Thai in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    A restaurant's service can be a make-or-break proposition. There are people who will let an unfilled water glass ruin the bliss brought on by multiple courses of gastronomic delight. Such fussy perfectionism is not how the vast majority of diners approach the restaurant experience. The food is the main attraction, and as long as it's delivered accurately and in a timely fashion, it's the quality of the dishes that determine whether or not a restaurant leaves a positive impression.

    Sometimes, however, what appears to be decent if unexceptional service may prevent a diner from walking away from a meal with an accurate sense of what that particular establishment is capable of.

    Such was the case with a sojourn to Ayothaya, a new "authentic" Thai place in the Dr. Phillips area. Given the level of competition among restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road, I could be forgiven for expecting Ayothaya to be more than just another place to grab some mussaman curry. Though the teak-heavy décor was nice, the small dining room was cramped and possessed of none of the sumptuous and spacious elegance of Thai Thani, a nearby restaurant that hasn't let their strip-mall location prevent the proprietors from creating a relaxed oasis.

    But, real estate being what it is, this is the sort of thing I'd be willing to forgive. Except that within this small space, the owners have made the bizarre decision to install two unavoidable televisions on the premises … tuned to Central Florida News 13, no less. Here's a headline: Some people like to go out to dinner and not be distracted by nine-minute news cycles. (For the record, this trend of multiple televisions in supposedly "upscale" restaurants is a sin against nature. You run an Applebee's or a barbecue joint? Fine. Anywhere else, it's inexcusable.)

    Still, a too-cozy space, visually polluted by television, can be redeemed by a skillful kitchen. Perhaps one day I'll find out if Ayothaya has one. You see, our server forgot to tell us about the specials. Under some circumstances, such an omission would be a minor mistake – we'd miss the fish of the day or the chef's best effort to put an inventive spin on overstocked ingredients. And given the seemingly vast selection on Ayothaya's misspelling-riddled menu – a none-too-shabby 45 items – it didn't even occur to us to ask about the specials. A closer examination of the menu, however, revealed it to be filled with the standard dishes found in so many Thai restaurants, with a few surprises here and there. Somehow, it was both overwhelming and uninspiring, and our server didn't provide much assistance in navigating us through it.

    Eventually, our party of four settled on a combination of "the usual" and the unexpected. A sampler plate ($12.95) of six of Ayothaya's appetizers – chicken satay, spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, Thai crab cake, fried wontons and fried shrimp rolls – was wholly average. (The dumplings came out cold, adding to the disappointment.) Tom kha gai soup ($5.95) was the opposite of cold, as it was invigoratingly spiced and amply filled with massive shrimp, rather than the hide-and-seek variety many Thai places use. The wonton soup ($4.95) wasn't nearly as nuclear but was equally substantial, with sizable chicken- and shrimp-filled dumplings.

    Continuing with "the usual," we ordered a red curry with chicken ($12.95) and a shrimp and broccoli in oyster sauce ($12.95). Neither held any surprises, positive or negative. The red curry was flavorful and not overpoweringly spicy, while the oyster sauce had the right kind of salty zing. Moving out of familiar territory, it was on to a deliciously greasy, vegetable-heavy and appropriately named "spicy duck" ($14.95) and, the tour de force, a whole red snapper, fried and topped with a salsa-like concoction of red onions, basil, chilis, garlic and an excellent, spicy red sauce. Called pla chom suan, it wound up being a bit pricey ($28.95/market price), difficult to plate and too large for one person, but none of those things mattered in the slightest while we were greedily stuffing our gullets. The super-crispy exterior provided that perfectly pleasing contrast with the soft, flaky flesh, and the fresh spiciness of the topping made the dish that much more pleasingly complex.

    The entire latter part of Ayothaya's menu is comprised of 10 such "creations," all but one of which are centered around fresh fish. These dishes are rather costly, but they are the closest the restaurant gets to breaking out of the standard fare found at so many other Thai restaurants. Or so we thought.

    On our way out the door, I noticed a lengthy specials board that told me what might have been. This list of exciting-sounding seafood dishes (most notably a lobster curry) and other impressive concoctions were a drag to run across at the meal's end. Potentially, here was the exceptional food that would make the obnoxious televisions worth putting up with; here were the chef's personal signatures that would make what seemed like a run-of-the-mill restaurant the kind you tell friends about. And it was too late to try any of them.

    So that, folks, is why good service is so important.

    I'm sure Emeril Lagasse is a nice guy, a boy from small-town Fall River, Mass., who made it good in the food trade. People certainly seem to like him. But from the looks of his second restaurant at Universal Orlando, I get the feeling he has marble fountains and paintings on black velvet in his house.

    The gourmet production is called Tchoup Chop (pronounced "chop chop" and named after Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, home to Emeril's flagship), serving an oddly Polynesian/Thai/Hawaiian fare in the Royal Pacific Resort, which has an Indonesian theme. Giant glass-flower-blossom chandeliers and a central lily pond dominate the wicker and stone room, and each element is impressive by itself but jarring all together.

    The gourmet production is called Tchoup Chop (pronounced "chop chop" and named after Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, home to Emeril's flagship), serving an oddly Polynesian/Thai/Hawaiian fare in the Royal Pacific Resort, which has an Indonesian theme. Giant glass-flower-blossom chandeliers and a central lily pond dominate the wicker and stone room, and each element is impressive by itself but jarring all together.

    Much is made of the cocktail menu, which takes up more room than the entrees, but a Bloody Mary with wasabi, soy sauce and sake somehow didn't appeal to me. The dumpling box ($7) was a better choice, steamed dim sum filled with a heavy pork-and-ginger mixture. They were similar to the "pot stickers" ($8), pan-fried shrimp dumplings with dipping sauce. Both were good, but not much different from the acres of dumplings elsewhere.

    Much is made of the cocktail menu, which takes up more room than the entrees, but a Bloody Mary with wasabi, soy sauce and sake somehow didn't appeal to me. The dumpling box ($7) was a better choice, steamed dim sum filled with a heavy pork-and-ginger mixture. They were similar to the "pot stickers" ($8), pan-fried shrimp dumplings with dipping sauce. Both were good, but not much different from the acres of dumplings elsewhere.

    The "creative clay pot of the day" ($18), offering firm fish (salmon on this night) with vegetables in a deep fish broth and overcooked rice, was an interesting dish but not particularly creative. A shame, since the kitchen is capable of glory. It's wonderful to discover new flavors, and the Kona-glazed duck ($22) was an outrageous combination of rich duck breast coated in caramelized coffee.

    The "creative clay pot of the day" ($18), offering firm fish (salmon on this night) with vegetables in a deep fish broth and overcooked rice, was an interesting dish but not particularly creative. A shame, since the kitchen is capable of glory. It's wonderful to discover new flavors, and the Kona-glazed duck ($22) was an outrageous combination of rich duck breast coated in caramelized coffee.

    The tuna salad ($9) consisted of ribbons of seared tuna served with sprouts and crisp cucumber in a vinegar/mustard sauce (good with the vegetables but overpowering the excellent fish) and garnished with a pansy blossom Ð and an aphid. I mention this bug incident not to demean the staff (it was a fresh flower and a tiny bug, these things happen), but to emphasize that the service, from manager down, has a long way to go. No apology was tendered, no visit by the wandering "suit"; the price of the salad was deducted from the bill almost as an afterthought.

    The tuna salad ($9) consisted of ribbons of seared tuna served with sprouts and crisp cucumber in a vinegar/mustard sauce (good with the vegetables but overpowering the excellent fish) and garnished with a pansy blossom Ð and an aphid. I mention this bug incident not to demean the staff (it was a fresh flower and a tiny bug, these things happen), but to emphasize that the service, from manager down, has a long way to go. No apology was tendered, no visit by the wandering "suit"; the price of the salad was deducted from the bill almost as an afterthought.

    There's an air of forced urgency in the constant swarming of waiters, water pourers and plate clearers, so conversation has to be done in bursts, as someone unnervingly appears at your elbow every few minutes to ask, "How is your entree? More water? Anything else?," even to the point of reading the menu to you. There are all the trappings of good service without the finesse. The Emeril folks aren't new to the restaurant trade, they should have learned something about service by now.

    There's an air of forced urgency in the constant swarming of waiters, water pourers and plate clearers, so conversation has to be done in bursts, as someone unnervingly appears at your elbow every few minutes to ask, "How is your entree? More water? Anything else?," even to the point of reading the menu to you. There are all the trappings of good service without the finesse. The Emeril folks aren't new to the restaurant trade, they should have learned something about service by now.

    Tchoup Chop puts on a good show, but it'll be a long journey until they're impressive.

    While there is a host -- nay, horde -- of sushi bars within walking distance of Lake Eola, we haven't seen very much Thai food downtown, which is odd considering how much pad Thai can be found elsewhere.

    One of the places known for that sweet, sticky rice-noodle dish is Thai Cuisine on Edgewater Drive. This was where my partner and I had our first chicken sate and spring rolls together, and I remember the food cooked by its original owners (since changed) quite fondly. Those owners, it turns out, were the parents of the young people who opened Sawadee Thai on Kirkman in 2001, a restaurant I quite liked. Now those (still) young folks, lead by Odum Ketsatha and his wife, Kanjana, have moved to Pine Street and brought the flavors of Siam to the old Le Provence building in the form of Napasorn Thai.

    One of the places known for that sweet, sticky rice-noodle dish is Thai Cuisine on Edgewater Drive. This was where my partner and I had our first chicken sate and spring rolls together, and I remember the food cooked by its original owners (since changed) quite fondly. Those owners, it turns out, were the parents of the young people who opened Sawadee Thai on Kirkman in 2001, a restaurant I quite liked. Now those (still) young folks, lead by Odum Ketsatha and his wife, Kanjana, have moved to Pine Street and brought the flavors of Siam to the old Le Provence building in the form of Napasorn Thai.

    Not much has been changed inside, aside from a new color scheme for the two-level room, a new bar and a complete overhaul of the kitchen, run by Ketsatha's Uncle Damri. ("Thai cooking is very different from French," Uncle Damri tells me.) The menu isn't 100 percent Thai, with smatterings of Chinese (a dark-brothed and savory wonton soup with plump dumplings for $3.50), Japanese gyoza and a good but not stellar sushi menu.

    Not much has been changed inside, aside from a new color scheme for the two-level room, a new bar and a complete overhaul of the kitchen, run by Ketsatha's Uncle Damri. ("Thai cooking is very different from French," Uncle Damri tells me.) The menu isn't 100 percent Thai, with smatterings of Chinese (a dark-brothed and savory wonton soup with plump dumplings for $3.50), Japanese gyoza and a good but not stellar sushi menu.

    Appetizers are both authentic and jazzed-up. The crispy spring rolls ($3.95) are stuffed with ground chicken and a coleslaw-like shredding of vegetables, both crisp and mellow. The "cheese roll crisp," on the other hand ($3.95), finds cream cheese and tiny bits of shrimp inside the wrap, and I'm still not sure if I liked it or not, but it's different. Most traditional is "sate gai" ($5.95), rich, peanut-sauced chicken slices on a skewer.

    Appetizers are both authentic and jazzed-up. The crispy spring rolls ($3.95) are stuffed with ground chicken and a coleslaw-like shredding of vegetables, both crisp and mellow. The "cheese roll crisp," on the other hand ($3.95), finds cream cheese and tiny bits of shrimp inside the wrap, and I'm still not sure if I liked it or not, but it's different. Most traditional is "sate gai" ($5.95), rich, peanut-sauced chicken slices on a skewer.

    My favorite carryover from the Sawadee days is the basil duck dish ($15.95), a savory combination of dark duck meat and spinach-like basil leaves that now features mushrooms and peppers added to the lime-and-basil flavored sauce. Also a treat is "garlic and pepper meat" ($9.95), your choice of beef or chicken ($2 more for seafood) with a tang of spicy garlic, spicier black pepper and even spicier sauce that sneaks up on you until the sweat is pouring. I wasn't as impressed with the "madsa mahn" curry ($10.95), a dish from Islamic south Thailand that is usually loaded with potatoes which here seemed to have cooked down to a thick paste. Still, the combination of roasted peanuts and tender chicken was enjoyable.

