Makes your mouth water, doesn´t it? They´re traditional dishes and specialties from Thailand, but if you´ve got a yen for gecko curry in South Florida, you´re going to have to whip it up on your own (first, you catch your gecko...) With the exception of the fish balls -- no, you idiot, they´re little spheres made of curried, fried whitefish -- you´re not likely to find any of these intriguing delicacies on a Thai menu in Broward or Palm Beach counties.
You know what else you won´t stumble across on Thai menus, from Downtown at the Gardens to Young Circle? Preserved eggs, preserved plums, Thai beef jerky, pumpkin, fried clams, pickled bamboo or turnips, Chiang Mai pork sausage, smelly durian fruit, or hot-and-sour fish ragout with pickled ginger. Which is a big shame, because regional ingredients like these make eating real Thai a blast. The Thais take their taste buds seriously. It´s a red-hot-tongue party: the fiery (chilies), the sour (lime or lemon, tamarind or orange), the sweet (palm sugar, fresh fruit), the salty (in too many variations to count), the silky (coconut milk, peanuts), the cooling (spearmint, cilantro), the musky and pungent (galangal, garlic, red shallots). Then there are the deeper, more mysterious flavors of long-aging, pressing, and drying, where savory molecules are condensed and extracted until you´ve got the culinary equivalent of angels jitterbugging on a pinhead. Thai cooks can take a piece of fish and wring it out until not even the ghost of a scent is left on its bones; they´ll use that painstakingly extracted juice as maybe a single teaspoon of condiment mixed down into a dish that might also hold essences of mandarin orange, kaffir, pandanas leaf, holy basil, nutty ground rice flour, bird´s-eye chilies, cilantro, lemongrass, and citron. They´ll toss the sauce around some rice noodles or green papaya or with strips of grilled beef for a Tiger Tears salad and serve it with crisp long beans, mango, eggplant, pineapple, or tomato. And shrimp paste. You take a bite and your head explodes, along with all your illusions.
¨Oh Jeez, the Thai food we´ve been having!¨ chowhound Steve Koppelman gushed via e-mail this week from New York. ¨There´s this one place, Zabb Queens, that has four pages of Issaan salads on its menu. The one with dried catfish and chewy bits of pork and duck...¨ Koppelman, long a local legend for sniffing out the strange and delicious in any corner he could find it, left South Florida last year for a job in Manhattan. He´s clearly not spilling any Tiger Tears mourning our exhausted, Americanized pad Thais; our ubiquitous red, green, and Masaman curries; or our candy-coated mountains of mee krob.
But me, I´m spilling tears aplenty. I´m tired of tired Thai food, and I´m ready to see some restaurants around here start taking some bloody risks with a cuisine that´s one of the gastronomic wonders of the world. With a few exceptions, going out for a Thai meal locally is one long, boring exercise in being condescended to. I´m fed up.
I´d had high hopes for Sapa, recently opened in Boca in the space on Federal Highway where the abysmal Chin Chin Chinese restaurant lasted less than a year. Sapa´s chef/owner, Zack Gardner, has moved up from Siam Cuisine in Lauderdale and opened his own place, serving Thai and sushi and promising Vietnamese in the not-too-distant future (Gardner is half-Vietnamese, half-American). Sapa, named for one of Gardner´s favorite Vietnamese villages, has so far retained its Chinese décor the red everything, the dragons but it´s a fairly snazzy look. There´s a full liquor bar and an outdoor patio under awnings.
That outdoor patio faces directly on a plaza across the street; if you threw a gecko, you could hit one of Boca´s most popular and long-running Thai restaurants, Bangkok in Boca. That happy little haven serves nearly every dish on Sapa´s Thai menu at just about the same prices, along with many that Sapa doesn´t. Nor do you have to travel more than a couple of gecko hops to find sushi in Boca Raton. So the question arises: What is Zack Gardner thinking?
That he can do it too and do it better? That there´s a huge market in Boca for not-particularly-inspired Thai cuisine? An overflow of sushi addicts? That the full liquor bar will maybe attract a happy-hour crowd to scarf down yesterday´s leftover shrimps in a blanket?
