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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.

The SoDo complex may not have led an architectural revival on South Orange Avenue, but the recent community development (opened in October 2008) has sparked a bit of a culinary renaissance in this once blighted strip of the city. OK, 'renaissanceâ?� may be too strong a term; 'rekindlingâ?� may be more apropos, given most of the restaurants in the area are still of the fast-food variety. After the requisite chains open in rekindled neighborhoods, Asian restaurants are usually the next wave to move in, and here it seems that Thai and pan-Asian varieties are getting the jump on traditional Chinese takeout joints

Case in point: Chai Thai. For what it's worth, Chai Thai is my contender for the best new chain restaurant to open an outlet in the south-of-downtown area, and it is the second of its kind in the city ' the original is still open for business on Curry Ford Road. But it's also a typical Thai restaurant. So, with the exception of a handful of duck dishes, don't expect anything too far out of the ordinary. Chai is designed to serve its area neighbors, and judging from the steady stream of SoDo-mites feasting on well-executed dishes, it appears to be a welcome addition to the 'hood. 

The space, bathed in yellow, is ornamented with Siamese tchotchkes, fake flowers on tables and photos of fruit-filled boats clogging Bangkok's waterways. The pictures brought to mind a scene in The Man With the Golden Gun in which sheriff J.W. Pepper was sent headfirst into one of those canals after boorishly insulting an Asian elephant. There was no boorish behavior on my part, but I did dive headfirst into a bowl of fiery tom yum gai ($4.99). It's a favorite starter of mine, and this bowl was splendid. My head was soaked with sweat after finishing the peppery chicken soup full of tomatoes, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Angel wings ($7.95) were a fried and stuffed (with clear noodles and vegetables) variation of the finger-food fave, but the app was a safe entryway for those new to the cuisine.

The mains we sampled, roast duck ($18.95) and triple curry ($18.95), were more satisfying for seasoned palates. While sweet concessions were made in the former to accommodate American palates (the sauce was more sugar than spice), the duck itself was a consummate achievement. Crispy, juicy, perfectly greasy ' the savory meat made me forget all about the hefty price tag. The trio of curries makes a great sharing dish: the bowls of massaman, panang and green curry were delightful, and all held up fine the next day (and the day after that). Not sure if the same could be said of all 65 dishes on the menu, but my guess is that Chai Thai will be around long enough for some regulars to make that determination.

On the sweet side, the flan-like Thai custard ($5.99), along with a serving of sweet sticky rice, was just too filling. The 'banana delightâ?� ($4), samosa-style pastries filled with the fruit, flecked with sesame seeds and drizzled with honey, were a better ending.

Expect proper pacing and lickety-split service, as the waitstaff were quick and pleasantly efficient on my visit. In case you're wondering, the Chai Thai is named after the owner, not the beverage, but either way you cut it, it is just my cup of tea.

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.

Aesthetics always play a role in Thai cooking, more so than in any other cuisine, or so it seems. Artistically pared vegetables lolling in colorful curries plated with near-perfect geodesic mounds of rice are common, and in the case of this Winter Park restaurant, beautiful orchids adorn every dish. And this being Park Avenue, style clearly has a place in Orchid’s small, yet tastefully decorated, dining room: postmodern art pairs gracefully with a serene color scheme illumined by the flicker of candlelight, while the soothing sounds of lounge keep the ambience at a comfortable chill.

The renovations undertaken by the charming husband-and-wife team have been significant, perhaps in an effort to rid the address of its hex. The space has seen a few eateries bite the dust in the past four years, but if the owners have their way, the only biting taking place will be diners sinking their teeth into traditional Thai meals.

Green curry ($14), for example, with its rich coconut gravy perfumed with kaffir lime and Thai basil, is a nostril-flaring cross of infernal spice and subtle sweetness, with texture provided by zucchini and bell peppers. The bowl of tom yum soup ($5) may have been small, but it packed a fiery wallop. Plump curls of shrimp smacked with the essence of lemongrass were delightfully crunchy, while bracing bursts of cilantro enlivened the broth. I also enjoyed the curry puffs ($6), with their East-meets-South blend of Indian seasonings and South American form. The flavors resembled a samosa, but the flaky pastry and turnover shape were more like an empanada.

