During the last four years in Tampa, I have dined at more than a half-dozen Thai restaurants and one Asian restaurant claiming to serve Thai specialties. More sampling is on the horizon but I am getting antsy. None can compare to our favorite restaurant in Peachtree City, Ga.: Thai Spice.
Now, Peachtree City is just about the most ideal place you could raise a family or retire but it has a few - mind you, just a few - drawbacks, one being a lack of good restaurants (another is the 45-minute commute to Atlanta). But it did have at least one reliable dining establishment in the always tasteful, sophisticated and satisfying Thai Spice.
Where, oh where is my Thai Spice in Tampa? I am still searching for something other than an Epcot version of Thailand - restaurants brandishing gilded Buddhas and ornate decor. Just give me that runny-nose-inducing, wickedly spicy Thai food, serve it carefully plated in a serene, white-tablecloth setting and play contemporary, easy-listening music softly in the background. Throw in some decent service, an icy cold Singha, and ta-da!
Easier said than done, I guess.
In the food realm, my demands were met a couple weekends ago when I convinced Hubmeister to give Sukhothai another shot. It's the first time in Tampa that the spice level has been exactly as I ordered, a tongue-tingling medium to hot. Judging a person's tolerance or craving for heat is a daunting task, since a little bit of this or not enough of that can screw up the guest's whole experience of a dish. That's what happened to Hubmeister, but I'll get to that.
Let's talk about the Chicken Massaman ($12.99), the best bay-area Thai dish that I've had to date. It featured a nice ratio of sliced chicken to mixed vegetables cradled in an addictive coconut cream and curry peanut sauce, a pretty straightforward curry creation. Richly flavored, this dish was seasoned well and cooked properly. Its sidekick was brown or white rice (I chose brown), which I used to absorb every last bit of that fabulous creamy sauce.
Poor Hubs! His bland-loving taste sensors went berserk when his Chicken Pad Thai ($12.50) arrived. Although I couldn't detect any heat, he swears this classic Thai noodle dish was too spicy for him. He ordered it mild and left most of it on his plate; I relished the "peanutty" leftovers the next day. Is there a hold-the-spice order at a Thai restaurant? I have a feeling you get laughed out of the kitchen with that one.
Backtracking to the beginning of the meal, we started with Thai Spring Rolls ($3.99). They were huge, burrito-sized beauties accompanied by a sweet dipping sauce. The dipping sauce didn't live up to the sweet-hot Thai Spice standard but the veggie-stuffed rolls were crispy and impressive.
So, the food - at least for me - hit most of the right notes.
Here's the rub: we hated the atmosphere. Once you find the restaurant in its off-the-beaten-path, behind-a-shopping-center location, you may choose seating at the sushi bar or a standard table, or you can sit Japanese-style on the floor. Both times we've dined here we have opted for a table, but the floor seating area, which is isolated from the kitchen and sushi bar, seems like it might be more quiet and relaxing. Hubs isn't one who likes to sit on the floor. The tables with chairs are directly opposite the sushi bar and its television - I am starting to hate televisions in restaurants - and you hear every conversation nearby. (Excuse me, my New York friends, I don't care to hear your loud stories about life on Long Island. If I want to hear about Long Island, I can ask Hubs and he prefers to black it out.) Maybe they should crank up the music in this place. It also felt a bit claustrophobic, as our server snaked awkwardly around tables.
The food may have surpassed other Tampa Thai cuisine, but the plating was average. Don't expect orchids or beautifully placed edible flowers. Although I appreciated the absence of brassy accents, the noisy environment could use some window dressing.
I noticed lots of takeout orders awaiting pickup at the register and that's how I plan to get my future Sukhothai meals, at least at this location. I have yet to try the Sukhothai on Dale Mabry. Stay tuned.
Verdict: Hits the mark for food but misses on atmosphere.