I demand a lot from my neighborhood diners. I count on brisk service, for one thing, whether I'm popping in for breakfast, late-night dinner, or a bottomless mug of coffee. For another I prefer that the décor be casual, even seedy (though not dirty); I'm weary of newfangled, prefab designer diners. Finally I expect large, reasonably priced meals that give as much bang for your buck as those Dollar Stores. Quantity, not quality.
It's this last specification that takes Eddie Hills and Sushi Thai out of the running for premier local diner. Sure, the wait staff at this Japanese and Thai eatery on North Federal Highway in Hallandale Beach is snappy, quick to please, and always on hand with a pot of, if not coffee, green tea. The exterior of the building fits the shabby bill, especially when you consider that the place was previously a 50-year-old, all-American roadside diner. And the fairly priced dishes are generously proportioned.
So what's wrong with this picture? Frankly, like Kevin Spacey's character in the recent film American Beauty, who quits his "glamorous" (oh, sure) magazine job to work in a fast-food joint, Eddie Hills is overqualified. New chef-owner Todd Boonya, who's also the chef at Sushi Siam on Lincoln Road in South Beach, pretty much gutted the interior when he took over five months ago. He installed some bamboo-style woodwork and constructed a little roof over the former counter, turning it into a sushi bar. The only job that's left is to replace the old, scarred Naugahyde booths, which Boonya has disguised with slipcovers.
But even with authentic cigarette burns from generations of truckers still there under the slipcovers, you can't call Eddie Hills a diner any longer, American or otherwise. The Japanese and Thai dishes here are just too good for this restaurant to be considered a neighborhood spot as opposed to a dining destination. The eatery may resemble a diner, but it doesn't behave like one.
Granted, Eddie Hills does offer a hamburger on the first page of the menu, but don't be misled. An entrée that we chose from this list of fallback items, cashew-crusted salmon, turned out to be more Asian than American. Instead of being dredged in ground cashews, the pan-fried salmon, crisp and moist, was sauced with a gingery combination of whole cashew nuts, red bell peppers, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Served with aromatic jasmine rice, the same dish appears on the Thai menu that follows.
This strictly Asian menu lists 431 Japanese and Thai items, so choosing is extremely difficult. When confronted with this many decisions, I usually go for equity, ordering Japanese shrimp shumai, for example, to balance Thai tom yum soup with shrimp. That way I can compare cuisines to see with which one the restaurant is more comfortable.
Boonya makes this plan either harder or easier, depending on your point of view, because his Japanese and Thai dishes are equally terrific. The steamed shrimp shumai were tasty little dumplings, the chopped shrimp lightly flavored inside its soft noodle casing. Tom yum, a spicy broth spiked with lime juice, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chile peppers, featured jumbo shrimp, sweet and succulent against the complex broth. It's difficult for the diner to go wrong here.
If you like a little more substance in an appetizer, check out some sushi rolls. Our rainbow roll was hefty with fish, not rice, and featured some ultra-fresh tuna, salmon, and mackerel wrapped around a core of "crabstick," avocado, and rice. A salmon skin roll, usually too strong for my taste, was pleasantly flavorful rather than pungent, though the fried salmon skin itself, stuffed inside the seaweed and rice, was a little too chewy. The bagel tempura roll, a take on the familiar salmon-cream cheese combo, contained no rice but was dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried to a rich, delicious finish.
On the Thai side of things, look to mee krob to satisfy your first-course cravings. In many Thai restaurants, this delicate dish is weighed down with a sticky, gloppy sauce. Not here. The crisp rice noodles, fried to a puff, were lightly coated with a barely sweet, honey-infused dressing. Fresh large shrimp glimmered here and there through the noodles, and a handful of bean sprouts garnished the mound. As an alternative, consider sharing a dish of pad Thai. I often find pad Thai too heavy on the shrimp paste, a necessary ingredient but one that can make the noodles fishy when overused. This pad Thai was delightfully balanced, the soft, flat rice noodles sautéed with ground peanuts, scrambled egg, scallions, and bean sprouts. Choose between pork, shrimp, chicken, or beef pad Thai, or ask for the Eddie Hills special, which incorporates all of the above.
As far as main courses go, I have favorites in both cuisines, and I tend to judge a restaurant by how well these familiar items are prepared. Pork katsu, a pounded, deep-fried piece of pork, was exceptional. The meat remained juicy beneath its prickly coating of Japanese bread crumbs, which are slightly larger and rougher in texture than Italian-style crumbs. I'd be tempted to order this dish on every visit if it weren't for the Thai curries.
Eddie Hills offers five types of curry, including country-style (no coconut milk), green, and Penang. We opted for the fried tofu massaman curry, a delectable blend of fluffy tofu, potatoes, creamy avocados, cashews, curry paste, and coconut milk. Talk about rich and fattening. The massaman was rivaled by a red curry, comprising bamboo shoots, red bell pepper, basil, red curry paste, and coconut milk, in which half a plump, deep-fried duck was soaking. Best of all, our wishes were respected here -- we asked for the curries to be served medium-hot, and they were, rather than dumbed down for dumb Americans.
Smart Americans can finish the meal with ice cream tempura, Thai donuts, or tasty fried bananas. The crisp, flash-fried desserts are a worthwhile investment even if you've over-ordered, as it's easy to do when 400-plus dishes are calling out to you. Come to think of it, a menu this extensive might even help requalify Eddie Hills and Sushi Thai as a diner. But I'm satisfied to class it simply as a sound and delicious place to dine.
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