    My favorite carryover from the Sawadee days is the basil duck dish ($15.95), a savory combination of dark duck meat and spinach-like basil leaves that now features mushrooms and peppers added to the lime-and-basil flavored sauce. Also a treat is "garlic and pepper meat" ($9.95), your choice of beef or chicken ($2 more for seafood) with a tang of spicy garlic, spicier black pepper and even spicier sauce that sneaks up on you until the sweat is pouring. I wasn't as impressed with the "madsa mahn" curry ($10.95), a dish from Islamic south Thailand that is usually loaded with potatoes which here seemed to have cooked down to a thick paste. Still, the combination of roasted peanuts and tender chicken was enjoyable.

    Napasorn is both a welcome addition to the downtown food scene and a chance to eat Uncle Damri's great cooking a lot closer to home.

    Recently, I heard these startling words: "The future of American food lies in the strip mall." These words did not escape from the mouth of a Midwestern tourist on a Disney vacation, nor a fast-food junkie or any other kind of junkie. They are the opinion of Tyler Cowen, a well-respected economist and dining critic. The strip mall? I have always been a little, well, snotty about strip malls. But there was Cowen, all dressed up in a suit and tie in front of 2,000 food professionals, uttering those 10 words. Could he be right? I examined my own eating habits and saw the light. Many of my meals, actually most of them, are from places in worn-out strip malls. When I want good food at a good value, I look to the strip mall: Little Saigon, Garibaldi's, Pio Pio, O'Boys, Memories of India.

    I have a new place to add to my strip-mall list: Red Bamboo Thai Restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. There is nothing like food that can be comforting and exotic at the same time. I crave Thai on nights when I want coziness or I'm sniffly or just want to go out alone with a good book. Red Bamboo fulfilled all of my culinary needs. Not only was the food perfectly delicious, but the atmosphere was easy and casual. It's situated in one of those run-down plazas on Kirkman Road and International Drive that's full of restaurants. Be prepared to maneuver in and out of the parking lot, going through a maze of U-turns and signage.

    I have a new place to add to my strip-mall list: Red Bamboo Thai Restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. There is nothing like food that can be comforting and exotic at the same time. I crave Thai on nights when I want coziness or I'm sniffly or just want to go out alone with a good book. Red Bamboo fulfilled all of my culinary needs. Not only was the food perfectly delicious, but the atmosphere was easy and casual. It's situated in one of those run-down plazas on Kirkman Road and International Drive that's full of restaurants. Be prepared to maneuver in and out of the parking lot, going through a maze of U-turns and signage.

    Red Bamboo belongs to Nikki Pantade, a close relative of someone over at Thai House. She worked at Thai House for a while, until they encouraged her to open a place of her own. She claims her restaurant is completely different from Thai House, but I saw telltale signs of her previous experience there in the fastidious service and impeccable food. Red Bamboo looks different than most strip-mall Thai restaurants. For one thing, it is enormous. Instead of being cheaply dressed or plagued with leftover-decoration syndrome, it is draped with delightful pieces here and there in an otherwise austere space.

    Red Bamboo belongs to Nikki Pantade, a close relative of someone over at Thai House. She worked at Thai House for a while, until they encouraged her to open a place of her own. She claims her restaurant is completely different from Thai House, but I saw telltale signs of her previous experience there in the fastidious service and impeccable food. Red Bamboo looks different than most strip-mall Thai restaurants. For one thing, it is enormous. Instead of being cheaply dressed or plagued with leftover-decoration syndrome, it is draped with delightful pieces here and there in an otherwise austere space.

    The food is relatively standard. It's not exceptional, but it is very, very good. Nikki suggested some dishes, such as "mango fish" (market price), that are "real Thai." We tried our standbys as a benchmark and found them all to meet our standards. We started with nam sod ($9.95), a salad of minced pork, ginger, shallots, lime juice and cashews. Not only was the dish delicious, but it came out as spicy as we'd ordered it. The tom kha ($3.95), although not the best I've tried, was still tasty enough that I finished every last spoonful of the fragrant coconut and lime-based soup. The papaya salad ($6.95), laden with a sweet and delicately acidic sauce, was excellent. For my entree, I got the phad Thai ($6.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner). It was a satisfying meal - unpretentious and unassuming, yet winning and tasty.

    The food is relatively standard. It's not exceptional, but it is very, very good. Nikki suggested some dishes, such as "mango fish" (market price), that are "real Thai." We tried our standbys as a benchmark and found them all to meet our standards. We started with nam sod ($9.95), a salad of minced pork, ginger, shallots, lime juice and cashews. Not only was the dish delicious, but it came out as spicy as we'd ordered it. The tom kha ($3.95), although not the best I've tried, was still tasty enough that I finished every last spoonful of the fragrant coconut and lime-based soup. The papaya salad ($6.95), laden with a sweet and delicately acidic sauce, was excellent. For my entree, I got the phad Thai ($6.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner). It was a satisfying meal - unpretentious and unassuming, yet winning and tasty.

    When ordering in a Thai restaurant, you're likely to be asked, "Do you like spicy?" My husband does like spicy, and I often catch him on the verge of tears at the end of a Thai meal. He had this to say about his red curry with beef ($10.95). "Their food is just spicy enough to get the juices flowing, but not so spicy that it ruins my taste buds." The cooks at Red Bamboo are masterful with spice - they don't turn the threshold for heat into a pissing contest.

    When ordering in a Thai restaurant, you're likely to be asked, "Do you like spicy?" My husband does like spicy, and I often catch him on the verge of tears at the end of a Thai meal. He had this to say about his red curry with beef ($10.95). "Their food is just spicy enough to get the juices flowing, but not so spicy that it ruins my taste buds." The cooks at Red Bamboo are masterful with spice - they don't turn the threshold for heat into a pissing contest.

    Of particular note is Red Bamboo's wine list. At many Thai restaurants, wine drinkers are subjected to something that tastes like Kool-Aid mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was obvious that there was some careful thought put into the wine choices, selecting the ones that bring out the best in Thai food. For instance, Merlot is too strongly tannic for spicy food; instead, Red Bamboo offers Beaujolais. As for the white-wine selection, I would go back just to enjoy another glass of spicy Gewürztraminer or a refreshing Riesling with my meal.

    Of particular note is Red Bamboo's wine list. At many Thai restaurants, wine drinkers are subjected to something that tastes like Kool-Aid mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was obvious that there was some careful thought put into the wine choices, selecting the ones that bring out the best in Thai food. For instance, Merlot is too strongly tannic for spicy food; instead, Red Bamboo offers Beaujolais. As for the white-wine selection, I would go back just to enjoy another glass of spicy Gewürztraminer or a refreshing Riesling with my meal.

    Maybe restaurants like Red Bamboo are the future of American dining - enjoyable everyday food at everyday prices, a great wine list and a comfortable atmosphere. That's enough to keep me coming back, strip mall or not.

    Once upon a time, indulging in Thai cuisine was an exotic foray into the unknown, but now Thai restaurants can be found on just about every main drag in town. What's next? McThai drive-throughs with satay nuggets and curry value-meals?

    drive-throughs with satay nuggets and curry value-meals?

    Thankfully, much more originality and attention to detail are in evidence at Royal Thai, which opened in 1997, making it an early entry in the Thai trend. When we visited shortly after the restaurant opened, near the busy crossroads of Semoran Boulevard and Colonial Drive, we found some aspects of the menu and service lacking.

    Thankfully, much more originality and attention to detail are in evidence at Royal Thai, which opened in 1997, making it an early entry in the Thai trend. When we visited shortly after the restaurant opened, near the busy crossroads of Semoran Boulevard and Colonial Drive, we found some aspects of the menu and service lacking.

    But Royal Thai has only improved with age. Two recent revisits offered a delicious presentation of the prowess of chef Jintana Bant, who hails from northern Thailand. Service was more efficient, too -- we were in and out within an hour.

    But Royal Thai has only improved with age. Two recent revisits offered a delicious presentation of the prowess of chef Jintana Bant, who hails from northern Thailand. Service was more efficient, too -- we were in and out within an hour.

    The simple dish param ($8.95) was handled with such a deft touch that it caught us off guard. The traditional stew of meat (which we declined in lieu of tofu) and spinach is nothing too fancy. But then we spooned some of the light peanut sauce over the pan-seared tofu cubes and vegetables, and took a taste. The hot, spicy flavors revealed themselves quietly and successively, like the trail of glitter in the aftermath of fireworks. It was at that moment we knew we were in the hands of a pro.

    The simple dish param ($8.95) was handled with such a deft touch that it caught us off guard. The traditional stew of meat (which we declined in lieu of tofu) and spinach is nothing too fancy. But then we spooned some of the light peanut sauce over the pan-seared tofu cubes and vegetables, and took a taste. The hot, spicy flavors revealed themselves quietly and successively, like the trail of glitter in the aftermath of fireworks. It was at that moment we knew we were in the hands of a pro.

    We had a more delayed reaction to the formidable "Thai beef stew" ($8.95), which is prepared in a red curry paste, backed up by a chorus of onions, peanuts and potatoes. Halfway into it, we realized we had crossed into extremely hot territory. We set this dish aside to be later enjoyed a few bites at a time and moved on to the next delight.

    We had a more delayed reaction to the formidable "Thai beef stew" ($8.95), which is prepared in a red curry paste, backed up by a chorus of onions, peanuts and potatoes. Halfway into it, we realized we had crossed into extremely hot territory. We set this dish aside to be later enjoyed a few bites at a time and moved on to the next delight.

    The "golden squid" ($5.95) was a refreshing antidote; these were jumbo rings of tender, chewy meat flash-fried into golden fritters. Left alone, they were fine, but when the appetizers were lightly whisked into a dish of chili-plum sauce -- as light and sweet as a glass of wine -- the taste was much more intriguing.

    The "golden squid" ($5.95) was a refreshing antidote; these were jumbo rings of tender, chewy meat flash-fried into golden fritters. Left alone, they were fine, but when the appetizers were lightly whisked into a dish of chili-plum sauce -- as light and sweet as a glass of wine -- the taste was much more intriguing.

    Our only disappointment was the mee grob ($4.95), which could have used more than four shrimp. Otherwise, it was an able rendition of crispy rice noodles sautéed in a sweet-and-sour sauce, garnished with bean sprouts.

    Our only disappointment was the mee grob ($4.95), which could have used more than four shrimp. Otherwise, it was an able rendition of crispy rice noodles sautéed in a sweet-and-sour sauce, garnished with bean sprouts.

    On two visits, we never saw more than a dozen customers in the dining area, which resembles a cool, dimly lit garden cottage. But they do a busy takeout business here. If Royal Thai is still uncharted territory, be assured that two years after opening, it is a worthy destination for sophisticated Thai classics.

    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.

    Perhaps it was Asian inspiration, or maybe the work of skilled restaurateurs. But on a busy Friday night, when the house was nearly full at Tasty Thai Cuisine, the atmosphere remained genteel and serene, orderly and focused. The neighborhood secret must be getting out: Something special is going on in the kitchen here.

    The minimal interior of pale walls and bamboo furniture is a perfect foil for exploring a complex menu; flavors of the Far East come together in warm, sweet, surprising ways at Tasty Thai. Grilled, roasted and stir-fried meats merge with combinations of lemon grass, curry, chiles, cilantro, ginger and coconut milk. The results include dishes like namprik pao seafood ($10.95), an array of calamari, shrimp, mussels and scallops stir-fried with garlic, carrots, onions and bell peppers, served with roast pepper sauce. And salads, such as yum woon sen ($6.95), clear noodles, shrimp and ground pork, tossed with red onion, scallions and cilantro in a spicy dressing.

    The minimal interior of pale walls and bamboo furniture is a perfect foil for exploring a complex menu; flavors of the Far East come together in warm, sweet, surprising ways at Tasty Thai. Grilled, roasted and stir-fried meats merge with combinations of lemon grass, curry, chiles, cilantro, ginger and coconut milk. The results include dishes like namprik pao seafood ($10.95), an array of calamari, shrimp, mussels and scallops stir-fried with garlic, carrots, onions and bell peppers, served with roast pepper sauce. And salads, such as yum woon sen ($6.95), clear noodles, shrimp and ground pork, tossed with red onion, scallions and cilantro in a spicy dressing.

