Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down
I remember my first, mind-altering bite of Thai cooking with pristine clarity. From a culinary standpoint, I'd been sound asleep: That mouthful woke me up like the sloppy kiss of Prince Charming. I was working for a publisher in London; my parents had blown in for a visit. My mother and I sneaked off alone -- somehow, we found ourselves in a quiet Thai restaurant set in a pretty, half-deserted pedestrian mall in central London. We'd had enough of parboiled beef.
The year was 1988, long before the advent of British cuisine's current crop of celebrity chefs terribles; the restaurant scene in London was about as scintillating as a nursery pudding. We were the only customers in the place. As hard as it is to believe now, Thai food then was still exquisitely rare. The lush, citrusy aromas of lemongrass; perfumed leaves of cilantro and slivers of kaffir lime peel; the mustardy, woody bite of galangal root; and the cinnamon infusions of Thai basil were still but distant gleams in the Western eye. It's been almost 20 years since, but I'm as sure of what we ate as if I'd tucked into it yesterday: a lime- and chili-spiked Thai beef salad, a sharp green chicken curry, and a plate of pad Thai dusted with ground peanuts and jasmine rice flour.
It was just a few years later -- 1991 -- that Eddie Tatton and son Michael opened Thai Spice on another continent. The restaurant on Commercial Boulevard is now one of the two oldest Thai restaurants in Fort Lauderdale (Siam Cuisine in Wilton Manors is the other). They served pad Thai, mee krob, curry puffs, chicken satay, and deep-fried yellowtail snapper -- standards now but exotic as hell back then.
The irony is that Eddie and Michael are not Thai. Eddie's originally from the Philippines, but he earned his stripes as maitre d' at Mai-Kai, first in Vegas, then down the street on Federal Highway. After decades of attending to the whims of customers soused on the "Shrunken Skull" and the "Bora Bora" or stuffed full of Polynesian pupu and crab Rangoon, Tatton knew something about upscale Pacific dining.
Before opening Thai Spice, Michael had been learning to cook from a Thai chef, and he'd married a Thai girl. Along with his wife's uncle, Sukhum Iamjangpan, he was running a little gourmet Oriental grocery, selling prepared foods for takeout and delivery from a tiny kitchen.
Throw a stone in any direction today and you're likely to bust out the front window of a Thai restaurant. But Thai Spice continues to trounce its competitors, experimenting with the menu and specials to keep things from getting stale. On a typical night, the kitchen -- still run by Sukhum Iamjangpan -- offers a half dozen seafood specials ranging from $15.95 up to $40 for a two-pound lobster. You can start with a bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels or steamed littleneck clams cooked in lemongrass. A lineup of specials might include Key West yellowtail, black grouper, line-caught Key West hog snapper, fresh Chilean sea bass, Florida stone crab claws, and a one-and-a-half or two-pound Maine or Florida lobster.
Those lobsters might come to the table stuffed with shrimp. Snappers may arrive deep fried and brushed with chili sauce, the sea bass seared with Thai spices. Black grouper is often cut into chunks and doused in a coconut milk red curry. Thai Spice is one of only four Lauderdale restaurants to buy from Triar Seafood, a first-rate Hollywood purveyor that sells most of its stock to celeb chefs in New York and California.
The restaurant's fish dishes are one great reason to book a table; prime steaks and organic free range chicken are another. These fairly new additions to the menu -- Porterhouse ($32.95), rib eyes and New York strips ($28.95), and skirt steaks ($15.95) -- are given a Thai ginger garlic glaze, grilled over an open fire, northern Thai-style, and served with a piquant "tiger tear" dipping sauce made with shallots and a quartet of roasted spices including red chilies, jasmine rice powder, galangal, and lemongrass. The organic barbecued chicken ($15.95) is first marinated in coconut milk, lemongrass, and herbs, then fire-grilled, ready for dunking in chili dipping sauce.
On a recent Sunday, we tried a couple of their long-standing appetizers -- Thai Spice fresh rolls ($7.95) and curry puffs ($6.95). Those fresh rolls were terrific. Snappy julienned carrots, zucchini, and scallions as well as a lump of crab or a whole shrimp, along with tiny clear noodles, are wrapped in soft, rice-paper wrappers. The curry puffs, those doddering doyennes of the Thai menu, were filled with ground chicken and sweet potatoes, deep-fried, and served with a dish of diced cucumbers in light syrup. They were satisfying enough but lacked a distinct personality.
Next on the agenda, two house specials: Three Buddies ($16.95) and Seafood Clay Pot ($27.95). I enjoyed my Clay Pot seafood (it may have been cooked in a clay pot, but it's served in a blue-and-white porcelain bowl). I just wish I'd ordered it "medium" instead of "hot." I'm the kind of girl who puts Tabasco sauce on popcorn, but in this case, the blaze of the chilies overwhelmed the less-incendiary garlic, lime leaf, galangal, and wine. A whole lobster tail, big scallops, and shrimp are simmered slowly together with a medley of vegetables -- red and green peppers, broccoli, zucchini, snow peas, cabbage, basil leaves, and tiny ears of corn. The vegetables retain their crunch against the pale seafood. It's a party of flavors too interesting to be crashed and bullied around by a gang of chili peppers. Order it "medium" and don't worry about looking like a wuss.
