Since leaving the Sentinel, I don't dine at as many Thai restaurants. I don't know why. I like Thai, but I suppose I'm a little wary of visiting a Thai restaurant that doesn't try hard enough, or one that assumes a Western diner can't handle real Thai food. Too many times I had to order the food "Thai hot" if I wanted an authentic spicy dish -- many Thai restaurant owners apparently think most of us would keel over if we had truly spicy Thai food. (Some of us probably would, but it should be our choice.)
But Thai restaurants that do good food and offer an authentic dining experience are wonderful. That's why I like Thai Singha.
I thought I had the place figured out before I even opened the front door. It looked nice enough, though quite small. It was, I figured, the sort of place I could pay a quick visit and if the food was even halfway decent give a mention sometime as place you could grab a quick bite.
But I was so thoroughly charmed by the graciousness of the staff and seduced by the exceptional quality of food that I realized this was a restaurant that deserved closer inspection.
You can understand my initial reaction. It is a typical shopping center storefront space. The dining room, while neat, is sparse. Table tops are set with laminated placemats and decorated with a vase with a fake flower in it. The walls have artwork that includes paintings on black velvet, though, thankfully, none of Elvis. And at the far end – far being a relative term – is one of those refrigerated display cases that you see in delicatessens. Those are always ambience killers, the fluorescent lights throwing a harsh glow into the room.
But as soon as I walked through the door I was greeted by a broadly smiling staff member who motioned to a table near the front of the room. And a few minutes later I was enjoying the first marvelous sips of tom ka gai, the traditional chicken soup with a coconut milk broth. The creaminess of the coconut was blended with the sour tinge of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Some fresh cilantro leaves added a note of fragrance.
They had me with the soup; the red curry with beef sealed it. The meat was sauteed with bamboo shoots and fresh basil in a red curry cream sauce that was spiked with red chili peppers. The evenness of the heat in the curry was what made it so flavorful. And the cook’s sense of balance was evident in all the subsequent dishes I sampled.
Such as the spicy basil duck, sliced breast meat sauteed with mushrooms, basil and chili paste to create a lovely brown sauce to spoon over fluffy white rice.
Or the traditional pad Thai with long flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, egg, crushed peanuts and a smidgen of bean sprouts, garnished with a wedge of lime and a stack of bean sprouts. The shrimp, bland and slightly rubbery, were the sole disappointment among my visits.
Thai fried rice with pork was less oily than the typical fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. Besides the generous slices of meat it had egg, onions, bright red bell peppers, cilantro, a tomato wedge and slices of cucumber.
Among the appetizers the fish cakes were a favorite. Six discs fashioned out of minced fish and chili paste, deep-fried and served with a cucumber sauce that first coated the tongue with sweetness and then startled it with the heat of chili peppers.
Thai summer rolls had mostly noodles and julienne vegetables rolled in rice paper with just a bit of chicken in the mix. But the peanutty dipping sauce made them more flavorful.
If the main courses aren’t enough to convince you that this isn’t your average Thai restaurant, surely the desserts will, although these pastries are more western than eastern, more Viennese than Siamese. They featured a lemon meringue ($4.95) inside a delicate sponge cake; and a chocolate cake base topped with a raspberry cream. Only rice pudding ($4.95), served in tiny ceramic dishes, might remotely be considered Asian. But all the desserts were delicious and impressively presented.
Aficionados of world beers will recognize the name Singha as the popular beer from Thailand. The owners obtained permission to use the name from the Boon Rawd Brewing Co. In fact the laminated place mats are advertisements for the beer. I suppose it would be a little like an American going to Thailand and opening a restaurant called Coors. But Singha also means lion, and the owners liked the good-luck karma a lion brings.
Thai Singha would have been noteworthy simply for being the first to bring Thai food to East Orlando. The fact that it is very good Thai food, wonderfully prepared with a careful sense of authenticity, and served by a staff who probably couldn’t give bad service even if they tried really really hard makes it all the more praiseworthy.
Waterford Town Center, 863 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando, 32827
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Beer and wine
Credit: AE, MC, V