    On my first visit I sampled the "Tasty combination" ($9.95), more than a dozen fried delicacies. Goon sa-rong was visually intriguing: skewered shrimp wrapped with ground pork and wonton skins, twirled with egg noodles, then deep-fried so the noodles were frozen into place -- kind of like rings around a planet. Goon ka-borg and fried wonton were dumplings stuffed with shrimp and ground pork, and both were very good. There also were simple, fried shrimp, enhanced by a mild sweet-and-sour sauce.

    On my first visit I sampled the "Tasty combination" ($9.95), more than a dozen fried delicacies. Goon sa-rong was visually intriguing: skewered shrimp wrapped with ground pork and wonton skins, twirled with egg noodles, then deep-fried so the noodles were frozen into place -- kind of like rings around a planet. Goon ka-borg and fried wonton were dumplings stuffed with shrimp and ground pork, and both were very good. There also were simple, fried shrimp, enhanced by a mild sweet-and-sour sauce.

    Cucumber salad ($1.50) was outstanding mainly because of the fine, fruity vinaigrette dressing that bathed the crisp chopped cucumbers, bright green scallions, deep red tomatoes and onions. And satay ($3.95) made a fine appetizer, with four skewers of pork strips marinated in fresh coconut milk and spices, then char-grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce.

    Cucumber salad ($1.50) was outstanding mainly because of the fine, fruity vinaigrette dressing that bathed the crisp chopped cucumbers, bright green scallions, deep red tomatoes and onions. And satay ($3.95) made a fine appetizer, with four skewers of pork strips marinated in fresh coconut milk and spices, then char-grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce.

    On another visit I had gaeng kaew warn ($6.95), a thick, green curry gravy blended with chicken, peppers, tender bamboo shoots and basil leaves. Ladled over steamed white rice, it created a textured sensation on two levels: the spice intensity and the heat quotient.

    On another visit I had gaeng kaew warn ($6.95), a thick, green curry gravy blended with chicken, peppers, tender bamboo shoots and basil leaves. Ladled over steamed white rice, it created a textured sensation on two levels: the spice intensity and the heat quotient.

    Service was gracious and thoughtful. (On one rainy visit, hostesses sought out departing customers to ask if they needed umbrellas for the walk back to their cars.) Even after I left the tip on my table, I walked away with the impression that it was I who had been thanked.

    On our way to Oviedo for some culinary adventuring, we drove down roads forged through what was formerly a canopy of pine trees. Instead of our usual downtown Thai favorites, we were headed to a different neighborhood to give Thai Basil a try. Imagine our shock when we walked in the door and found a familiar face.

    Irene, who had waited on us often at Thai House, greeted us with her ever-present smile. Remembering that the last Thai place I reviewed, Red Bamboo on Kirkman Road, was also connected to Thai House, I started wondering if maybe there is a Thai-restaurant conspiracy operating here in Orlando. But one thing is for sure, this "family" makes great food.

    The dining room was altogether more stylish than the ones in our neighborhood. The rich purple- and avocado-colored walls struck a statement; sleek design elements such as silver-patterned ceiling tiles, mixed with warm, frivolous pieces, like miniature watercolors hung from gossamer ribbons with opulent bows. Nine modernist, cubed wall-hangings clung to the back wall trying to look cosmopolitan. The way it was put together so tastefully – in that Pottery Barn kind of way – reminded me that we were in the suburbs.

    Irene opened Thai Basil seven months ago, and chose Winter Springs because she wanted to carve out new territory in the Thai restaurant scene without competing with her former employers. She brought along some co-workers from Thai House, and although most were welcoming and accommodating, none were as friendly as Irene.

    We started our meal with smoky-sweet Thai iced tea, the culinary version of tasty pipe tobacco. I also ordered a glass of tropical fruit juice, a blend of mango, papaya and carrot, because a waiter had breezed past with one moments before.

    The green papaya salad ($8.95) was a refreshing appetizer whose flavors – lime juice, chilis, papaya and tomatoes – came together as something wholly different than merely the sum of its parts. The pad Thai ($8.95) was also very good – nicely savory, with a hint of sweetness hovering over the acidic twist of lime squeezed in at the last minute. And, something else I appreciate, the pad Thai wasn't overly eggy and but was more than a little saucy.

    The tom kha gai soup ($3.50), a coconut-milk soup with chicken, was worthy but a little watery. Plentiful onions and mushrooms enhanced the broth and gave texture. Small cilantro leaves floated on the top.

    A dish that didn't fare as well was the Panang curry. My husband described it as "spicy enough to be interesting," but I thought it needed a heaping dose of salt. The choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu was superfluous, because although we ordered beef, there was hardly any in there. Instead, beautifully cooked vegetables – just-shy-of-crisp snow peas and bell peppers – filled the sauce.

    Winter Springs is lucky that Thai Basil has joined the arsenal of dining options in the area. I'll stick to my own neighborhood Thai restaurant, but strongly suggest that Winter Springers stick to theirs.

    The first Thai food I ever had in Orlando was at the Oriental Market on Edgewater Drive several years ago. It was mostly a specialty shop with huge bags of jasmine rice; those long, light-purple eggplants, and boxes of lotus root and galangal. There were things that even a sophisticated city boy such as myself was puzzled by, like sapota and Chinese matrimonial tea, makok and perilla leaves. And they had what is still my favorite -- cans of sweet gelatinous mutant coconut balls.

    Squeezed on one side of the room were a few tables where you could sit and have terrific pad thai, and spring rolls wrapped in transparent rice noodles. Apparently, the restaurant business was doing better than the grocery because -- not long after my introduction -- the market moved next door. The owners sold it to focus solely on serving the dishes of Thailand, a cuisine that is said to be 1,000 years older than Chinese food.

    Not much has changed since the restaurant took over; there is a panel of color around the room and a few pictures of Thailand on the walls. While everyone is pleasant, there are no waitresses dressed in mudmee sarongs to greet you: This is a place to sit down and eat. And since the restaurant changed hands in January, the dishes may be different than you've become familiar with, now leaning toward the flavors of Isan, in northeastern Thailand.

    Appetizers like som tam, a shredded papaya salad ($5.99), and gai yang, barbecued chicken in a chili sauce ($2.99), are very typical of this style, which tends to be casual and served quickly -- something of a Thai fast food. And fast it is. We ordered rice-noodle spring rolls ($1.99 for two) and pad thai ($5.99) for old times' sake, and they appeared before we could even get the cream stirred in our iced tea. The pad thai is drenched in lime, a little sweet and a little spicy -- very good.

