Ask anyone from Thailand if he dines out at American Thai restaurants and he'll most likely tell you no. Americans, many Thais will concur, don't know real Thai food.
Sure, you've probably eaten at a local Thai restaurant or two, feeling adventurous for ordering any of the rainbow of red, yellow, or green curries made with that pick-your-protein option. Or you've gone with the "authentic" papaya salad (often made without the nose-turning salty dried shrimp paste known as goong haeng to appease American palates), spring rolls (something you won't find much of on the streets of Bangkok, by the way), and pad Thai (what should be salty and spicy more than sweet thanks to a good dose of fish sauce and chili paste).
Sadly, like so many other ethnic cuisines prepared stateside, the dishes of Thailand have become downright domesticated, subdued to accommodate delicate Western palates. True Thai cuisine uses ingredients most diners will likely never have the opportunity to sample here, made with such herbaceous, sour, and spicy notes that our palates would rebuke almost instantly.
Yet, for all the seemingly safe Thai restaurants out there, there's the occasional spot doing it right, places able to spirit you off to the streets of Laos — a country that rests on Thailand's northern border best known for its heady cuisine — with dishes that showcase Thai food in all its tongue-burning, sinus-clearing glory (if only for lunch or dinner).
In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, one place that comes eye-openingly close is Moon Thai & Japanese Cuisine, where chef-owner Jack Punma has offered many of his homeland's regional staples since 2000, when he opened his first restaurant across the street from the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
Thai-born Punma tells the story of growing up cooking beside his mother. One of eight children, he was often charged with helping her prepare the fare his family would sell from their sidewalk café in Phitsanulok, a central city that stretches east to the Loatian border in the province of the same name.
"She would put us to work — no, she would use us, especially the boys — to do all the hard work," says Punma. "I would harvest the kaffir, lemongrass, and vegetables from our farm and climb the coconut trees. And I became very good at using the mortar and pestle to grind spices for sauces and curry."
In 1984, at age 26, Punma moved to the United States to pursue a master's degree in business administration. During his schooling, Punma cooked with several Miami kitchens, all the while saving to open that first Coral Gables restaurant, an enterprise that has grown to five locations in 15 years, including two Broward County outposts, in Coral Springs and Weston. Through it all Punma worked and saved and today remains the sole proprietor of each restaurant as well as the menu creator and design guru.
Fans of traditional-looking Thai restaurants may be taken aback by Thai Moon's sleek decor and modern vibe. The most vibrant location of all, a sexy space finished with roomy booths, lacquered wenge wood tables, and an eye-catching sushi bar, is in Weston. A reposeful geisha mural looks out across the dining room from behind a glowing, blue-lit white marble bar, a space that separates imbibers from diners.
Today, Punma prepares many of those dumbed-down, American-friendly dishes at each of his establishments, but he does so in a way that is neither fusion-style nor copycat. Rather, Moon Thai displays his obvious love for Thai cuisine, each dish an innovation of flavor, many produced from recipes passed down through generations.
Still, his encyclopedic menu — two volumes with close to 300 dishes in all, one for Thai and a second for Japanese — offer diners a taste of Thailand that's normally camouflaged from greenhorn Americans.
Take the larb (at Moon Thai spelled "larp"), a dish of fine-minced meat or seafood seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and fine-ground toasted rice. It is a truly traditional Thai dish Punma had often as a child in Phitsanulok, and the dish's flavors are so loud that they're enough to drown out the conversation coursing through the dining room, each bite redolent of mint and basil.
Punma will tell you Thai cuisine is many things, but primarily, he says, it is healthy, colorful, and filled with flavor. Here, the scorch factor is always customizable; choose among four levels, from very mild (babies under 6 years old) to medium (teenagers) and all the way up to very spicy (for the "mad" people out there). Or try your hand at the bottle of chili-hued Thai sriracha set at each table. If salty and umami are more your style, ask for Jack's trio of sauces with your meal, including his own blend of garlic, Thai chili, cilantro, sea salt, and lime. The Thai servers will encourage you to dip almost anything in it and whisper that Jack's recipe is even better than Mom's.
Likewise, the tom yum goong — a traditional hot-and-sour soup — is a generously herbed broth with the right balance of lemongrass, chili, fish sauce, and kaffir lime, the steaming stock dotted with whole prawns, straw mushrooms, and chopped green onion. It's puckeringly tart with a powerful, spicy kick, a down-right cold-killing concoction.
While Thais take advantage of their country's bounty of fresh and saltwater fish, Punma's use of salmon with a thick panang curry — typically used for beef or pork — is refreshingly modern. He begins with a sashimi-grade fillet, the same fish the sushi bar uses to make rolls and cut into thin strips of sashimi; from there, it's baked until the delicate ribbons of fat split open, revealing firm, moist meat. It's served in a puddle of Punma's panang, a creamy coconut base in which you can easily taste the peppery galangal, sharp lemongrass, and elements of cumin and Thai basil. The fish is topped with a final dousing of coconut milk and a sprinkling of gelatinous ruby-red globes of salmon roe that pop in your mouth with a salty, sweet tang.
A more conventional Thai take on seafood arrives with the volcano snapper, a whole fish topped with straw mushrooms, onions, scallions, and red peppers deep-fried in a bright sweet-and-sour sauce. If you prefer to have the kitchen do the work for you, ask for it "red chili style"; the fish will still arrive with head and tail, but the delicate fried meat will have been sliced and cut for you. All that's left to do is enjoy.
We credit the first Thai immigrants into the United States for marrying their cuisine with Japanese dishes, and likewise credit the staff at Moon Thai for using only the best fish, premium rice, and precision technique to deliver more than 40 rolls and a wide array of innovative appetizers that highlight both the sushi chefs' artful technique and Pumna's creative whimsy.
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"I can pay $10 for a pound of fish, but I choose to pay $16," says Punma, who buys fish from the same vendors that deliver to Nobu and Morimoto. "When it comes to sushi, there are two things that separate good sushi from mediocre sushi, and that is the chef and the fish. I make sure I have the best of both."
The same time-honored respect for ingredients continues to dessert, which includes the ubiquitous Thai doughnuts. Perhaps the most traditional of all, however, is the mango sticky rice, Thailand's ode to the denouement of mango season. A glutinous, short-grained rice is cooked until it attains a gooey, opaque consistency when — still steaming — it's packed into a dense globe and drenched in a thick layer of coconut milk, then decorated with a rash of toasted sesame seeds. It pairs perfectly with the bite-sized cubes of ripe, sweet mango, arranged in a pretty pattern into a golden halo around the large glutinous ball of rice.
"I always dreamed of having my own restaurant. It was hard in the beginning, working seven days a week, managing it all myself," recalls Punma. "But food is what I have a passion for, and Thai food is what I do best."
Moon Thai & Japanese Cuisine
2818 Weston Road, Weston. Hours are Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.. Call 954-384-7275, or visit moonthai.com.