Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd