One of the biggest paradoxes in Boca Raton is the Royal Palm Plaza. Nicknamed the "pink plaza" on the sign, the shopping center pretty much characterizes the town: There seem to be more stores than parking spaces, and many of those spaces are filled with poorly parked luxury cars. Yet the plaza is home to a surprising number of restaurants offering international cuisines -- Japanese, Spanish, Mediterranean, and Thai among them. And for the past ten years, Bangkok in Boca, a Thai restaurant, has been a reminder that the town isn't as one-dimensional as it appears.
Give or take a year or two, that is. In 1994 proprietor Jay Tsavatchai sold the restaurant. He returned in 1995, after the new owners had run it into the compost heap, and since then things have been running as smoothly as coconut milk, according to manager Tom Sermprun.
I beg to differ. The Thai fare is certainly some of the best in the area, but, on the night we visited, the restrooms appeared as if they'd been neglected for several weeks. (When the bathrooms look that way, I always wonder about the kitchen.) And the service needed improvement: The dinner rush was over by the time we sat down, but our waiter appeared to be too busy to tend to our needs. Cokes were served to wine-drinkers, and extra olives for martinis weren't delivered until the martinis (shaken, not stirred) had already been finished. Although we signaled that we were ready several times, it took the waiter almost 30 minutes to take our dinner order. And the steamed, jasmine-scented rice that is usually a staple in Thai restaurants was a scarce commodity during our meal; a server scraped up the last few morsels from the metal dish she was holding, then never returned to see if we wanted more.
The restaurant itself is quite attractive. Sporting a tiled terra-cotta floor and red-clay-colored walls, the bi-level dining room is divided by a half-wall carved to look like a turret (with lanterns substituting for guns). Unfortunately, 150 seats are too many. The tables are packed in like grains of rice in a pot, and although the restaurant was only a quarter full, management kept seating customers practically on top of us. Eavesdropping was not a challenge.
With that said, however, we'd be hard put to find a more balanced massaman curry in town. Thai-food lovers can't help but judge a place on its curry, one of the most complex dishes on the menu. Massaman paste, ground with a mortar and pestle, contains more than a dozen ingredients, including dried red chilies, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, lemongrass, and galangal (a root similar to ginger) -- all of it thinned by coconut milk into a sauce. The trick is to blend the zesty components seamlessly, which Bangkok in Boca does exceedingly well. The slow burn of the massaman crept into two flanks of beef, which had been stewed in the curry until tender. Coals of white potatoes and pearl onions were nestled alongside the meat in a lidded pot, while roasted peanuts and chunks of creamy avocado, also mixed in the stew, were blankets for the fire.
Pad Thai is another yardstick for success, and this version didn't measure up. The flat sen lek noodles were bland and a little too dry. While the crushed peanuts, scallions, and sliced chicken breast garnishing the nest of noodles were apparent, we couldn't identify either bean curd or egg, two important ingredients in the dish. A good dose of fish paste or dried shrimp would have improved the flavor.
Black soybeans were the missing ingredient in the gai pad khing entree, which demands that chicken be sauteed with fresh ginger and black-bean sauce. The sauce was brothier than we'd expected, and we couldn't find a single soybean; two servers, who assured us that the dish had been prepared correctly, eventually pointed out one soybean. Whatever it may have been missing, the pad khing was delicious. Moist and flavorful, the sliced chicken breast was on close terms with sweet white onions, snow peas, and red and green bell peppers.
Completely complaint-free was the Imperial honey-roasted duck entree, which was delightful. The skin of the meaty Long Island duckling was crisp and practically candied with the royal honeyed glaze. Underneath the skin the dark meat was succulent, not stringy. A fresh ginger-roasted garlic sauce, served on the side, added spice to the poultry, and a trio of steamed broccoli florets completed the plate.
Bangkok in Boca's menu is a bit strange, with appetizers and entrees interspersed among drink and wine lists. As tomelike as the menu is, it's easy to miss out on possible delicacies. We almost skipped past the "spicy salads" page, which would have been a shame given how good the Bangkok beef salad was. A New York strip steak was seared, then sliced and dressed with a palate-stimulating chili sauce. Thrown into the mix were lemongrass, scallions, and red onion, while iceberg lettuce and red cabbage offered a cooling contrast. The portion was generous enough to enjoy as a well-seasoned meal or share as an appetizer, which we did.
There's no escaping the power of tom yum goong soup. The hot-and-sour broth, stocked with jumbo shrimp and straw mushrooms, sparked like flint on stone. Fragrant with lemongrass, the tom yum rivaled another soup, the tom kha gai, for best in show. Featuring delicate white-meat chicken and straw mushrooms, the tom kha was equally aromatic but richer, thanks to a coconut-milk base blended with galangal and kaffir lime leaves.
Bangkok in Boca doesn't shy away from presenting robust flavors, even when they're not spicy. Steamed pork dumplings, minced pork in a thin noodle shell, were topped with shreds of crispy garlic and a sweet black-soy sauce. Vegetable tempura, a take on the Japanese specialty, was equally vibrant in a chili sauce. The battered, deep-fried onions, peppers, broccoli, and zucchini slices were also coated with minced roasted peanuts. And a pair of spring rolls in a slightly tart tamarind sauce were bursting with herbs, the steamed rice-paper skins hiding a cache of coriander leaves among rice noodles and shredded vegetables.
Mini spring rolls, deep-fried and stuffed with bananas, were an ideal end to the meal, neither too sweet nor too heavy, though coconut ice cream is a better way to soothe singed palates. I appreciate the fact that Bangkok in Boca doesn't temper its style to suit the scaredy-cat Americans, many of whom prefer their food bland as burgers. But I do think some attempt should be made to cater to patrons' sensibilities concerning service, seating, and sanitation. I'm a big fan of the international bent at the "pink plaza." But when it comes to plumbing, I like to remember I'm in Boca.
Bangkok in Boca. 500 Via De Palmas, Boca Raton, 561-394-6912. Lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m.
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