chicken, cabbage, vermicelli, onions, cilantro with house sweet chili sauce. There were no carrots like the menu had promised. We dipped the rolls in the house chili sauce. If there was ever an injection for instant diabetes, I have found it. The house chili sauce was a very dense simple syrup, sickeningly sweet and an unfit pairing with the spring rolls. Sweet tooth is meant for desserts, not appetizers.
Next, the Laap. Laap is my go-to item for every Thai restaurant. I enjoy this low carb dish as it contains many of my favorite ingredients. From the menu’s description, Thai Pad & Sweet Coco’s Laap has ground beef, tripe, rice powder, mint, red onions, green onions, cilantro, lemongrass and lime juice. The Laap I received lacks rice powder, lemongrass, and lime juice, but had an unannounced addition of very spicy Thai chili peppers. Usually, my favorite part of a Laap is the citrus juice, which enhances the flavors of all the other ingredients. I was highly disappointed that my salad was missing that little kick. Not only so, I now have numbed lips from the spicy peppers. The typical Laap comes with a wedge of cabbage or lettuce to use as a wrap for the meat. My wedge of cabbage was so thin and sparing that it was useless to be anything other than an unattractive garnish.
I surrendered the Laap and moved on to my Pho. The aromatic broth, in its rich beefy color, soothingly warms my throat. It was tasty but it was not the traditional Pho that I am used to. Being Vietnamese, I have had countless bowls of Pho in my life. This, by far, was the sweetest in taste. Unlike the sugary chili sauce, the sweetness in my Pho was bearable, fragrant, and reminded me of ramen noodles. No, not the restaurant ramen broth from Umaido or Shoya, but the broth from a ramen noodle package, that are so loved by college students everywhere. My Pho toppings were meatballs, beef tenderloin, and roasted pork. Yes, roasted pork. Somewhere, a Vietnamese grandmother is crying over the treasured recipe that has been well preserved for hundreds of years, now botched by a Thai restaurant.
Besides the wonderful people of India, Thai cooks know their curry. The creaminess and balance of spices are delectable, rich, and comforting – unless you were given lukewarm curry broth. In our bowl of Coconut Curry, tiny bubbles of fat and coconut cream consciously uncoupling themselves from one another due to lack of heat, making a depressing bowl of curry vermicelli even more unappetizing. The vegetables that accompanied this dish sadly also have lost their prime, for they were dehydrated, limp, and brown.
Our next dish is the Lemongrass Wings. The golden fried wings were crunchy, juicy, and have an obvious taste of lemongrass. Unfortunately, inside that layer of crunchy shell, our wings were raw. I understand that when frying wings, heat control is very important. If the heat was too high, the skin will brown extremely fast, but the inner meat will not get their chance to cook completely. This is a rookie mistake that I’m guilty of on many occasions when cooking at home. I imagined that I was part of another Kitchen Nightmare show, where Gordon Ramsay is in the back kitchen as I’m eating, filming the next episode of his save-the-sucky-restaurants mission. Ramsay would shake his head in frustration at my wings.
We moved on to the Mango Salad, scouting for one last hope of a decent dinner. Fresh green mango were sliced and mixed with dried shrimp, red onions, herbs, and pomelo in lime dressing. Overall it was a very refreshing, well-seasoned salad. Considering the rest of my dinner, this was the star of the show. Thank goodness and well done, whoever was in charge of Mango Salads.
Since we had better luck with the mangoes, so we continued with two of the restaurant’s specialty drinks, Mango Tango and Coco Mango. Both drinks were very similar, except the Coco Mango also contained pandan jelly. The drinks were velvety from the coconut cream, sweet and refreshing from the ripe mangoes. The drinks should be the restaurant’s shining focus, not the food. Sticking to their theme of a casual after school joint, perhaps light snacks and drinks would be more appropriate for Thai Pad & Coco Sweets’ menu.
I thought about this review very hard before my submission. Being married to a restauranteur, I understand the stress and difficulties of operating a fresh new restaurant. The kitchen flow can completely alter simply with absent cooks, malfunctioned equipment, vendor failures, and countless other unexpected issues that can go wrong in a commercial kitchen. My goal is to return to Thai Pad & Sweet Coco again in the near future, and I hope to deliver a more gratifying review next time. I hope you find my criticism constructive and beneficial. Best of luck to Thai Pad & Coco Sweets!
Helen Nguyen is an avid writer, cook, foodie, and food blogger. You can find more of her writings at her blog: Sriracha Religion.
Thai Pad & Coco Sweets
2180 Pleasant Hill Road
Duluth, GA 30096