Restaurant Reviews

The Spice Is Right

I have always judged a dish's quotient of spice by my father's head. Balding for as long as I can remember, my dad, who enjoys a bit of zest now and then, sports a scalp that is a veritable litmus test for chilies. Mild? He might get a little clammy. Sort of spicy? He'll wipe his forehead a few times. Downright fiery? I've seen him mop his forehead with his napkin, after which he's been known to mutter, "That's good."

Chef-owner Wannapa Eapros, who launched Thai On the Beach on North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard about six months ago, should be grateful Dad didn't accompany me to her eatery. At the end of the piquant parade of authentic Thai delicacies, she would have had quite a laundry bill. No doubt Dad would have gone through a pile of linens -- every dish from the tom yum goong soup, redolent with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, to the rich massaman curry, was thrumming with the proper amount of chili peppers. The Thai Beach salad, in fact, featured sliced and grilled beef so exuberantly flavored with chili paste, lime juice, and onion that some of the more subdued palates in my party couldn't handle it.

Indeed, this is the first time in a while that I can recall a Thai restaurant serving fare that has not been dumbed down for American palates. Perhaps Eapros took some criticism to heart: I'd heard in the beginning that the cuisine was generally too mild. Or maybe my friends' and colleagues' taste buds were numb from past chili indulgence. Whatever. The staff won't ask how you like something prepared, so if you're spice-shy, be sure to speak up. If you're not, be sure to sit back. And get your napkin in position.

Judicious use of chili peppers is not the only reason I like Thai On the Beach, however. Located on the second floor over a darn good pizza shop (see Foodstuff), the 40-seat restaurant boasts a surprisingly pretty view of the Atlantic Ocean, through curved bay windows that line the exterior wall. The interior is casual, with warm wooden chairs and Plexiglas tabletop covers, but garnet linens descending from beneath them add a touch of elegance, and simple spotlights dropping from the ceiling lend some modernity. In other words, no kitschy souvenirs comprise (or pass for) décor.

Thai On the Beach not only has design integrity; it may be the first honestly ethnic, mom-and-pop eatery I've encountered on the former Strip. As in ever. There've been notable establishments run by chef-owners, such as Darrel Broek and Oliver Saucy's East City Grill (now located in Weston after an 18-month-or-so hiatus). But for the most part, crammed between T-shirt boutiques and belly-piercing parlors, the chain eateries have dominated and continue to be the ones that do well enough to afford the beachfront rent.

Not that I expect diners to support Eapros' endeavor out of charity or because they admire her intentions. This may be the holiday season, but I'm still a gastronomic Grinch. The only thing that reforms me (temporarily, of course) is terrific fare, solid service, big portions, and reasonable prices, all of which Thai On the Beach has in abundance.

In fact, it's easy to order too much. I found myself so turned on by the aggressively spicy-sweet chili sauce that coated the plump, deep-fried wings that I immediately wanted it over the crispy duck chef's specialty, a collection of crunchy-skinned, tender-fleshed, on-the-bone pieces. But that meant I would have had to forego the other options for napping the roasted half of a bird: the delicately flavored ginger sauce or the zingy basil version or the complex red, green, and Panang curry gravies.

In the end, it doesn't really matter what you do, because any of the eight sauces available can be paired with a choice of seven main ingredients, and in my experience, Eapros has yet to make a misstep with a single combination. It does make a difference, though, what you don't do. For instance, don't ignore the blackboard specialties. Here, you can glean dishes ranging from the jaw or collarbone of a large fish (salmon, say, or grouper), which offers up sweet chunks of slick meat, to lobster pad thai, the familiar noodle dish with peanuts and bean sprouts sporting a large, perfectly textured lobster tail.

Seafood addicts should make note that even combinations of different shellfish, which in lesser hands can be disproportionate and unevenly cooked, were fresh, wonderful concoctions. Seafood ladna, for instance, was a precious cargo of scallops, mussels, squid, and shrimp, winking with the emerald jewels of broccoli spears and coins of carrots, carried by a veritable ship of egg noodles. The Thai On the Beach seafood stir-fry was equally superior, toothy with crabmeat, shrimp, squid, mussels, and sea scallops, joined together with a sharp and savory garlic-ginger-pepper sauce.

Main courses are served with bowls of steamed white rice, allowing patrons to help themselves rather than flag down servers to dish out seconds, as is typically done in Thai restaurants. The aromatic rice by itself has a soothing effect on the burning tongue, but I prefer the age-old remedy for chili overload: ice cream. Get it like a sundae with fried bananas and you'll be able to cool down enough to leave your perspiration-laden napkin behind.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick