Thai in Orlando

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    There was a time when a good number of my lunchtime repasts were enjoyed at this very address, back when Schlotzsky’s Deli occupied the space. So as I glided across the black-and-white checkered floor (the sole vestige from those heady deli days) to my comfortable banquette, I couldn’t help reminiscing about those deeply satisfying oven-toasted sandwiches and hoping SEA Thai’s strikingly diverse menu would leave me just as satisfied.

    Thankfully, the six siblings running SEA (an acronym for “Southeast Asia,” but also an allusion to their modest seafood offerings) make customer contentment a priority. All have served as either waiters or cooks at other Siamese establishments around town, and if a culinary conundrum is encountered, parental consultation is just a phone call away.

    The scene is simple and serene with a trace of lounge cool: A colorful wall of geometry evokes Mondrian, while colorful dishes evoke Shavitranuruk, the chef responsible for melding the four “S”s of Thai cookery – sweet, sour, spicy and salty. The mound of slivered green papaya ($5.95) specked with fresh garlic and soaked in vinegar and lemon elicits a proper pucker before the piercing stab of Thai green chilies numbs the tongue. The flavors are similar to Indian kachumber but with a far greater crunch, thanks to the papaya.

    The perfumed broth of Thai lemongrass soup ($3.25) further demonstrates the kitchen’s consistency, and while the tempered use of fish sauce suggests a less-is-more approach, a cluster of baby corn, snow peas, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, scallions and cabbage refutes the notion. Even unadventurous fried spring rolls ($2.95) stuffed with glass noodles and assorted minced veggies show a fastidious commitment.

    A complex confluence of flavors comprises the more than 50 available entrees, but none more so than chili red snapper ($26.95). The enormous, impeccably crisp fish is served whole atop a slather of chili-laced hot and sour sauce jeweled with diced red and green peppers. It’s the sort of dish that gets you lost in the moment and makes raising your head a challenging endeavor.

    Lime juice and chili sauce provoke the palate in the tiger tear steak ($12.95), a marinated strip loin served sizzling on a hot plate. The hiss of the fat dripping from the meat gives the dish its weepy name, and you’ll cry for more once you’re done. Two sauces – a lip-smacking dip of garlic, rice powder and crushed chilies, and a sweet “American-style teriyaki sauce,” as my waitress put it – enhance the succulence of the beef.

    Refreshing coconut and slightly bitter mango ice cream ($4.95) set atop gelatinous sticky rice brings the meal to a tropical finish and provides some much-needed oral relief. I couldn’t get enough of buttery Thai donuts ($3.95) tinseled with a glimmering honey drizzle. If you’re like me and melt at the thought of any butter-filled confection, this is the capper for you.

    The glut of Thai restaurants in town has given rise to an ever-growing legion of devotees, many of whom have cultivated a discriminating palate for all things Siamese. SEA Thai certainly belongs in the category of restaurants worthy of a visit, its loyal following being a testament to the kitchen’s proficiency and the jolly disposition of its staff. My waitress seemed to be perpetually beaming which, as I learned when I made my way back to the car, ultimately proved infectious.

    There are always trends at play on the dining scene, and of late, it seems to be Thai restaurants that are popping up around town. An otherwise unassuming new entry in Winter Park, the neat and low-key Siam Garden jumps out from the competition with its distinctive fusion cuisine, which successfully combines Indian, Burmese, Laotian, Malaysian and Chinese influences.

    Siam Garden's proprietors are of the same family that runs the longstanding Thai House on East Colonial Drive. Their new venture is tucked away in a storefront on Webster Avenue, opposite Dillard's, the lone survivor in the rapidly redeveloping new Winter Park Mall.

    Siam Garden's proprietors are of the same family that runs the longstanding Thai House on East Colonial Drive. Their new venture is tucked away in a storefront on Webster Avenue, opposite Dillard's, the lone survivor in the rapidly redeveloping new Winter Park Mall.

    As former vegetable farmers, the owners know the importance of fresh ingredients, and they strive for balance. Too much garlic overwhelms the ginger, they explained. And they don't use Italian basil, preferring the traditional purple Thai basil.

    As former vegetable farmers, the owners know the importance of fresh ingredients, and they strive for balance. Too much garlic overwhelms the ginger, they explained. And they don't use Italian basil, preferring the traditional purple Thai basil.

    We stopped by on a Friday night and were impressed with most of the food. Although they do a first-rate job with simple spring rolls, fried and diagonally sliced, there is another appetizer that's a must. It's called mee krob (pronounced "me crab," $5.95). Clear noodles are fried into crunchy little matchsticks and tossed with a gluey, sweet tamarind-tomato sauce. The plump shrimp, bean sprouts and green onions make it mouth-watering.

    We stopped by on a Friday night and were impressed with most of the food. Although they do a first-rate job with simple spring rolls, fried and diagonally sliced, there is another appetizer that's a must. It's called mee krob (pronounced "me crab," $5.95). Clear noodles are fried into crunchy little matchsticks and tossed with a gluey, sweet tamarind-tomato sauce. The plump shrimp, bean sprouts and green onions make it mouth-watering.

    Steamed dumplings ($4.95) are presented like mushroom caps, with the filling on top. We loved the full-bodied flavors in the stuffing of ground shrimp, pork and water chestnuts.

    Steamed dumplings ($4.95) are presented like mushroom caps, with the filling on top. We loved the full-bodied flavors in the stuffing of ground shrimp, pork and water chestnuts.

