Thai cuisine is in a bit of a rut in this city. Seems like every strip-mall Siamese joint from Longwood to Lake Nona can deliver half-decent servings of the standards – pad thai, pad see ew, tom yum goong, chili jam, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera – much to the seeming delight of Orlandoans who clearly crave (and rave about) the same ol' same ol'. You have to respect a chef like Dylan Eitharong of Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen, who's made it a point to stir it up by showcasing the regional and, sometimes, religious variants of Thai cuisine not often seen at the average neighborhood restaurant. And he does so while adhering to a staunch ethic of, yes I'm going to say it, authenticity. I don't know of any other local outfit making curry pastes from scratch or incorporating ingredients they've smuggled out of Isaan and Chiang Mai in fake Supreme fanny packs, but that's the sort of passionately made Thai cuisine we need more of.
Granted, Bangrak is a weekly pop-up (we anxiously await a permanent locale) and not the subject of this week's review. That honor goes to BaanChan Thai, an eatery serving the blighted scapes of east Orlando and one whose menu items offer a bit of allure to the intrepid diner of today: items like seasoned quail eggs fried ($5.50) in an aebleskiver-like pan called a khanon krok; "Thai heaven beef" ($4.50), or fried jerky, served with a sweet chili sauce; and a ramen ($12) with crisp slivers of duck, soft-boiled egg and onions in a lemongrass broth. Tongue-blasting red hots hide in that gratifying and murky soup for an unmistakably Thai twist, and they're hellish little buggers. It made the wait for our palliative Thai teas ($4) all the more insufferable and necessitated a brisk walk to the water station for a proper oral dousing.
The issue on this visit was that the person taking our order was also the person responsible for making our tea and delivering our food. This is a fast-casual eatery, after all, where orders are placed at the front, a number is given, and food is brought to your table. When a queue formed, said person was, much like my blazing mouth, overwhelmed. But when the milky bev did finally arrive, it took just a few sips to normalize matters so that a helping of lightly battered soft-shell crab ($5.50) and veggie spring rolls ($3) could be thoroughly enjoyed.
A pineapple fried rice came highly touted, but the flavors just fell flat. "It's a dull rice dish," groaned my dining comrade, who proceeded to fleck a few spoonfuls of sriracha onto the curry-tinged kernels. That most Thai of dishes – pad thai ($9.50) – on the other hand, was pretty much faultless with a puckery tang of tamarind, fresh sprouts and chewy-perfect rice noodles. Of note were the sizable and scrummy fried head-on shrimp gracing those glistening noods.
We finished with a seasonal and straightforward offering of mango sticky rice ($6), also puckery, but of the less pleasurable sort thanks to an astringent mango. The fruit was sweet, sure, but it came with a harsh bite. Not exactly the ending we'd hoped for, but it's not like we left without an appreciation for what BaanChan had to offer. The dishes here present a step in the right direction, even if they're still strides away from the Thai offerings found in other cities. It's high time we make up that ground. Yes, Bangrak, I'm looking at you.