Sushi-Thai in South Florida: An Americanized Throwback
On the patio overlooking the canal at Asia Bay Bistro on Las Olas, I started with a sushi handroll. It was stuffed with avocado and crunchy salmon skin. It was also laden with eel and sweet sauce, so addictive for sushi newbies that Asia Bay serves it as a condiment on the side for a couple of bucks extra. It transforms a bite into the fish equivalent of caramel corn. I usually steer clear, but not today. The salmon skin reminds me of bacon.
It's not just the roll that's sweet at Asia Bay. It's the massaman curry, a Thai stew of coconut milk, potatoes, chicken, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, fish sauce, chili, and tamarind, served with white rice on the side. It's so sweet that it seems a near equivalent of a melted Dairy Queen Blizzard.
If there's one thing that links sushi and Thai, it's sugar. Perhaps that explains why, from West Palm to Hallandale Beach, 46 sushi-Thai restaurants dot the landscape. Sushi-Thai is the iteration of several Asian-fusion trends, starting with the 1960s' Polynesian-inspired restaurants in Los Angeles, such as Tokyo Kaikan, that fanned across the country with tempura, Chinese food, and sushi.
It seems kitschy, these restaurants that riff on Rocky Aoki's Benihana, tiki bars from the '70s and sushi joints from the early '90s. Indeed, many Japanese and sushi-Thai restaurants have been opened by Benihana alums.
So it's no wonder that most sushi-Thai restaurants feel like a throwback to the diner, with vinyl booths, modest digs, and retro signs. Menus are book-length, punctuated by stylized photos of food, like ladies of a certain age with '60s-era teased hairdos held high with Aqua Net.
At Sushi Thai Siam, a strip-mall restaurant on North Federal Highway near Oakland Park, my soup seemed from another era too. Big, fat slices of button mushrooms — like the kind you'd see in a midcentury chicken fricassee — bobbed between cubes of tofu in a broth flavored with keffir, lemongrass, fish sauce, and chilies. Lots of chilies, since I ordered it Thai hot. It wasn't delicious, but it was satiating.
"Do you want it medium, hot, or Thai hot?" our waitress asked when I requested the soup hot. She knows restaurant English.
"Do you have the number system?" I asked. I had just returned from a New York trip where my Thai sherpa had ordered by number. Four was what he said, since the New York place was liberal with chilies.
"We don't do that here. If you want Thai hot, just say."
I dialed back the heat for our larb gai, and it came spicy but not overwhelmingly so. Larb gai is a dish out of Isaan, a rural region of Thailand near Laos. Tangy and fiery, it's good food for hot weather. This equivalent of a meat salad can be made from ground lamb, beef, duck, or fish. The Sushi Thai Siam version came with ground chicken mounds placed on a lettuce leaf, doused with lime, chili, and cilantro.
"I love this," says my friend Cheryl, who is trying larb for the first time. It's different from most Thai standards since it's not a curry and doesn't feature coconut. Most sushi-Thai joints seem to offer fairly identical menus of California rolls, red curry, and pad Thai. It creates a more sterilized impression of these two cuisines. In other cities, Thai is often highly regional, with dishes from the northern and southern parts of the country sharing little.
Cheryl and I sit in a vinyl booth in Sushi Thai Siam's Spartan space. Fushia orchids droop in vases late on a weekday evening. What was once was an exotic flower, orchids have become common, much like the Americanized version of cuisine from Japan and Thailand. A steady stream of diners dashes in for takeout, turning into a driveway marked by '80s neon that lights in rounds: first the circle, then the letters inside, followed by a rhythm of flashes. Human League greets customers with "Don't You Want Me" in the background.
"What the hell is sushi-Thai?" says Cheryl. She had just told a story of a guy asking her out to dinner — not for sushi, not for Thai, but for sushi-Thai. Cheryl lives here but is originally from Philly. Her Thai culinary experience is limited to takeout joints and college late-night eats.
There's nothing authentically Thai or Japanese about the plethora of sushi-Thai restaurants, and that's fine by me. They are fast replacing the Chinese takeout joint as a foreign comfort food. Instead of hot-and-sour soup, chow mein, and chop suey from my childhood, I hit up a sushi-Thai joint for Singapore rice noodles, pad see ew, or green curry. For another visit, I might get edamame, miso soup, and dragon or crunchy shrimp rolls. Though it's a bastardization of several cultures' food and restaurants, the sushi-Thai strain strikes me as a particularly American comfort food, edited from a collection of immigrant experiences. I'm charmed by it.
Sushi Thai Siam is Thai-owned by Todd Boonya, who opened it 12 years ago. But not all places in the area are run by a proprietor originally from either Japan or Thailand. Asia Bay Bistro is owned by the Brill family, helmed by Hungarian-born Baruch Brill, who fell in love with sushi. The 2-year-old outpost on Las Olas is a sibling to the decade-old Bay Harbor restaurant.
"My father was obsessed," says Josh Brill, who manages the Lauderdale location. His father met Peter Hepp, an American-born, Japanese-trained chef with restaurants in Dubai and elsewhere around the world. They decided to go into business together, though the addition of Thai dishes was secondary.
Brill asserts that the restaurant makes its own sauces in-house, unlike many others around town. The presentation here trumps most sushi-Thai restaurants, but the sauces aren't much different. "Our chefs are mostly Japanese and Thai," he notes.
Asia Bay is expensive for what I got: $7 for a handroll, $17 for chicken massaman. Most dishes range from $10 to $20. Sushi Thai Siam isn't as pricey, since the restaurant is housed in a less desirable location.
Still, sushi-Thai is not at the price point of Cantonese cuisine from the '70s and '80s, in which dumplings, spring rolls, and a pint of fried rice would barely hit eight bucks. That's OK, because when it comes to fish, I'm not looking for cheap.
"Would you care for the toro we're offering on special? It's very rare now," says my waiter at Asia Bay.
I decline. I grab my fork and continue with the massaman, pleased to stick to a sushi-Thai classic.
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