    Entrees migrate from other parts of Thailand as well. There are more familiar central dishes, such as chicken or seafood pad kaprao -- stir-fried with basil leaves and green curries ($6.99-$7.99). You also can get hotter, potentially dangerous Southern fare, with a particularly good example being the musaman gai ($6.99), which literally means "Muslim curry" (an influence from Indonesia). It's a complicated mixture of chilis, garlic, lemon grass, peanut sauce and coconut milk that accomplishes the goal of Thai food -- bitter, sour, salty and sweet all at once.

    If you go to restaurants for the food and not the surroundings, try Thai Cuisine.

    Thai restaurants and restaurants serving Thai food are not an oddity in Orlando, and everyone seems to have their favorite. I must admit that I never counted Thai House on East Colonial as one of mine. But by moving two doors down, they've reinvented themselves and given me an excuse to take another look, and another taste.

    In its new digs next to Wendy's (a better example of yin and yang you won't find), the owners of Thai House have done a fine remodeling job, with varying shades and textures of woods surrounding the room, along with tables and several platform booths that give you the feeling of sitting on the floor without having to crouch down. Service is fast and attentive, and people are courteous and smile, even to the diner at another table who was (briefly) bellowing into his cell phone when I was there.

    This isn't some recombinant Viet-Thai, sushi-Thai, nouveau-Asian amalgam cuisine. The items on Thai House's extensive menu are authentic, from the mee krop appetizer ($5.95) -- sticky, crisp rice noodles with a sweet/spicy tamarind sauce and shrimp -- to the strong herbal iced tea with half-and-half.

    My test of good Thai food is always tom kha gai, coconut chicken soup ($2.95). While Thai House's recipe was slightly too thin and not coconutty enough for my tastes, the soup had a lovely lime aroma, and the preparation probably saved me a few unneeded grams of fat.

    Some names on the menu could be rethought, like "shipwrecked" ($12.95), a spicy baked dish of squid, shrimp and crab with bean threads. One dish from the "house special" page had the unfortunate name of "Smokey and the Bandit" ($11.95), which caused me to pause. Nonetheless, I was smart enough to overlook the name and order it; it's a small tureen of smoked shrimp with thin glass noodles, cross-sections of carrot and broccoli and a fish-sauce base, with so much chili and ginger that the aftertaste actually feels cold in your mouth. It's a perfect match with the ubiquitous sticky rice; ask for extra.

    Familiar dishes are well represented, like a decent green curry of chicken, beef or pork ($8.95), and a truly wonderful phad thai ($7.95), stir-fried noodles and either chicken or shrimp, all tangy with lime juice and lemon leaves.

    Standard entrees won't cost you more than $12.95, with certain "market-priced" fish dishes, such as a whole steamed red snapper, that can be slightly higher. But the servings are generous enough that any order is a bargain.

    Objective journalism be damned; The Thai Place is a great restaurant. Not perhaps in the same way that Ducasse in New York or Le Cinq in Paris is great, but if consistently good food and service is your earmark of greatness, then let's throw the dictionary away and go eat.

    It's difficult to find any place, restaurant or otherwise, that can live up to the memories of your last visit, and that's why it's always a pleasure to sit at one of the tables in the recently expanded shopping-center location, redecorated with dark walls and glittery Thai artwork. The food is always as good as you remember, and the addition of more space only means you'll have a better chance of being seated.

    It's difficult to find any place, restaurant or otherwise, that can live up to the memories of your last visit, and that's why it's always a pleasure to sit at one of the tables in the recently expanded shopping-center location, redecorated with dark walls and glittery Thai artwork. The food is always as good as you remember, and the addition of more space only means you'll have a better chance of being seated.

    Before you even look at the menu, order the chicken coconut soup (tom kha gai, $2.95). Sit for a moment with the bowl before you, inhale the ginger and lemongrass aroma, admire the mushrooms and strips of chicken breaking the surface like islands in a calm, spicy sea. Be careful -- lemongrass isn't the most edible seasoning, but avoiding the green segments only allows you to slow down and enjoy the flavor.

    Before you even look at the menu, order the chicken coconut soup (tom kha gai, $2.95). Sit for a moment with the bowl before you, inhale the ginger and lemongrass aroma, admire the mushrooms and strips of chicken breaking the surface like islands in a calm, spicy sea. Be careful -- lemongrass isn't the most edible seasoning, but avoiding the green segments only allows you to slow down and enjoy the flavor.

    And flavor is what Thai Place is all about. Whether it's nam sod ($5.95), a ground chicken and peanut salad spiced with ginger and lime or the lightly battered vegetable tempura with a sweet hot sauce ($4.95), the appetizer selections prepare your tongue for several combinations of main courses.

    And flavor is what Thai Place is all about. Whether it's nam sod ($5.95), a ground chicken and peanut salad spiced with ginger and lime or the lightly battered vegetable tempura with a sweet hot sauce ($4.95), the appetizer selections prepare your tongue for several combinations of main courses.

    In a way, entrées at Thai Place remind me of gourmet night at Fawlty Towers, where Basil Fawlty served duck with orange, duck with cherry, or "duck surprise" (with orange and cherry). To your order of chicken, seafood, beef or pork is added a choice of sauces; variations on curries red, green or yellow, sweet chili, ginger or hot basil. All are good choices, and some -- like the green curry, with a mellow slow heat unlike Indian curry's sudden attack -- will make you sit back and smile. Entrees run between $8.95 and $10.95, with house specials like "Siamese shrimp" slightly higher. If the pad thai noodles ($7.95) had a little more lime, they'd be the best in town. Vegetarians can order fresh veggie combinations with any of those marvelous sauces.

    sauces.

    A salad, resplendent with peanut dressing, will appear before you almost as you're sitting down. Boon, the owner, never forgets a face or what is usually ordered to stuff in it, and it's rarely long between offers of more sticky rice or drinks.

    A salad, resplendent with peanut dressing, will appear before you almost as you're sitting down. Boon, the owner, never forgets a face or what is usually ordered to stuff in it, and it's rarely long between offers of more sticky rice or drinks.

