You think it's all fun and games being a food critic, dontcha?
"Oooooh, you're so luuucky," perfect strangers purr when they hear what I do. "I wish I had your job."
I have news: If you had my job, you'd be 15 pounds fatter and your cholesterol would be off the charts. This gig is like living a version of Super Size Me that doesn't end after 30 days; you don't go back to your "real" life and your sensible diet; you just keep gorging. Even the sunniest and most vigorous among you would find, after a year or two of professional gluttony, that you'd developed the dour temperament of Eugene O'Neill embedded in the ample bosom of Mama Cass.
You see, your girth expands in inverse proportion to your happiness — because you've gotten very, very picky. Somebody hands you a deliciously caramelized New York strip with a melting, rose-colored center, and afterward no gray and flaccid slab will ever again hold your attention. It's like porn; you have to keep upping the ante. And what's worse, you become the Joan Crawford of the restaurant world, only instead of "No wire hangers!" you're screeching "No powdered soup base!" "No butter substitute!"
Personally, when I paint on my scary eyebrows, fling on my fox-fur cloak, and traipse out to dinner, nothing sends me into an imperious snit like a crummy Thai meal. There's no excuse for taking one of the world's liveliest cuisines and turning it into a puddle of wet, peanut-crusted noodles. Or a mess of overcooked slivers of chicken slathered in coconut milk, all the bright, brisk edges dulled and sweetened and softened and sanded down, as if we American diners were all just outsized toddlers gumming the maternal tit. It's time we got weaned.
Thai people must think we're sick, the way we put this stuff away. It has nothing remotely to do with the way they eat back home. But as it happens, just as I was dissolving into a homicidal rage fueled by sugary bean thread noodles — has any court yet upheld the Mee Krob Defense? — I stumbled across a cheerful little restaurant in Lauderdale Lakes called Bangkok Palace. The lady who runs it, Noi Kasinpila, serves dishes made from her own family's recipes, which seems like an act of unimaginable generosity. Her fried tofu and special Bangkok Palace rolls are too good for us, but we must love them or die.
Kasinpila's family comes from Bangkok, where they ran a small lunch place, and from the northern city of Chiang Mai. She and her husband, Richie, opened Bangkok Palace last year serving lunch and dinner, a wavering mirage of grace and order in a Lauderdale Lakes strip mall. The location they've chosen and decorated with bright yellow and red walls makes perfect sense. It's a few doors down from Silver Pond Chinese, a Vietnamese café, Asian groceries, a takeout Chinese barbecue, and, rather chillingly, a guns and knives mart and shooting range; this stretch of State Road 7 is the center of Broward's Far-East food scene and, apparently, ground zero for the NRA.
At Bangkok Palace, the whole gang participates: Kasinpila's shy young son Pete refills lemonade or Thai iced tea glasses and clears tables; her 70-year-old mother helps out in the kitchen; another Thai husband-and-wife team mans the stoves.
So where do we start? Salads? The two I tried brought my first great Thai meal (eaten in London in the '80s) whooshing back with enough force to knock me out of my stupor. Kasinpila's green papaya salad (Som taam, $7.50) is Thai cuisine in tart, greeny microcosm: the puckery crunch of shredded fruit, sweet acids of grape tomatoes, and a handful of cut green beans and roasted peanuts for texture and contrast, all of it tossed in garlic-lime dressing. I could absolutely live on this stuff. Equally wonderful, and a new dish for me, was a Thai egg salad ($7.50), in which strips of egg had been fried in very hot oil to achieve a marvelous, satisfying crunch with a mouth-feel like fried fish. The cooked egg is mixed around with red onions, sweet red pepper strips, and bean sprouts and laced with Thai basil leaves and cilantro, all of it lightly coated with a sweet (but not too sweet) chili dressing. I've got a good tolerance for pepper, but unless you're a fire-breathing dragon, these salads are plenty hot ordered "medium." They've also got a catfish salad and a seafood yum talay made with shrimp, scallops, mussels, and squid, both of which I can't wait to try. And of course, ground chicken laab gai, and yum nua, the classic Thai beef salad.
