I may have found a new favorite Thai restaurant. Or maybe that should be, I’ve found a new favorite restaurant for Thai food.
It’s a fine line, I grant you. The distinction is that even though the restaurant is named Phat Thai Cafe, its menu is more pan Asian, with a special bent to Vietnamese, than Thai centric. But Thai food is what I was after and Thai food is what I had and thoroughly enjoyed.
Often my gauge for a Thai restaurant is through the dish known as pad Thai. That I did not order it here will seem odder once you know that Phat Thai is a truer spelling of the noodle dish, sometimes referred to as the national dish of Thailand, but usually by people like me who feel a need to characterize its omnipresence on American Thai menus.
But phat/phad/pad Thai wasn’t even on my short list as I looked over the menu. My server seemed to intuit which dishes I was considering. She saw my eyes narrow in on the three curries: penang, red and yellow. She didn’t wait for me to ask, she just pointed with her pen to the penang. “That one,” she said, definitively, not asking, directing. “Yes,” I said, “with beef.” She approved.
While I waited for the curry I had a bowl of tom ka gai, and I can’t recall having sipped a better version. It was a large bowl of white broth topped with green scallions and coriander. Beneath the surface were thick quarters of mushrooms, big slices of chicken breast and lemongrass. The white broth, of course, was coconut milk, and it had a lush, velvety feel in the mouth. There were interesting notes of sweetness and acidity that seemed to register higher on the tongue. Who knew there could be so much intrigue in a soup?
The penang didn’t disappoint either. It was a large portion that filled the plate, a rich and spicy sauce flavored with cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, touched with coconut milk and featuring fresh red bell peppers, green beans and bamboo shoots. My server did not ask how spicy I wanted the dish -- penang is supposed to be spicy; you want mild, order the yellow curry.
And this penang was plenty spicy. But it wasn’t just heat for heat’s sake. The spiciness had depth and character and seemed to be an integral part of the dish.
Besides knowing intuitively what I wanted to order, my server was also gracious and attentive and always had a sincere smile. And when I asked that my entree be boxed up so I could enjoy it later, she returned with it saying that she had put an extra scoop of rice in the container. Other staffers were just as charming and welcoming.
The oddest thing about Phat Thai is its decor. It has the look of small diner with lunch-counter seating as well as a few small tables along a wall of windows. I can’t recall a Thai restaurant with a chef working in a space where usually a short-order cook would be. The primary decor element is brushed aluminum that looks as though someone took a grinder to it.
The surroundings are not typical of Thai restaurants, but neither is the food. It is extraordinary.
Phat Thai Cafe is in the Renaissance Center at 404 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs. It is open for lunch Sunday through Friday and dinner daily. The most expensive dinner entree is $11.95, with most items under $10. The phone number is 407-331-8803. The Web site is phatthaicafe.com, but it is still under construction.