Mieng kum ($10) suffered from its own trendiness. Spooning the mix of toasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, ginger, onions and tiny wedges of lime into spinach leaves was a cumbersome exercise, and dipping the green wrap into tamarind plum sauce required enough dexterity to discourage the most patient of diners. The larb chicken’s ($18) a better choice if you like your meal inside a leaf. The zing to the salad’s piquant mix of cilantro, mint, red onions and minced chicken is a painful pleasure, though a little more lime juice would’ve offset the slightly desiccated appearance. The dish certainly benefited from a tempered use of fish sauce, which often can overwhelm the flavors of the other ingredients.

Thai iced coffee ($4), splashed with sweetened condensed milk and ornamented with a pink orchid, was my go-to palate-soother of choice, though exceptionally sticky and salty-sweet coconut rice ($7) crowned with a fleshy slab of mango will also work wonders in dousing fires in your mouth. Thai custard ($5) wasn’t available, but golden Thai doughnuts ($5), sweetened in a peanut-sprinkled dip of condensed milk, were a worthy, if light and airy, substitute.

Lunchtime selections are limited – though the owners vow that menu expansion will take place in the coming weeks – but that hasn’t stopped diners from enjoying an al fresco nosh at the tables outside. Waitresses are efficient and unobtrusively go about their business inside the small dining room, leaving diners to take in the surroundings and luxuriate in the visual feast.

Comfort food: Every cuisine has it. Whether it's American macaroni and cheese, English trifle or French cassoulet, comfort foods share certain basic qualities – lots of carbohydrates, a lack of challenging texture or spices, and a comforting reminder of childhood. And on those terms, Pilin is a total success.

American "Thai" food is undoubtedly different from what you might eat in Thailand. The dishes on the menu at Pilin (and most Thai restaurants) would probably seem as foreign to a Bangkok native as your neighborhood Chinese restaurant's kung pao chicken would to a diner in Beijing. But as Thai overtakes Chinese as the ethnic cuisine of choice, those "Thai" dishes are becoming just as codified: phad Thai, tom kha gai soup, Panang curry; all are as familiar as moo goo gai pan these days. For some of us, a steaming coconut-scented bowl of tom kha gai is just as comforting as Mom's chicken soup.

After some aimless driving and a U-turn, we finally found the place (it's in a strip mall on the north side of the street, near the intersection of 436 and 434). A mirrored back wall augments the wide-open feel; there weren't many people seated in the room, but there was a booming takeout trade. We sat near the front, and there was a steady in-and-out of locals picking up brown paper bags. Service was very friendly, somewhat hampered by the fact that our waitress didn't speak much English – and seemed to be baby-sitting her very young sister and providing service to every table. Still, she was quite attentive and tried her best to answer questions.

We started with a selection of appetizers. The chicken satay was juicy and lightly seasoned with turmeric, accompanied with a mild peanut sauce; the tom kha gai was creamy, packed with chicken and straw mushrooms; so far, exactly what you expect from your neighborhood Thai place. But we were thrilled to see green papaya salad on the menu. It was referenced as "Thailand's most favorite salad," yet it's inexplicably rare at Thai restaurants around Orlando. We took a flyer on "tofu todd," fried bean curd served with a weak vinegar/sugar dipping sauce and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. And it's a good thing we did – our pal Todd was utterly bland ("useless" was the general sentiment), but that blandness complemented the papaya salad, the cool crunchy strands of which were lip-tinglingly spicy.

Now here's where the comfort-food aspect of the evening started to become apparent. The massaman curry – chicken, pork, beef or tofu with potatoes, onions and a mild peanut-coconut sauce – was as soothingly creamy and bland as any 5-year-old could wish for. I mean that in the best possible way. This is the dish to order on those days when you crawl home after an exhausting day at work or when you're looking for culinary consolation. The potatoes were tender; the onions almost melting, all sharpness simmered away; the curry was velvety-smooth. A little boring, but heavenly.

Our other entrée, the phad lad na, was also addictive, though somewhat spunkier: wide, silky noodles and crunchy-crisp broccoli swimming in a wine-scented broth. The menu advised that it was "recommended to mix with vinegar chili pickles and chili powder," and they brought out a pretty, green china tray of condiments: chilis pickled in vinegar, dried chili seeds, chopped peanuts and chili paste. Delicious as the dish was without it, the enhancements gave a nice kick to stir us out of our massaman stupor.

In the interests of thorough research, we decided to try dessert. I'm not much of a dessert fan, but we ordered the sweet sticky rice with mango, and it was the high point of the meal. A small slab of chewy rice was lapped in sweet, thick coconut milk, contrasting with slices of ripe, peppery mango. Lush yet zingy, it was as though the two halves of our comfort-food equation came together.

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.

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