Polish off those salads alongside a plate of Bangkok Palace rolls, at $7.95, a house specialty. They're stuffed with spiced pork. Each fried miniature rice-paper package is set on a lettuce leaf with a handful of bean sprouts, cilantro snippings, and basil leaves. You sort of wrap it all up, shove it in your mouth, and bliss out. A dish of fried tofu ($5.95) sets out piles of pristine golden triangles that offer creamy, steaming innards. They're fantastically sensual with a sweet-and-sour chili dipping sauce, and they make a great, neutral foil for the sparky salads.
Keep eating. I couldn't live with myself if you didn't order the entrée-sized bowl of kew nam ($9.95). You'll find this chicken-broth-based soup listed under "Noodles" because of the homemade wontons, portly pasta pockets stuffed with minced, seasoned chicken and shrimp. There's a bunch of other stuff floating around in this amazing microenvironment too: thinly sliced barbecued pork with a savory red rim; extra-tender gefilte fish balls with a subtle, fusty fragrance like cold well water; chopped greens; and lacy squiggles of scallions. You couldn't dream up a friskier combination of flavors and textures. Mrs. K had set down a tray of baby-sized blue-and-white porcelain pots filled with aromatics: These we added to suit — pickled jalapeños, red chili powder, garlic, and lime sauce.
"I'm going to order this soup every time I come here," my spouse announced, handing me back my empty bowl. But giddy, fickle child that she is, she was already on to the next thing. Those aromatics worked fine, she discovered, with a deeply crimson concoction of curly squid in samrod chili sauce ($13.95) served with jasmine rice — fat, finger-sized whorls of calamari cooked just tender and doused in a bath that was a bit too sweet for me but evidently manna for the candy-challenged. Lad na ($10.95) turned out to be the ultimate Thai noodle dish; it's made with the traditional wide, soft rice pasta ribbons paired with chunks of chicken (or beef or pork); leafy, luridly vegetal Chinese broccoli (wan shen, sort of like kale); and a thick brown gravy that unveils layers and layers of flavor — from fermented sweet soy and black beans to fish sauce.
From a list of house specialties that included Bangkok roast duck, egg-batter-dipped frog legs, baked seafood curry, and sizzling grouper, Kasinpila, when we could pin her down, revealed that Gulf of Siam (seafood clay pot, $17.95) was maybe the dish she liked best. This was like asking a mother to pick her favorite kid; we had a feeling that anybody's favorite was always the one right there in front of them. Bring it on! we cried. We were verily tempted by the goong ob woonsen also — steamed shrimp with bean thread noodles, bacon, and ginger. But enough is enough.
BTW — BYOB. The Kasinpilas don't have a beer and wine license, but if you show up with your grape juice of choice, they'll be happy to pour it for you. Anyway, the lemonade they serve, or alternately, a mix of iced tea and lemonade, is very refreshing with these peppery/sour dishes, dousing the flames when you need it.
Briny, warm, and invigorating, Gulf of Siam clay pot ($17.95) is like one of those circus acts where a toy car pulls up and dozens of clowns unload. There are big, fresh mussels in their lucent green shells... and jumbo shrimp... and nice fat sea scallops... and a whole bunch of calamari. You keep eating and eating, and the vessel never empties. You dig around in the brown sauce, inhaling the cinnamon-y scent of basil and the slightly soapy notes of cilantro, your head tingles from the red chili paste, and you can't resist adding a spoonful of something or another from the baby porcelain pots. In fact, this magic brew is a kind of metaphor for Bangkok Palace and the people who run it: generous, warm, varied, vivid, unexpected, and such a kick, gastronomically speaking, that you want to do backflips across the room. Just don't try it on a full stomach.