Thai Breaker

I grew up in the kitchen. It started with miniature cakes in an Easy-Bake Oven, which cooked by the heat of a standard light bulb. Inspired by a talented mother, I soon moved on to the real stuff. Most days after school I tied an apron over my plaid jumper, pounded chicken for scaloppine, rolled plump meatballs, and erected sturdy layer cakes before I was tall enough to reach the stovetop.

But it was during my college days in New York City that my affair with food really began. Over the course of the decade I lived there, I read and religiously clipped the food columns in New York magazine and The New York Times, quoted the Zagat restaurant survey more accurately than I did Shakespeare, spent most of my book money at the Upper West Side gourmet emporium Zabar's, and learned how to truss a chicken (among other things) from the charming chef Michael Romano of the famous Union Square Cafe.

I also managed occasional field trips to the local culinary temples, including Le Cirque, the Russian Tea Room, the Quilted Giraffe, Le Bernardin, Chanterelle, Lutece, and Peter Luger's -- thanks mostly to invitations from fellow foodies with trust funds or expense accounts.

Despite my obsession with New York's gustatory offerings, I still often found it difficult to decide where to eat in a city of thousands of restaurants, especially on a student's budget. When I wasn't starving myself in anticipation of a meal that sometimes ended up costing almost as much as airfare home to Miami at Christmastime, I explored the many ethnic enclaves that pepper the metropolis. From Brighton Beach to Bensonhurst to Chinatown to Little India, there were innumerable kitchens dishing up extraordinary fare for next to nothing. The challenge, of course, was to find some gem that hadn't yet been "discovered" -- and therefore ruined -- by an almighty critic. Then and now my method for locating a good ethnic eatery, though frequently effective, is hardly scientific.

First, the place has to smell good before the door is even opened. Second, the lights cannot be too harsh or too dim (I like to see what I'm eating). And a restaurant always gets extra points if it is slightly out of the way, say on a side street, in a basement, or on a second floor. More than two credit card logos pasted on the window makes me suspicious, as does an empty dining room. A mob scene is almost worse. Too many people can mean a long wait for a table and a meal. Plus, an "in" spot usually attracts a high percentage of tender-tongued Anglos. You know the type: People who wreck it for everyone else by insisting on ordering spicy dishes and then sending them back because of their incendiary kick. After a few such scenarios, of course, waiters learn to humor would-be fire-eaters: "You like it hot? Okay, very spicy."

Finally, I confess to employing that age-old (and probably politically incorrect) strategy of judging how authentic a restaurant is based on the number of customers who look as though they share the same ethnicity as the food. A dim-sum place without at least one Asian grandma hunched over a portion of chicken feet while her relatives slurp soup from bowls doesn't rate with me.

Using this battery of tests to gauge the Coral Gables Thai eatery Lotus Garden would disqualify it immediately. It fails on every single count. Still, in Miami-Dade County (where, according to the most recent census, slightly more than one percent of the population is Asian) I've learned that word of mouth is worth more than appearances. And since I had been hearing raves about this place and had tried it only once back when it was located in a dark and tiny storefront just across the parking lot from the Publix at Le Jeune and Andalusia, I thought it warranted a visit at its new digs. This past January, in order to compete on equal footing, the Lotus Garden moved across the street from the more upscale Thai Orchid.

The new dining room is nearly twice the size of the old place, and can accommodate at least 60 people at its large and well-spaced tables. Unfortunately, what the restaurant has gained in size it has lost in charm. The decor, dominated by shiny, salmon-pink walls, is accented with garishly striped wallpaper reminiscent of an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor; landscapes framed in gaudy, gold-tone frames; travel posters; silk flower arrangements; and glaring, overhead fluorescent lights that serve only to highlight the cheap, synthetic tablecloths and napkins. Along the back wall is a large aquarium stocked with brightly colored exotic fish.

When a girlfriend and I visited on a recent afternoon, several dozen people -- many of them dressed in crisp suits -- occupied the spic-and-span dining room. From our seats along the front window we looked out at Thai Orchid's purple neon sign.

A waiter, a son of the owners of Lotus Garden, explained why the family chose to make such a bold move: "Our lease was up, and we had this place in mind for a while. They [Thai Orchid] have their own customers. But we have a very loyal customer base. Otherwise we couldn't have done it."

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