Three Buddies is a distant cousin: just substitute chicken for lobster tail and knock 12 bucks off the price. The red sauce isn't as complex as in the clay pot -- it lacks the wine -- but it's fiery and satisfying.
Eddie is semiretired now -- he comes in on weekends. Michael, now 37, shares chef duties and runs the business. Despite innovations in the menu and wine list, the essence of the place hasn't changed: gourmet food cooked with traditional methods and spices in a couple of intimately exotic rooms. The mood here is as mellow and romantic as ever, set by gigantic fish tanks and their serene inhabitants. Cozy booths tucked under a carved wooden arcade make excellent retreats for whispered conversations; it's so dark you have to blink to get your bearings. The wine list lets you know exactly where you are: in a world where people drink Roederer champagne and Opus One.
Or not. Frankly, the locals who throng this place -- it was packed a couple of Sundays ago at 6 p.m. -- are as comfortable drinking beer or jasmine tea with their samrod shrimp and masman chicken as anything else. Thai Spice is both beautiful and unpretentious; the service is well-informed and sweet.
We took home a box of Panang beef ($12.95) for next day's lunch. But it turned out we couldn't wait: We dug into it the second we got home and loved every blessed bite of it -- thin strips of meat simmered to a melting tenderness in a rich broth of coconut milk and curry paste, studded with green beans and fresh basil and finished with ground peanuts. Yum.
We were in the mood. We wanted more. So the next night, we made the drive to the middle of nowhere -- 441 and Lake Worth Road, to be exact. It's here, at a little 2-year-old restaurant called Tub Tim, that we found a few Thai dishes we'd never tried. There was marinated chicken breast wrapped in long strips of pandanus leaves and deep fried ($6); and green papaya salad ($6), slivers of the slightly sour, crunchy fruit tossed with tomatoes, carrots, chilies, and peanuts. The night's special was a plate of whole, soft-shelled crabs doused in a fiery green curry ($18). And the menu offered deep-fried frog legs cooked two ways: topped with black pepper and garlic sauce or with chilies and Thai herbs ($16).
Tub Tim means "pomegranate." The fruit has mystical and medicinal as well as culinary prowess -- Thais believe a tap from the pomegranate branch will send ghosts loping home. Along with tamarind and coconut, star fruit and long kong, it's one of the great exotic fruits of the east. You won't find it on the menu at Tub Tim, but no matter -- there's plenty to keep you enthralled. The chefs here use papaya and pumpkin, lychee, mango, lemon, and pineapple in wonderful profusion. A sour and spicy seafood salad ($12) incorporates the dusky flavors of mango into a cheerful mix of squid, shrimp, scallops, and lime juice. A typical stir-fry might toss cucumbers, bell peppers, onions, and pineapple together to enliven strips of beef or pork.
Tub Tim is a beautiful restaurant -- tangerine-colored walls, acres of intricately carved wood screening, a fish tank and a bar, a semi-open kitchen, festive strings of lights. Two slender and pretty Thai ladies in the front of the house are absolutely attentive and delightful, pulling off light-footed dances with hot plates of stir-fried squid and crispy roast duck despite the confines of their narrow silk skirts.
The food's as charming as their manners. You unwrap the chicken in pandanus leaves -- which impart a delicate, floral flavoring -- like tiny gifts and dunk them in a light, sweet sauce. One piece of ours, alas, was frighteningly undercooked; this could ruin a good meal and the kitchen needs to watch that. We savored the colorful, tart papaya salad and a simple, lovely soup of bean curd and clear broth ($4). They were two light refreshers before the heavier appetizer sampler for one ($15).
Take my word for it -- the "sampler portion for one" feeds two. A revolving wooden tray with a tiny lit burner in the center carries crisp, deep-fried "golden bags" stuffed with minced shrimp, chicken, corn, green peas, and sweet potatoes. There're also tender and luscious Thai dumplings bursting with chopped crab meat, chicken, and shrimp; skewers of chicken satay to warm up on the burner; dense triangular fish cakes spiced with curry; fried spring rolls brimming with chopped shrimp, clear noodles, and bamboo shoots; a round of sauces including an inspired, hot-sweet peanut dip -- richer and more complex than most others -- pineapple syrup, and sweet chili sauce.
When many Thais sit down to dinner, they share their food, so we split a plate of soft-shelled crabs ($18) -- rich and fatty, full of sweet, moist white meat with a satisfyingly crunchy crust. Paired with an unctuous green curry sauce with coconut milk and crisp snow peas, bamboo shoots, and baby corn, it was scrumptious. For dessert, we couldn't resist the superb Thai egg custard with pumpkin ($5), a labor-intensive delicacy introduced by the Portuguese and refined by generations of Thai cooks. And even though we declined an offer of tea, our ever-solicitous waitress brought us some anyway; she was convinced we needed cups of perfumey jasmine to complete the meal, and she was right.
Did we plan to go to Thailand? she wondered. And she was full of ample advice when we said yes -- including directions on how to get the shortest flight. We praised Tub Tim's food, the ambiance, the service. Why fly 18 hours when we could drive 15 minutes for a perfect bowl of tom kha gai? "I've gone to many Thai restaurants in Florida," she told us wistfully, "but this place is where I think you get the real Thai taste. It's just like the food from home."
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