    Thai Place is a restaurant you'll bring guests to, always with the fear that it'll become too popular if you tell too many people. Don't worry, it's a big plaza, they can always spread out again.

    After driving around the massive and intensely confusing Waterford Town Center for 15 minutes (I was the one muttering "This place is insane" repeatedly), I finally found the little storefront restaurant called Thai Singha. If you're facing the entrance to the center from the road, go as far left as you can to find it. I'm emphasizing the location because you will want to make the trip down the Alafaya Trail and sample these Siamese splendors.

    Somboon Pornmukda owns Thai Singha, along with her husband, Chef Manoch. "We had four restaurants in Philadelphia," she said, "starting -- how old is my daughter? -- 13 years ago." Their travels from Thailand to Orlando, by way of Mexico, Europe and the City of Brotherly Love, influences the menu in delightful ways.

    Somboon Pornmukda owns Thai Singha, along with her husband, Chef Manoch. "We had four restaurants in Philadelphia," she said, "starting -- how old is my daughter? -- 13 years ago." Their travels from Thailand to Orlando, by way of Mexico, Europe and the City of Brotherly Love, influences the menu in delightful ways.

    "Thai people create new dishes," Somboon said, citing as example the rack of lamb ($16.95), grilled with shiitake mushrooms and a French-inspired sauce of green peppercorns, cognac and red curry. I don't think venison is indigenous to Thailand, yet here it appears as sumptuous slices sautéed with sweet basil, hot chili paste and mushrooms ($16.95) for an intriguing combination of dark and hot tastes.

    "Thai people create new dishes," Somboon said, citing as example the rack of lamb ($16.95), grilled with shiitake mushrooms and a French-inspired sauce of green peppercorns, cognac and red curry. I don't think venison is indigenous to Thailand, yet here it appears as sumptuous slices sautéed with sweet basil, hot chili paste and mushrooms ($16.95) for an intriguing combination of dark and hot tastes.

    Ever adaptive, Thai Singha takes a Florida note by cooking an alligator curry with eggplant ($16.95). The gator was already sold out when I visited, but my second choice, "triple flavor duck," ($13.95) was a hit, an enormous serving of crisp-skinned duck in a sweet and mellow chili-garlic-tamarind sauce. Dishes come in five degrees of heat, and even my "level 3" peeled a layer from my tongue, and I mean that in a good way.

    Ever adaptive, Thai Singha takes a Florida note by cooking an alligator curry with eggplant ($16.95). The gator was already sold out when I visited, but my second choice, "triple flavor duck," ($13.95) was a hit, an enormous serving of crisp-skinned duck in a sweet and mellow chili-garlic-tamarind sauce. Dishes come in five degrees of heat, and even my "level 3" peeled a layer from my tongue, and I mean that in a good way.

    The seafood is lovely. The simple lemon grass and shrimp soup ($3.50) has layers of flavors coming from firm shrimp, sharp lime leaves and barely cooked mushrooms -- so much so that time is needed to savor them all.

    The seafood is lovely. The simple lemon grass and shrimp soup ($3.50) has layers of flavors coming from firm shrimp, sharp lime leaves and barely cooked mushrooms -- so much so that time is needed to savor them all.

    A meal can be made from the steamed mussel appetizer ($6.95), such is the size of the serving and the deep fish and herb flavor of the broth ($6.95). The soft-shell crab special (from frozen crab when it's out of season, but fresh during the summer) merged savory crustacean with angel-hair pasta in a velvety red curry sauce and green peppers.

    A meal can be made from the steamed mussel appetizer ($6.95), such is the size of the serving and the deep fish and herb flavor of the broth ($6.95). The soft-shell crab special (from frozen crab when it's out of season, but fresh during the summer) merged savory crustacean with angel-hair pasta in a velvety red curry sauce and green peppers.

    For a small place, they take big strides for excellence. Somboon told me that the familiar pad Thai noodle dish is typically made to order, a chef throwing fish sauce, sugar and spices on as the sauce. Here, the sauce is simmered for days, for a taste so complex and intense that it's like discovering the dish all over again ($9.95).

    For a small place, they take big strides for excellence. Somboon told me that the familiar pad Thai noodle dish is typically made to order, a chef throwing fish sauce, sugar and spices on as the sauce. Here, the sauce is simmered for days, for a taste so complex and intense that it's like discovering the dish all over again ($9.95).

    With simple surroundings and great ambitions, Thai Singha is a cozy family-run restaurant, a place that, if you're lucky enough to live close, should become a habit.

    Everyone has a favorite Thai restaurant. The town is full of them, some with bold and unique takes on the multicultural and ancient cuisine of Thailand, some sticking to basic noodle-and-chicken recipes.

    Like every other variety of cuisine, there are interpretations of Thai that range from great to OK to really bad. Fortunately, Thai Villa falls into the middle category -- it's OK, doing certain things well and others, just passably.

    Like every other variety of cuisine, there are interpretations of Thai that range from great to OK to really bad. Fortunately, Thai Villa falls into the middle category -- it's OK, doing certain things well and others, just passably.

    Open since February 2001, the location formerly housed the Garden Chinese restaurant. As with other eateries on that crowded stretch of road in east Winter Park (Red's Caribbean Market and Stefano's Trattoria, for example), if you don't keep your eyes open, you will miss it. The parking lot is only slightly larger than the 10-table dining area, which is artfully paneled in slightly rough wood. There's an electric piano just inside the door, but fortunately, they don't ask for an audition before you're seated.

    Open since February 2001, the location formerly housed the Garden Chinese restaurant. As with other eateries on that crowded stretch of road in east Winter Park (Red's Caribbean Market and Stefano's Trattoria, for example), if you don't keep your eyes open, you will miss it. The parking lot is only slightly larger than the 10-table dining area, which is artfully paneled in slightly rough wood. There's an electric piano just inside the door, but fortunately, they don't ask for an audition before you're seated.

    The menu doesn't hold many unusual items (it's amazing how familiar Orlandoans have become with Thai cuisine), although I was taken aback by the size of the stuffed chicken wings ($5.95). Stuffed with ground chicken and mildly sweet spices, then deep-fried, it's a pleasant dish, and there's a lot of it. Spinach and mushroom salad ($7.95) doesn't sound very Thai and it wasn't -- a bed of baby spinach leaves, sliced mushroom buttons and a sliced chicken fillet come doused in a peppery wine vinaigrette that I would have liked more without the dried bits of spices.