    After such smashing appetizers, it was harder to get excited about the "combo seafood platter" ($14.95). Plenty of shrimp, squid, mussels and crab in a garlic sauce were ladled over steamed white rice. Although it didn't do much to perk up the palate, the flavors were lightly fragrant and soothing.

    After such smashing appetizers, it was harder to get excited about the "combo seafood platter" ($14.95). Plenty of shrimp, squid, mussels and crab in a garlic sauce were ladled over steamed white rice. Although it didn't do much to perk up the palate, the flavors were lightly fragrant and soothing.

    "Chili jam" ($8.95), however, had all the heat and punch of Thai cooking at its best. This was a stir-fried blend of pork, peppers and onions in a spicy-sweet chili sauce with tamarind traces. For dessert, we had baby banana pastries ($2.50) served warm, drizzled with honey and dusted with sesame seeds.

    "Chili jam" ($8.95), however, had all the heat and punch of Thai cooking at its best. This was a stir-fried blend of pork, peppers and onions in a spicy-sweet chili sauce with tamarind traces. For dessert, we had baby banana pastries ($2.50) served warm, drizzled with honey and dusted with sesame seeds.

    Throughout our dinner we were tended by watchful waiters who kept things running smoothly. The setting is quiet and restful, with soft touches such as low-volume music and dim lighting.

    Throughout our dinner we were tended by watchful waiters who kept things running smoothly. The setting is quiet and restful, with soft touches such as low-volume music and dim lighting.

    Siam Garden adds flavorful dimension to an area dominated by chain restaurants.

    Since we're having to broaden our knowledge about exotic countries these days, it's probably a good time to note that Thailand (the former Siam, a culture shaped by Chinese, Indian, Cambodian and Malaysian influences -- yet apart from them) is a huge place. Narrowing "Thai food" down to pad thai and green curry is like saying that "American food" is New England clam chowder and grits. There are enough regional variations in Thai cuisine to fuel 100 more restaurants, and the variations at Sawadee Thai are welcome.

    Sawadee Thai opened in February without much fanfare. Nestled between a Domino's Pizza and a chrome-wheel store, it doesn't have the dazzle of the nearby Hooters, and you may miss it. But it seems to be a popular place for area residents. This was previously 1st Wok, and there's an incongruous remnant of a sushi bar hidden in the corner. It's a small, strip mallish place, nicely lit with deep gold walls and a lovely terra cotta tile floor.

    Sawadee Thai opened in February without much fanfare. Nestled between a Domino's Pizza and a chrome-wheel store, it doesn't have the dazzle of the nearby Hooters, and you may miss it. But it seems to be a popular place for area residents. This was previously 1st Wok, and there's an incongruous remnant of a sushi bar hidden in the corner. It's a small, strip mallish place, nicely lit with deep gold walls and a lovely terra cotta tile floor.

    The menu is large enough to make choices difficult. Tod mun pla ($3.99), small fishcakes similar to the stuffing inside dumplings, comes mingled with cool sliced cucumber in a sweet vinegar and spicy red- pepper dressing. Papaya salad (som tam, $4.99), a very typical Northeast Thailand appetizer, starts out light and crispy, the spaghetti strands of green papaya hiding the fact that it is one hot dish. With anything on the menu, unless you're a pepper fanatic, even the "mild" setting may be too high in spiciness.

    The menu is large enough to make choices difficult. Tod mun pla ($3.99), small fishcakes similar to the stuffing inside dumplings, comes mingled with cool sliced cucumber in a sweet vinegar and spicy red- pepper dressing. Papaya salad (som tam, $4.99), a very typical Northeast Thailand appetizer, starts out light and crispy, the spaghetti strands of green papaya hiding the fact that it is one hot dish. With anything on the menu, unless you're a pepper fanatic, even the "mild" setting may be too high in spiciness.

    Crispy fish with lemongrass ($12.95) is a simple white fish (I believe it was pollack that night, but it changes with the market), flour-coated and fried, served atop peppers and onions, with a pleasantly spicy coconut milk and peanut-curry sauce. Ask for the sauce on the side to let the fish stay crispy longer, and order the fish filleted instead of whole.

    Crispy fish with lemongrass ($12.95) is a simple white fish (I believe it was pollack that night, but it changes with the market), flour-coated and fried, served atop peppers and onions, with a pleasantly spicy coconut milk and peanut-curry sauce. Ask for the sauce on the side to let the fish stay crispy longer, and order the fish filleted instead of whole.

    I'm getting rather fond of duck and, if you order the duck with basil ($14.95), you'll understand why. Thai rice is at its best when soaking up liquids, and it served its purpose well with this rich, lime and basil-flavored sauce and savory combination of dark duck meat and spinachlike basil leaves. They do have the standards -- pad thai ($8.95) and summer rolls -- and they are also good.

    I'm getting rather fond of duck and, if you order the duck with basil ($14.95), you'll understand why. Thai rice is at its best when soaking up liquids, and it served its purpose well with this rich, lime and basil-flavored sauce and savory combination of dark duck meat and spinachlike basil leaves. They do have the standards -- pad thai ($8.95) and summer rolls -- and they are also good.

    The young staff is casually attentive beyond expectations. I was asked about every permutation of my order -- how spicy, how much rice. I attempted to order an eggplant dish, but they were out of eggplant. They were also out of takeout menus, and were unable to take American Express when I was there. Hope-fully the "outs" won't get in the way of the good stuff.

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