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The first time I visited South Beach's newest Thai restaurant, Cafe Thai Bistro, a waiter told me not to return.
We had an argument over a two-dollar sharing charge with which he'd padded the bill, and which I had no intention of paying. As is the custom in Asian restaurants, my friends and I had split a couple of appetizers and an equal number of entrees. Not the hugest meal, but certainly a respectable check, especially considering that we drank beer and wine. On a Friday evening in April, we were the only customers in the place; you'd think the then-two-month-old bistro would be grateful for any business. So why the fee? "For rice," he said. Apparently we weren't all entitled to a serving of it, though the server who'd dished it out from his big silver pot never mentioned this. The waiter's parting words: "We don't want cheap people like you in here."
Okay, in hindsight I may have been a little quick on the trigger. The menu does warn of a $3.25 sharing charge, in reference to a combination meal that includes soup or salad (which isn't what we ate). And the waiter who totaled up the tab, and who thought he was doing us a favor by giving us a $1.25 break, wasn't the one who'd taken the order, so his interpretation might have been different. And yes, I'm picky. But the his belligerence was the antithesis of the most basic rule of the service industry. You know, the one that goes the customer is always right.
It's a good thing I never do as I'm told. Despite the waiter's edict, I decided to return a month later when I learned via a press release that Matida Apunikpinyo owns and cooks at this little (40-plus seats) cafe. I last encountered Apunikpinyo at Thai Silk, a restaurant she opened on S. Dixie Highway in 1991, nursed back from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, received favorable reviews for in 1993, and sold in 1994. I fondly recalled her gentle handling of squid and shrimp and the restrained spicing of her curries, not to mention the equally restrained pricing of her dishes. Those memories alone were enough to convince me that Cafe Thai Bistro deserved another chance.
The gamble paid off. My second visit yielded an impeccably prepared meal, each dish as proficiently rendered and satisfying as the one before. We had a tense moment or two when it seemed we'd be the only patrons once again, but a party of one was seated shortly after our arrival. And I'm pretty sure the waiter (who we recognized instantly) remembered our little fracas. But we all behaved ourselves.
For one thing, we were too busy enjoying the "real crab and shrimp roll" appetizer to do otherwise. Ground and stuffed in a sheet of bean curd, the seafood was both delicate and hearty. The deep-fried skin was a crackly encasement; the roll resembled a homemade sausage sliced into bite-size pieces and was served on a bed of chopped scallions. Our only quibble was with the accompanying duck sauce, which was too commercial-tasting and heavy. A dollop of cucumber relish or a smear of chili sauce (anything with a touch of vinegar to combat the gloppy sweet) might be a better option.
Steamed shrimp dumplings were a "real" treat, too, simple and cleanly flavored, resting on a light brushing of a dark, salty sauce that added a bit of piquancy without being intrusive. Also spare on the sauce but not on the flavor, a traditional mee krob boasted crisp rice vermicelli and four succulent shrimp. The deep-fried noodles, a generous portion, were subtly candied with the honeyed, tomato-based sauce and garnished with chopped scallions.
Light on the coconut milk, tom kah gai, a spicy soup flavored with fish sauce and chicken, was a browner, brothier version than many others I've sampled. Tangy from kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and visible chunks of galangal (a relative of ginger root), the soup also featured more vegetables than is customary: In addition to straw mushrooms and scallions, slices of red and green bell peppers and chopped tomatoes lent natural (as opposed to sugary) sweetness to the brew. Strips of lean, white-meat chicken added texture as well as taste. Thai salad, another classic, was a cool, crunchy assortment of iceberg lettuce, shredded red cabbage, sliced carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes. A dish of deliciously creamy peanut dressing, not too rich or thick, was served warm.
The menu at Cafe Thai Bistro hardly gets more inventive with the entrees, but Apunikpinyo's talents seem to lie within the confines of basic, home-style cooking; if the fare is familiar, it's also well done. Her shrimp massaman, for one, isn't likely to be improved upon. Made with dried red chilies, coriander, cumin, and a host of other spices, the curry was soupy from coconut milk but chunky with white potatoes, sliced onions, julienned carrots, and large, tightly curled shrimp. Complexly flavored but not overwhelming in its spiciness, the dish was supposed to feature avocado but did not; a sprinkling of ground peanuts added extra zest to the sauce.