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.
I may have found a new favorite Thai restaurant. Or maybe that should be, I’ve found a new favorite restaurant for Thai food.
Restaurant Review: Chai Thai Orange Avenue
A year and a half ago I told you about a new little Thai restaurant called Chai Thai. Now that little restaurant has another little location. One more and it will qualify as a chain -- and it would only have to add an n to the end of its name.
The two locations couldn’t be more different in style -- one has some, the other doesn’t.
Well, maybe that’s a little harsh, but the original Chai Thai occupies a space that has been a number of restaurants, most recently -- and for a good long time -- a Chinese eatery and various other cuisines, including Spanish. The place is well-worn and frankly a bit drab.
But the new location, on Orange Avenue across from the SoDo complex, has a fresh newness about it, from its slatelike flooring to the highly polished dark wood tabletops.
Both locations, however, share the same sincere friendliness of the staffers and, most importantly, fine food.
As the burgeoning medical city in the area known as Lake Nona continues to, um, burgeon, the ancillary businesses that will serve the community of doctors, researchers, students and educators are growing too.
That of course means restaurants, and among the inevitable Outbacks and fast fooders are a handful of hopeful independent restaurants. It’s nice to see them take an enterprising role in this frontier. But I hope more of them put more effort into their business than Durian Durian.
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
I recently visited two new Thai restaurants, each with good food but each distinctly different from the other in its style and experience.
On one end of the spectrum is Orchid, a splashy and elegant restaurant with a hip vibe that befits its Park Avenue milieu.
And then there’s Chai Thai, a modest, unpretentious and unadorned eatery with a family-style mien. Unfortunately, it, too, has an ambience that matches its Curry Ford Road locale. (Isn’t there an Extreme Makeover: Urban Street Edition yet?)
But even with its decidedly downscale décor, Chai Thai delivers delicious Thai favorites. So does Orchid, but its menu also extends to more ambitious fare that is based on Thai seasonings and ingredients that may be unfamiliar even to devotees of the area’s many Thai restaurants.
Short rib massamam ($22), for example. It featured a large beef short rib, braised and then sautéed with potatoes and small pieces of sweet bell peppers with a chili sauce and a bit of roasted peanuts. That the meat was not the most tender hunk of rib I’ve had – a bit more braising might have helped – does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the dish.
And part of the enjoyment of this entrée, and indeed most every dish served here, was the elegant presentation, which almost invariably included luminous purple orchid blooms as plate garnish. (Yes, orchid petals are edible, but frankly I enjoy looking at them much more than ingesting them.)
More traditional entrees occupy the menu, including pad Thai (would it be possible for a Thai restaurant to operate without pad Thai?) I ordered mine with chicken ($14) and was surprised when the server asked me how spicy I wanted it. Pad Thai is done without spicy seasoning and is traditionally served with a condiment tray that includes crushed peppers and chili sauce, as well as chopped peanuts, for the diner to add at will.
There was no condiment tray, but the mix of rice noodles, bean sprouts, tangy chicken and ground peanuts was nonetheless delicious.
I also had the pad Thai ($9.95) at Chai, and again I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Are Thai restaurants going the way of Indian restaurants, succumbing to the uninformed notion of the dining public that these cuisines are nothing but spicy foods?
Chai Thai’s version was equally as good, the only difference being the presentation – and the price, which probably had something to do with the presentation. Orchids aren’t cheap.
Chai doesn’t decorate with orchids, but the crispy duck ($14.95) was a beautiful presentation all by itself. It was a fully platter of sliced meat with cispy crunchy skin topped with basil. There was a small amount of sauce, barely enough to wet the fluffy jasmine rice, but it wasn’t missed.
InWinter Park I ordered the Orchid duck ($24) and was surprised that what I was served was basically a salad. I didn’t think I was ordering a salad – the menu didn’t say anything about greens – and I certainly wouldn’t have ordered a $24 salad. When a server noticed my dismay he removed the dish from my table and the charge from my bill.
At Chai I had the red curry with beef ($9.95), which I ordered medium-hot. It was perfectly spiced, hot enough to put some heat on the tongue but not so much that it scorched the taste buds for the myriad other flavors.
Orchid did a nice yellow curry with chicken ($14), although here the spicing was more muted.