You may surmise that I wasn´t exactly bowled over by two recent visits to Sapa. The same-old, same-old lineup of appetizers -- spring rolls, mee krob, steamed dumplings, chicken satay, veg tempura (and these get pricey as they edge toward $9) -- was enough to leave me yawning politely into my napkin. I was bowled over, though, by the charming, helpful staff -- every one of whom, including passing waiters -- said hello and goodbye; they were patient and exacting in explaining the menu and offering suggestions; they made sure our beer was cold. They are lovely, lovely people, those waiters and sushi chefs at Sapa, and I genuinely wish them well. If only they had more to work with.
We ordered a round of appetizers to stave off plunging blood sugar: vegetarian Thai spring rolls ($4), fried golden and stuffed with minced carrot and cabbage; Sapa fresh rolls ($8), cool rice wrappers rolled around diced shrimp, crab, and slender noodles and finished with a leaf or two of Thai basil; shrimp in a blanket ($9), big butterflied crustaceans fried in a spring-roll skin and served with a hot red chili sauce; vegetable tempura ($8), including sweet potatoes, asparagus, white onion rings, and shredded green onions, served with a thin, vinegary-sweet dip; and steamed dumplings made with ground chicken and shrimp with soy sauce ($8). They were all pretty good. By that, I mean, if you found yourself passing by and ducked in for a beer and a round of small plates, you could fill your belly and probably empty your wallet and not feel that you´d been unduly punished. But you´d be crazy to drive any distance for this, passing one Thai joint after another on your way, those identical paper menus posted in windows whizzing by in a blur.
And that´s as good as it gets, apparently, because our entrées -- even the ¨Chef´s Specialties¨ -- were mostly a whopping disappointment. My pad Thai ($16) was a mess: limp rice noodles sort of mushed around with ground peanuts, shrimp, and slivers of dry chicken in a sugary sauce that lacked any sour notes (I had to ask for lime, and even a generous squeeze couldn´t improve it). I couldn´t detect an atom of dried shrimp or tamarind or anything else to lift this dish beyond a lazy, rote formula supposedly suited to ¨American palates.¨ Am I not an American too?
Two of our main courses were almost identical in composition, so much so that I started to wonder if they were using up bags of Chinese vegetables left over in the freezer when they bought the place. Snow peas. Carrots. White onions. Sliced red and green peppers. Throw in a handful of cashews, some shrimp, and a thin, sugary brown sauce with exactly two flavor notes and you´ve got ¨Shrimp With Cashews¨ ($18). Do the same thing with dry and tasteless beef, chicken, and pork slivers minus the nuts and you´ve got ¨Three Kings in the Forest¨ ($18 -- a ¨specialty¨).
Sapa duck ($20, with a choice of basil, chili, curry, or pepper lemon sauce), the breast meat roasted, sliced, and fried, tasted mostly of hoisin sauce and sautéed onions. It too was dry and neither pleasant nor special enough to encourage more than a few bites. Red curry with chicken ($14) was a hit with the one person at our table who hadn´t had Thai food before. A traditional Thai red curry would be made with handfuls of roasted and ground spices: star anise, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, cumin, coriander, shrimp paste, crushed chilies, maybe fresh coriander or lemongrass, possibly long beans, tomatoes, and eggplant. Sapa´s red curry came with the same lineup of vegetables in our other dishes, and the sauce, while very spicy-hot and creamy, had little depth.
The only dish I can recommend unequivocally came from the sushi bar: a pretty plate of sliced hamachi sashimi drizzled with soy sauce and served with jalapeños and tobiko ($15). The very clean fish had been lightly handled and offered a good punch of heat against cool flesh.
We had mochi ice cream for dessert ($3) -- the weird, mass-produced Japanese ice cream balls wrapped in sticky rice flour -- in flavors of green tea and red bean. You might have to develop a taste for this stuff.
Anyway, Sapa´s just getting on its feet; it may yet do something spectacular, what with ten centuries of potential food bliss at its disposal. Or it might just limp along serving chicken on a stick with peanut sauce for the rest of its natural life. But in the meantime, you and me, we´ll be salting and frying our own scorpions.
Or maybe Koppelman has an extra mattress in Queens.