First things first. The original Tee-Jay Thai Sushi is located on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale north of Commercial Boulevard. This second outpost opened in March 2011 in a suburb, Wilton Manors — which is now the number-two U.S. city for same-sex couples, according to the 2010 Census.
You'll know you're in the right plaza when you see the signs for Gay Mart (a menswear store), Humpy's Pizza (whose mascot is a burly, thick-forearmed lumberjack), and famous gay bar Georgie's Alibi. (Bill's Filling Station and the Painted Pickle are in the neighborhood too.) Tee-Jay co-owner Wanlada Gebhard, who goes by Winnie for short, says she didn't set out to court the LGBT crowd, yet, in the same breath, noted that the restaurant advertises heavily in gay publications. Either way, it was probably wise for her to locate here; this plaza is always packed.
South Florida, despite being known for tourism, is also notorious for poor service, so it was almost jarring to walk into Tee-Jay and encounter a bubbly staff. Servers stopped by their tables to check in only moments after plates were dropped off. Guests at the sushi bar were chatted up by the chefs. One waiter even massaged a patron's shoulders while chit-chatting. Our knotted-up trapezius was unfortunately not offered the same service.
The main dining room is split by twin pillars that are covered and dressed up with white orchids. At the far end of the room, five tables sit raised above a wall-to-wall wood slab, topped with cushions, a nod to traditional Japanese seating. Into this peaceful, minimalist setting, the owners have added metal wall hangings that look like psychedelic washboards, backlit with neon that morphs from purple to blue to red and across the spectrum. The dim neon, combined with David Guetta's "When Love Takes Over" blaring over the speakers, creates a club-like atmosphere. Gebhard said that when designing the Wilton Manors location, she and partners Teera Jiriyasin and Jay Arrechot tried to give it a modern look.
The menu here is dizzying, with more than a dozen categories, including appetizers, sushi bar, basic rolls, cucumber-wrapped rolls, specialty rolls, curries, noodles, grilled dishes, and stir fries. By the time you make your way to the end of the menu, you need to return to the beginning, because you've forgotten all of the soup choices.
We started one visit with a bowl of tom yum goong soup ($5.25) that's a good rendition of the Thai classic, both sour and spicy, with plenty of mushrooms and a pair of tail-on shrimp. A cucumber salad ($3.25) had a fresh crunch, but the light flavors were overpowered by too-sweet chili vinaigrette. The menu said the Thai fries ($6.25) were "bonito"-encased in coconut batter and then fried. We were disappointed to receive small fried spears that tasted more like doughnuts than fish. Only later did we learn that we were the victims of a typo and that the fries are actually made from boniato, a variety of sweet potato.
The best choice was the Thai dumplings ($6.25), a half-dozen oversized shumai-style bites containing a mixture of chicken and shrimp. They were nutty and earthy from the chopped mushrooms within, and each came crowned with a dried shrimp, adding a bit of texture and classic Thai fishiness to the dish.
Food emerged from the kitchen and sushi bar at a fast pace, and our table was quickly overloaded with full plates. But the servers were attentive, checking in frequently. They were also some of the fastest drink-fillers I've encountered. My sweetener-to-iced-tea ration was out of balance on both visits, thanks to my cup never falling below half full.
Sushi dishes tasted fresh and came presented on large platters with plenty of garnish. Gebhard says fish is sourced from Miami-based Port Royale Trading Co. and Q Plus Food. The spicy tuna roll ($4.50) was presented in the traditional maki style, nori on the outside with fish and rice contained within. These rolls were our favorite entrée. On another visit, we tried the unagi roll ($4.95) and enjoyed the crunch of cucumber alongside the smoky eel sweetened by the mandatory sauce.
Tee-Jay rolls were not quite as enticing and might offend a sushi purist. Many feature lettuce and cream cheese inside, a classic indicator of Westernized sushi. These specialty rolls come oversized, at a higher price, and filled with a cacophony of ingredients. The spicy lobster roll ($18.95) is a kitchen sink of steamed lobster, masago, spicy mayo, avocado, cucumber, scallions, and jalapeños that is rolled up, then deep-fried tempura style. Tee-Jay's dragon roll ($12.95) had the standard combination of tempura shrimp and scallion rolled up in rice and a seaweed sheet. Though it's always nice to get generous-sized rolls when dropping a lot of cash on a sushi dinner, these pieces are so large that diners almost have to unhinge their jaws to fit a bite in their mouths.
Gebhard says that recipes come from her mother, Khruawan Russmetes, who has cooked in restaurants for more than 20 years. Gebhard lived outside of Bangkok until she was 7, then returned to the States, bouncing between New York and South Florida. She says she and her restaurant partners adapt to their location to try to please the locals. By adding small American tweaks to authentic recipes, she says, they're creating a gateway for diners to appreciate more traditional flavors.
Green curry with chicken ($13.95) arrived on a large plate, nearly overflowing with sauce and piled high with an assortment of vegetables. Some cucumber slices and string beans seemed out of place. Unfortunately, the curry in the sauce was overwhelmed by flavors from the coconut milk and red chili oil. Some bites had large, overpowering pieces of basil that ought to have seen a knife before hitting the plate.
Lad na ($15.95), a more traditional Thai dish consisting of wide rice noodles pan-fried with scallops, shrimp, and broccoli, came with a generous portion of seafood. Noodles were overboiled and mushy but crisped during pan-frying to provide a pleasing crunch. The same can't be said for the scallops, of which there were many, though covered in a bland sauce.
Expansive as it is, it's no surprise that Tee-Jay's menu has its highs and lows. We can't say it's worth a special trip, but it's a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Stop in next time you are running errands at Gay Mart.