Both restaurants also offer one of my favorite Thai appetizers, stuffed chicken wings. These are wings that have the upper bone removed and its cavity filled with chopped chicken meat, clear noodles and vegetables. It’s then breaded and deep-fried to create a drumsticklike treat. Both were tasty and similarly priced, Orchid’s for $6 and Chai’s for $5.95. Orchid offered an unusual appetizer called mieng kum ($10), which was an assemble-yourself morsel. It included mounds of fresh ginger, tiny cubes of lime, onion, peanuts and – don’t be frightened – tiny freeze-dried shrimp. These were accompanied by fresh spinach leaves to wrap the ingredients in. Despite the woefully small leaves, it was an interesting and filling starter course, except there wasn’t enough freeze-dried shrimp, words I never thought I’d say.
I seldom order desserts in Thai restaurants, but I had to try the coconut sticky rice with mango ($7), a long pad of sweetened rice topped with slices of cool mango. It was quite nice.
Orchid is in the small space that was occupied by Bistro on Park before it moved across the street. The walls are a sedate mocha, and colorful, geometric-centric paintings adorn the walls. And, of course, there are plenty of orchids that line the small bar, which also, it seems, doubles as an office for the owner.
Chai Thai doesn’t have the decorative accouterments of Orchid, but each does a fine job with its common cuisine.
Most of the Thai restaurants share similarities. They’re small, casual, seemingly family-run and serve the same coterie of curries and peanut-sauced dishes. Presentations might best be described as pleasant but humble.
Tang’s, a new restaurant in the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, offers many of the same dishes that other Thai restaurants do, but it does so differently. It has an ambience that while still small and intimate is also upscale and chic. And the food is decidedly more stylized and presented in an appealing fashion. As one of my dining companions remarked, it seems more French than Thai.
That of course is meant as a compliment, a recognition that food often though of as simple could be seen as haute cuisine.
Which is not to say Tang’s is pretentious. It is not. But a meal here can be every bit as special as one in a so-called gourmet restaurant, and just as satisfying, too.
Laab chicken ($9) was a favorite appetizer. It feaured nuggets of chopped chicken, poached, and tossed with tangy red onions, cool mint and toasted jasmine rice and was served with slender leaves of romaine lettuce to make a sort of wrap. Sweetness, spice and a watery crunch from the lettuce.
Fresh basil rolls ($8) were summer rolls of translucent rice paper packed with Thai basil, vermicelli noodles and poached shrimp served with a hoisin reduction sauce.
I also liked the barbecue beef skirt ($14), marinated skirt steak imbued with garlic and shiitake soy sauce. Tender and delicious.
Short ribs massaman ($24) were a favorite entrée. It featured tender braised beef sautted with a sweet chili paste with peanuts and tamarind and finished with a creamy coconut milk.
Penang curry ($22) was also good. Usually served with chicken or beef, Tang’s gives a choice of salmon or shrimp. I chose salmon, a very nicely cooked and moist fillet that held up surprisingly well to the spiciness of the Penang. True, I had requested the curry medium-hot, but it still had a spicy factor. And although it was spicy, the complexity of the layered flavors of chilies, kaffir lime leaves, onions, sweet coconut milk and ginger still came through. This dish, like several others, also features sticks of vegetables, including zucchini, carrots and red bell peppers, which were sauteed al dente and notable for their freshness.
I had hoped for some creative twist on the lowly pad Thai ($16), the putative national dish of rice noodles tossed with shallots, bean sprouts and peantus. But it was fairly mundane although executed well enough.
Pla lad prig ($29), usually presented as a whole fish, here is a fillet. Wahoo was the featured fish on one of my visits. It was pan-seared and ladled with a sweet chili sauce tinged with garlic and accompanied by cherry tomatoes and red bell peppers. I thought the wahoo was a tad overcooked, but my guests all enjoyed it and voted it their favorite.
Rice was offered by the manager from a large bowl that was divided down the middle by a lettuce leaf. On one side was the usual fluffy white jasmine rice, but on the other side was a rice blended with freshly chopped basil for an herby touch.
For dessert I liked the banana spring rolls ($7), which had big hunks of the fruit deep-fried in sweet pastry.
Tang’s occupies a small space. Two walls sport banquettes with tall cushions while the center of the room has tables with slender-backed leather chairs. The walls have touches of small tiles, and colorful glass pendants hang over the tables giving off a moody glow.
Service was attentive and polite. There is a wine list with several good by-the-glass choices. It’s rare that I want anything other than a Singha beer to go with my Thai food.
But then Tang’s just isn’t your typical Thai. It doesn’t take anything away from the other good Thai restaurant in the area – I’m happy to have them all and look forward to those still to come – but it adds another dimension of dining and takes Thai to a higher level.