Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Battle of Pad Thai: Busaba Eathai v Rosa's

Is there a bigger crime against noodles than some of the dishes masquerading as pad Thai (ผัดไทย) in Britain? You'd think it'd be pretty hard to bugger up a dish of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, beansprouts, with some protein, usually prawn, chicken or tofu, and a garnish of lime and crushed peanuts. Yet somehow this iconic dish, more often than not, ends up as a clumpy over-sweetened mess that bears little resemblance to the pad Thai found in the old country.

That said, there must be somewhere in London that can rustle up a decent pad Thai? For example, I was sure that the likes of 101 Thai Kitchen would do it well although that turns out not to be the case. In the end, I decided to check out the mainstream options – somewhere you might pop into whilst shopping or during a night out. So let battle commence between two of London's best-known Thai restaurants, Busaba Eathai and Rosa's.

Pad Thai with prawns @ Rosa's
Round 1 – Pad Thai
Rosa's started out in Spitalfields and has built up quite a reputation. Last year, a second branch opened in Soho and this is where I rolled up to try their pad Thai with prawns (£8.25). First impressions weren't great, as it was quite a small plate with just four prawns. Things didn't get any better when I tucked in; as you might've guessed, it was too sweet. Even the addition of a squeeze of lime and the ground red chilli on the side couldn't mask the sweetness. On the plus side, it wasn't clumpy.

Sen chan pad Thai @ Busaba Eathai
So the bar wasn't set too high for Busaba Eathai, and for this challenge I decided to check out their new Panton St branch, just off Leicester Square. I decided to spurn the standard pad Thai with prawns (£7.40), in favour of the sen chan pad Thai (£8.90), which is pimped up with a topping of green mango and crabmeat.

This was much better than Rosa's effort on all levels; the sweetness was cut through by salty and sour flavours, and it was a larger portion. Not all pad Thai is spicy, but this one was, and it benefitted from the extra kick. The prawn count was only five but I could forgive that, as there were some fried tofu bits, dried shrimps, as well as green mango and crabmeat. That said the latter two ingredients were a bit gimmicky and didn't add a great deal in my opinion.

Round 2 – Thai Calamari
Man can't live on pad Thai alone and besides, it isn't always about the noodles! I've always been very fond of Busaba's Thai calamari (£5.90), and this is a must-order. The lightly battered calamari is tossed with ginger and peppercorns with a light glaze (honey?) and is packed full of flavour. This more-ish dish was as good as I remembered.


Sadly, Rosa's version (£5.25) came a very poor second. Essentially, this dish was to all intents and purposes, Chinese salt & pepper or chiu yim squid except that it didn't have much chiu and was sadly lacking in yim. The accompanying plum sauce didn't give it much of a lift either, and overall this dish was pretty forgettable.

Round 3 – The Rest
This is the only round that Rosa's wins as it's décor and design was less corporate and more charming. In particular, its seating arrangement is more intimate than the giant communal tables and windowsill seating found at Busaba's. I have no complaints about service at either restaurant, although I ate off-peak when I went to both places.

In terms of value, Busaba edges it. Although slightly more expensive than Rosa's, you got more for your money in terms of quality, and in the case of the pad Thai, quantity too. Whilst neither restaurant is a wallet-buster, I couldn't help but feel how much better value, a plate of fried seafood noodles and some salt & pepper squid would've been in nearby Chinatown.

The Verdict
2-1 to Busaba Eathai but this was by no means a battle between two champions. Whilst the pad Thai at Busaba was decent enough, it wasn't world beating and isn't what I'd order if I went there again. The food at Rosa's was disappointing, in particular the Thai calamari, and I can only assume that its good reputation is based on other dishes.

If you like Thai food…
…then check out 101 Thai Kitchen, their pad Thai might be over-sweet but there's plenty on the menu to be getting on with. I've also previously reviewed Busaba's tom yum soup noodles, back in the day when I was a newbie blogger.

{Update March 2011 - following this visit, I was invited back to Rosa's. You can read the write-up of my visit by clicking here.}

Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon

Busaba Eathai, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4EA (Tel: 020-7930-0088)
Nearest tubes: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square

Rosa's Soho on Urbanspoon

Rosa's, 48 Dean Street, London, W1D 5BF (Tel: 020-7494-1638)
Nearest tubes: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road


  1. I gave Busaba another chance after they really pissed me off by serving me a jungle curry which was only chicken skin and then accusing me of not being able to handle the heat. Unfortunately they didn't fare much better this time by refusing me a beer after I sat down at 11:30pm on a Friday night 'because you've had a drink' even though I was totally coherent and reasonable. They are now dead to me.

  2. I had a really good pad thai at a thai restaurant around Parsons Green station when I first arrived in London. Unfortunately I can't remember the name. Haven't tried Rosa's before but my first experience at Busaba has been a positive one.
    Have to go and try the calamari which you vouch for!

  3. I find pad thai tends to be quite inconsistent in most restaurants. Sometimes it'll be perfect, sometimes clumpy. Not sure why.

  4. Haha, indeed not a battle of the stars, don't like either of them very much I have to say. It's surprisingly hard to find good Thai in London...

  5. Have you tried Siam Central? My favourite thai in London :) Re Busaba Eathai, I was put off them because we wanted pad thai with chicken instead of prawns (for an allergic friend) and they refused, saying they only make it with prawn. WTF? how hard can it be so sub for chicken and we were going to pay the price for prawn? Anyway, all bad.

  6. I agree with Catty that Siam Central is wonderful. And if it's just calamari you're in the mood for, while trite and somewhat over-hyped, E & O still makes great calamari. Sit at the bar, nibble on the calamari and have a cocktail..... not exactly an easy night with thai, but a great alternative night out.

  7. Thank you Mr Noodles for this post - after so many disappointments with Pad Thai at least I know that Busaba does a reasonable job and Rosa's not so much. Come on London Thai restaurants step up to the challenge - no more super sweet and super gloopy Pad Thais.

  8. Best thai food (and pad thai) in London is Addies in Earls Cout

  9. Lizzie - I've always found Busaba's curries to be pretty decent but yours sounds rank. And as for the service, well that's not really excusable.

    Kay - I've heard there's a good Thai in Parsons Green but the name eludes me too. Busaba's calamari is pretty damn good.

    Su-Lin - my educated guess is that pad Thai is a dish that is used for staff training!

    Ute - it is surprising to find good Thai in London. In recent times, Chinese and Indian has seen a renaissance in this country with better quality and an emphasis on regional cuisine - Thai food needs to do the same.

    catty - you hit the nail on the head about chain restaurants. They can be so intransigent when it comes to amending orders. I haven't tried Siam Central but I'll add it to my frankly ridiculous sized list!

    LL - welcome! If you read my blog, you'll understand that E&O isn't really my kinda place. That said, calamari and cocktails - what's not to like!

    GChick - after your shocker with pad Thai at 101 Thai, I had to edit this post. The state of pad Thai is pretty shocking especially when you consider it must be one of the most popular Thai dishes.

    justin - welcome! Addie's has been on my list forever. I must go and try their pad Thai.

  10. Had bad times at Busaba that I won't be going back. Not tried Rosa's yet... Kitchen 101 is on my list as well...
    The best pad that I've had in London is a small family run place down from Ealing Common tube. Awesome food. So wish it was near where I live now.

  11. Why is it so hard to find good Thai food in London? There's enough restaurants, but they all seem to settle for mediocre fare. That said, I did enjoy Siam Central and the calamari at Busaba is really very good (better than anything else they have there). But compare the Thai offering to, say, Sydney and London pales in comparison

  12. Mzungu - you're gonna have to give me more info on your hidden gem in Ealing.

    Gworm - yeah, Thai food sucks a bit in London and the UK overall. I guess this may have something to do with the smaller Thai population compared to say the Indian, Pakistani and Chinese communities.

  13. Argh - just tried to post this and it crashed so apologies if it comes up twice. First happy CNY to you!!

    Anyway, random story, I was in IFC mall HK and a small lady kept glancing across at me. Eventually she came up to me and said "Hi, I'm Rosa, you used to eat at my place in London the whole time". They are now launching in HK.

    I never reviewed Rosa as it was a regular place to get decent thai food rather than a travel destination...

    You should swing back by Bangkok on your way back from Japan!

  14. Tom - great story! It'll interesting to see how Rosa's HK operation compares to their London joints!