    The menu doesn't hold many unusual items (it's amazing how familiar Orlandoans have become with Thai cuisine), although I was taken aback by the size of the stuffed chicken wings ($5.95). Stuffed with ground chicken and mildly sweet spices, then deep-fried, it's a pleasant dish, and there's a lot of it. Spinach and mushroom salad ($7.95) doesn't sound very Thai and it wasn't -- a bed of baby spinach leaves, sliced mushroom buttons and a sliced chicken fillet come doused in a peppery wine vinaigrette that I would have liked more without the dried bits of spices.

    Noodle dishes, curries and "main" dishes are available with chicken, beef, pork, vegetable or tofu, and they're mostly variations of stir-fries, combinations of vegetables and different sauces. The ever-popular phad Thai was surprisingly bland, with neither lime flavor nor an abundance of peanuts to jazz it up ($7.95 to $8.95, depending on the meat).

    Noodle dishes, curries and "main" dishes are available with chicken, beef, pork, vegetable or tofu, and they're mostly variations of stir-fries, combinations of vegetables and different sauces. The ever-popular phad Thai was surprisingly bland, with neither lime flavor nor an abundance of peanuts to jazz it up ($7.95 to $8.95, depending on the meat).

    A house special "seafood delight" ($9.95), offering tender squid and scallops, was not terribly interesting. The marvelously sharp smell of fresh ginger gave me a moment of hope when the "ginger duck" arrived, but I've had tastier, and tenderer, duck ($11.95).

    A house special "seafood delight" ($9.95), offering tender squid and scallops, was not terribly interesting. The marvelously sharp smell of fresh ginger gave me a moment of hope when the "ginger duck" arrived, but I've had tastier, and tenderer, duck ($11.95).

    One dish I sampled did step out of the mediocre; "spicy eggplant" ($8.50 to $9.50 with choice of meat) was very nice, with firm chunks of eggplant complemented by a touch of chili and Thai basil.

    One dish I sampled did step out of the mediocre; "spicy eggplant" ($8.50 to $9.50 with choice of meat) was very nice, with firm chunks of eggplant complemented by a touch of chili and Thai basil.

    If you're hungry and in the neighborhood, you could do worse than this serviceable standby.

    There was nothing deliberate about Viet Garden's decision to offer a half Vietnamese, half Thai menu when it opened in 1994. It was merely a reflection of a kitchen team skilled in both cuisines. But as Thai food has taken off in popularity, Viet Garden has added even more Thai items and specials.

    The restaurant continues to do an equally good job with its Vietnamese and Thai creations. And the quietly understated atmosphere -- the tile floors are glossy and polished, and lacquered furniture is precisely arranged -- ensures the emphasis stays on the food.

    The restaurant continues to do an equally good job with its Vietnamese and Thai creations. And the quietly understated atmosphere -- the tile floors are glossy and polished, and lacquered furniture is precisely arranged -- ensures the emphasis stays on the food.

    We started off with nam sod ($5.95), a fantastic Thai appetizer that is much more delectable than it sounds. Ground chicken is jazzed up with ginger, scallions, chili and lime dressing, and it crunches with the texture of the whole peanuts. Served with a pot of peanut sauce, this appetizer was our favorite. Other items not to miss include the popular "pineapple fried rice" ($8.50), served in a scooped-out pineapple shell with chicken, shrimp, eggs and scallions.

    We started off with nam sod ($5.95), a fantastic Thai appetizer that is much more delectable than it sounds. Ground chicken is jazzed up with ginger, scallions, chili and lime dressing, and it crunches with the texture of the whole peanuts. Served with a pot of peanut sauce, this appetizer was our favorite. Other items not to miss include the popular "pineapple fried rice" ($8.50), served in a scooped-out pineapple shell with chicken, shrimp, eggs and scallions.

    Next we moved on to the "Viet combo appetizer" ($7.95), which featured a fabulous shrimp toast. Luscious shrimp paste was spread over toast points and broiled until sizzling. There also were crackling-crisp spring rolls, fresh garden rolls, beef tenders and fried wontons, all of which were appealing.

    Next we moved on to the "Viet combo appetizer" ($7.95), which featured a fabulous shrimp toast. Luscious shrimp paste was spread over toast points and broiled until sizzling. There also were crackling-crisp spring rolls, fresh garden rolls, beef tenders and fried wontons, all of which were appealing.

    We also liked fine rice vermicelli topped with grilled pork ($6.50). The bed of pure white rice noodles was properly sticky, and the pork strips were flawlessly tender. The dish was even better enjoyed with a sprinkling of crushed nuts, with each forkful dabbed into plummy hoisin sauce.

    We also liked fine rice vermicelli topped with grilled pork ($6.50). The bed of pure white rice noodles was properly sticky, and the pork strips were flawlessly tender. The dish was even better enjoyed with a sprinkling of crushed nuts, with each forkful dabbed into plummy hoisin sauce.

    Less exciting was the "flower connection" ($9.95), a surf-and-turf extravaganza presented in a blossom formed from fried wonton skins. There were shrimp, scallops, pork, chicken and stir-fried vegetables, but something was missing in the sauce, which was bland and flavorless.

    Less exciting was the "flower connection" ($9.95), a surf-and-turf extravaganza presented in a blossom formed from fried wonton skins. There were shrimp, scallops, pork, chicken and stir-fried vegetables, but something was missing in the sauce, which was bland and flavorless.

    The only lapse in service came at the end of the meal, when we were left waiting for the check for nearly 15 minutes after we had finished eating and only a few other customers lingered. We finally beckoned to our waiter, who was seated at an empty table across the room. He brought the check and just one box instead of the two requested for our leftovers.

    The only lapse in service came at the end of the meal, when we were left waiting for the check for nearly 15 minutes after we had finished eating and only a few other customers lingered. We finally beckoned to our waiter, who was seated at an empty table across the room. He brought the check and just one box instead of the two requested for our leftovers.

    Although service isn't always as sharp as it should be, you can count on Viet Garden for delicious food from the Far East, time and again.

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