Finding good Thai food isn't always as easy as you'd like to imagine. Finding good Thai food without a sushi menu of biblical proportions to overshadow the culture's more colorful selections is even harder.
But for those searching for a taste of true Thai served up in a casual, homey setting, look no further than Oriental Food Market in West Palm Beach. Here, co-owner and chef Julie Mitchell has been offering many of her homeland's most beloved dishes to a loyal following for close to 30 years.
Born in Bangkok, Mitchell says she learned to cook not from her family, as many people to Thailand do, but instead at the Udon Thani Rajabhat University in Udon where she worked as an assistant. In 1967, the young chef moved to the U.S. where, two decades later, she opened the small Asian market and takeout restaurant her family operates to this day.
"I wanted to open a place that would allow me to keep a part of my heritage alive," says Mitchell, who began cooking a handful of dishes prepared in the small kitchen at the back of the shop and packaged as to-go items. "I never knew it would be so successful."
Located at the corner of Puritan Road and Dixie Highway, over the years Oriental Market has become a favorite pitstop for the nearby offices and the city's downtown lunch crowd. Most days you'll find Mitchell working the front of house, taking orders before she sprints off to the kitchen where her husband, also a Thai native, helps her prep and cook.
The specialty here — as you would imagine — is Thai. But it's not just any Thai food: It's authentic, home-cooked Thai food. The whiteboard menu near the front door is hard to miss, with nearly 50 items arranged by number. It starts with Mitchell's handmade spring rolls, several types of seafood and meat salads, soups, and fried rice. Everything is prepared to-order, meaning orders can take up to 40 minutes, depending on the amount or complexity of the dish.
Several mismatched tables scattered throughout the market provide dine-in seating, and patrons browsing the grocery items arranged on two walls of shelves may drift past from time to time. The best seats are at the back near the order counter, diner-style stools where Mitchell will entice you to try any one of her favorite homemade sauces including a supremely spicy number, all while asking polite questions. She likes to get to know her customers and refers to many of them by name.
Dishes are served on ceramic plates or packaged in metal container for carry-out. Some dishes, Mitchell will tell you, are best enjoyed immediately. That includes many of her noodles.
Several selections range from traditional pad Thai to lesser-known dishes like Mee Krob (Thai for "fried noodles") and Lad Na, a popular Thai dish where thin vermicelli rice noodles are fried until crispy, then tossed in a tangy sweet-and-sour sauce. It's the type of dish you want to dig into right away, says Mitchell, or the noodles will get soggy when packaged with the sauce.
Stir-fry options include familiar-sounding staples like chicken cashew, sweet and sour, and pepper steak. It's followed with curry — Mitchell's own red, green, and Panang curry sauces that can be mixed and matched with beef, chicken, or shrimp and customized to your desired heat preference. Try the Massaman, a thick, Indian-style curry made with coconut milk and a host of roasted, dried spices that are rarely found in other Thai curries.
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Of all the dishes, shrimp is the favorite here, eight menu items dedicated solely to the crustacean. Try #36, the Volcano Shrimp, plump and tender prawns mixed with roasted vegetables like tomato, pepper, and onion drenched in a savory brown sauce that delivers an intense heat.
Oriental Market. 4919 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561-588-4626.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.