When Dylan Eitharong, owner of Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen, sings the praises of a new kitchen maestro, well, you're smart to listen to the starboy chef. Ever since Jack Jone, the maestro in question, took over the kitchen at SEA Thai, Eitharong has been trying to get others to join the chorus of Thai totalers who eat at the venerable East Colonial restaurant – recently remodeled and de-bambooed, I should add – for Jone's Siamese creations.
"Get the chef's specials only," Eitharong tells me in a text from Bangkok. "The rest is ..." Well, let's just say he doesn't care much for SEA Thai's core offerings, a catalog of dishes you'd typically find at any of the city's neighborhood Thai joints. The restaurant, it seems, finds itself at a bit of a crossroads – should they cater to legacy customers pining for panangs and pad thais, or lure a newer, younger audience by advancing the cuisine?
For now, SEA Thai is content to do both, and while that pad thai ($11.95) isn't deserving of total disdain, the plate of noodz was serviceable at best. Better mains: ginger duck ($13.95), served a-sizzle on a hot plate, and a pair of salads – the waterfall beef and papaya salads, both of which were "as good as it gets" and "tasted like Thailand," according to a musician pal of mine.
And right he was.
But we've come to sample Jone's specials, presented four days a week from Fridays through Mondays, and many of them prove revelatory. If you count yourself among the many who sorely miss Bangrak's khao soi, lament no more. The soupy dish of curry noodles ($12) brings a true taste of Chiang Mai to Colonialtown, and the eye-catching plating showcases Jone's training and time spent at venerable spots like 1921 and Capa: egg noodles drowned in a gorgeous ruddy broth; chicken thighs stacked high; and an attentive and aesthetically positioned garnish of fried noodles, shallots and cilantro.
The vertical presentation of the pad prik king ($17.50) sees a tower of whole soft-shell crabs battered in tempura, then pan-fried in red curry paste with shrimp fat and palm sugar, before being situated atop a makrut lime leaf. Incredible. "Did you get the soft-shell crab?" Eitharong asks. Indeed I did – twice. Same goes for the glossy wings ($5.50), another fried wonder. These soak in a soy-tamarind marinade, are coated in tempura batter – but not overly so – then frizzled to a delicate crisp.
Of the five specials Jone usually offers, at least one veers into the world of haute cuisine. Seared salmon salad ($12) may not sound very posh, but it's refined to the core. The circular arrangement resembles a wreath on a plate: salmon interlaced with peaches, oyster mushrooms and fennel, beatified with coconut shreds, toasted rice, salmon roe, roasted nuts and a Thai chili jam vinaigrette. Dumpling fiends will revel in ever-so-delicate wontons ($5) of shrimp and pork poached in a master stock of pork bones, ginger and soy. Our only complaint was the tepid broth.
Needless to say, the guests who joined me on both visits vowed to put SEA Thai on their regular rotation – when Jone churns out those wicked specials, it's the best Thai restaurant in town, no question. And if you happen to be a SEA Thai regular who insists on ordering the same ol' same ol', then I'm afraid you don't know Jack.
– This story appears in the Jan. 8, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Food + Drink newsletter.