Lo Mein and Pad Thai are both delicious, Asian noodle dishes, but they are completely different in both texture and taste. Let’s take a deeper look at both to help you identify which is best for your next meal.
When it comes to Asian noodle dishes, there are plenty to choose from and sometimes the choices at Chinese restaurants can be overwhelming.
Rice noodles, egg noodles, wheat noodles, and all the different sauces and vegetables result in dozens of possible combinations and dishes that are unique and flavorful.
Today, I’m exploring the difference between Lo Mein and Pad Thai.
Both are chewy, delicious noodles, mixed with vegetables and protein that can be served as a side or enjoyed as a whole meal. But the similarities stop there.
Let’s take a look at what makes each dish unique so you can determine which is best for you!
What is Lo Mein?
Lo Mein is a Chinese noodle dish. It’s made with egg noodles or wheat noodles, vegetables, and meat, stir-fried in a salty, savory sauce.
What is Pad Thai?
Pad Thai is a Thai noodle dish made with vermicelli noodles or rice noodles, eggs, and meat cooked in a sweet tamarind sauce and topped with peanuts.
Lo Mein Noodles
Noodles are a central part of Asian cuisine and they are the base of these two dishes as well. The main differences between the types of noodles used in Lo Mein and Pad Thai are the texture and flavor.
Lo Mein is made with round egg noodles made with wheat flour. Lo Mein noodles are hardy, thick noodles that keep their shape well, even when fully cooked. They are more sturdy and bouncy than ramen noodles, soba noodles, or udon noodles which are also made with buckwheat flour.
In Lo Mein the noodles are left long, like spaghetti noodles, which may be a challenge to eat with chopsticks. The noodles are parboiled, then thrown into the sauce and cooked in a stir fry along with the vegetables and meat. In this process, they soak up the flavor of the sauce but still retain their texture.
Most of the sauce remains on the outside of the noodles, leaving them moist and a bit slippery.
Pad Thai Noodles
Pad Thai is made with flat, wide rice noodles which are made from rice flour. These noodles are soft and chewy. When cooked, they easily bend and stick to each other and the other ingredients in the dish.
These noodles easily soak up the sauce they are cooked in as they are boiled in all the sweet and sour flavors.
Pad Thai noodles are cut short and their sticky texture makes it easy to grab a small bite with chopsticks or a fork.
Besides the noodles, each of these dishes has unique ingredients that contribute to the flavor.
Lo Mein Ingredients
Lo Mein contains a wide variety of vegetables and protein. It can be made with carrots, bok choy, cabbage, mushrooms, onions, green onions or more. As far as protein, you may find Lo Mein served with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu or even fish.
The sauce in Lo Mein also adds to the flavor. Lo Mein sauce is usually a mixture of soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and sesame oil. This mixture is salty and savory, but it can be overpowering.
With a wide variety of ingredients and plenty of vegetables, Lo Mein is a hardy dish. With the right amount of protein, it is often enjoyed as a main course.
Pad Thai Ingredients
Pad Thai has much simpler ingredients but a more complex flavor profile.
Pad Thai is focused mostly on noodles but may also have bean sprouts, carrots, onions, bell peppers, eggs, and peanuts. Sometimes Pad Thai is cooked with shrimp, tofu, or chicken.
The sauce for Pad Thai is made with tamarind sauce, fish sauce, and palm sugar. This combination of sauces gives the dish a unique and authentic sweet and sour flavor.
Pad Thai is also served with peanuts, bean sprouts, and lime wedges, which boost the complex flavors of the dish.
While the list of the main ingredients for Pad Thai is shorter, some items can be difficult to find in your local grocery store and may require a trip to an Asian market. One of the hardest ingredients to source is the tamarind paste that is a key ingredient for the sauce. Make sure you find one that is made in Vietnam or Thailand.
Pad Thai sauce has a sweeter, more complex flavor than Lo Mein, but that complexity may not be a fit for pickier eaters.
To cook Lo Mein you first cook your meat and vegetables in the sauce while your noodles boil.
When noodles are parboiled, they are added to the hot pan and stir-fried until done. There should be some sauce remaining but just enough to cover the noodles.
Pad Thai takes a little more expertise to cook.
Authentic rice noodles do not need to be boiled but just presoaked in a little room temperature or even cold water. Once softened, they are stir-fried in the pan with the sauce, vegetables, and meat.
Lo Mein is often considered a quick evening meal, but Pad Thai takes a little more preparation to get just the right result.
Both Lo Mein and Pad Thai are delicious, with a chewy texture that’s hard to resist.
Lo Mein is very salty, balanced out by the noodles and vegetables. The salty sauce is appealing to many but some may consider it overpowering.
Pad Thai has a complex flavor. It is sweet and sour, bitter and salty. The flavor is more subtle than Lo Mein and not designed to be overpowering.
Lo Mein is not spicy, but Pad Thai may have some spice added, depending on the chef’s preference.
Over time, the flavor of Lo Mein has been adjusted to be more suitable to a Western palate but Pad Thai is more authentic to Thai cuisine, even as it has made its way to the United States.
Which is Best?
There is no hard and fast rule to which you should choose–Lo Mein or Pad Thai. Both are very unique dishes and ultimately the decision is up to your preference.
If you are looking for a classic Asian dish that’s easy to prepare and customize to your liking, Lo Mein may be the best option. It has the flavor of stir-fried noodles and vegetables and can be customized with any vegetables or protein you enjoy.
If you are feeling adventurous and craving something more subtle and complex, Pad Thai may be the way to go. Preparing authentic Pad Thai takes a bit of trial and error but once you get the technique just right, it’s a dish that is filled with levels of flavor.
No matter which way you go, you really can’t go wrong with a classic, Asian noodle dish.
What’s nice about both of these dishes is how easily they can be adjusted to meet different health preferences and both can be a healthy option depending on how they are enjoyed. Ultimately it’s hard to say which is the healthier option.
Lo Mein has a higher ratio of vegetables to noodles and lends itself to more variety in the kinds of vegetables that are included, which generally makes it lower in calories. The salty sauce, however, may be high in sodium.
Pad Thai uses rice noodles, which are considered healthier than wheat-based noodles, but because it has more noodles in general, it may be higher in carbs. Pad Thai may also have a higher fat content than Lo Mein because it contains peanuts.
Pad Thai is naturally gluten free so it may be a better choice for anyone who is sensitive to gluten. Pad Thai may also be better for vegan or vegetarian diets because it is easier to remove any animal products while still producing a flavorful dish. Lo Mein depends heavily on oyster sauce and protein for flavor.
If you are looking for something high in protein, Lo Mein is a better bet. You can, of course, load either dish with more protein but Lo Mein is going to contain more protein when ordered off a menu.
Lo Mein is a Chinese dish while Pad Thai is popular in Thailand.
Pad Thai has a complex flavor, stemming from the bitterness of tamarind paste sweetened with palm sugar. It is also served with peanuts and lime wedges. Some restaurants will add paprika to give it additional color.
A lot of the flavor of Pad Thai depends on how it is made but it should taste light and sweet with a hint of savory sourness.
Lo Mein gets much of its flavor from its sauce which is made with soy sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil. The salty flavor of the sauce is balanced out with a hearty helping of vegetables and protein that make the dish filling and satisfying.
These dishes don’t have a lot in common.
Both contain noodles, vegetables, and protein. Both are stir-fried in a wok with a flavorful sauce.
Beyond those similarities, these dishes have completely different flavors, ingredients, and textures.
Pad Thai calls for rice noodles which are gluten-free. It’s an excellent option for someone who is trying to avoid added gluten in their diet. The sauce for Pad Thai is also naturally gluten-free.
Lo Mein is not gluten-free because it is made with egg noodles which are made with wheat flour. Some Lo Mein sauce ingredients, like soy sauce, may also contain gluten.
It’s easy to make Lo Mein or Pad Thai vegetarian.
To make Lo Mein vegetarian you would simply skip the meat or use tofu instead. You can add extra vegetables to make up the difference. To make the dish vegan, opt for a sauce that does not call for oyster sauce or fish sauce.
Pad Thai can be made vegetarian in the same way. Rather than using meat, substitute tofu in the dish. To make the dish vegan, skip the eggs and use a tamarind-based sauce instead of fish sauce.
Lo Mein is very versatile and can be as healthy as you make it. To make it as healthy as possible, load it with plenty of vegetables and lean protein. The noodles are a critical part of the dish but fewer noodles will lead to a healthier dish.
Perhaps the most unhealthy part of Lo Mein is the sauce which can contain a lot of sodium and oil. If you are making this dish at home, go light on the sauce and opt for a low-sodium soy sauce.
Pad Thai translates to “fried dish.” This is because the rice noodles are fried in the sauce along with the vegetables until tender.
Pad Thai and Lo Mein are cooked in a similar way, both with noodles and vegetables fried in a hot wok with sauce. If you are deciding which to make for the first time Lo Mein is much more forgiving than Pad Thai.
Lo Mein contains noodles that are hearty and not easy to overcook. The sauce can be adjusted according to taste and the vegetables and protein can be measured with the heart.
Pad Thai is a little more exact. Anyone who has not cooked with vermicelli noodles before may struggle to achieve the correct texture.
Pad Thai also calls for unique ingredients that give it an incredible flavor–but can also turn out horribly wrong if not balanced and measured correctly. It may also be difficult to find some of the ingredients that give Pad Thai its authentic flavor.
If you are deciding between these dishes and aren’t too comfortable around the kitchen, Lo Mein is a safer bet.