Thai Breaker

Those customers, mostly UM students and Coral Gables office workers, have always been especially fond of the restaurant's budget-priced lunch specials. We chose from a selection of more than twenty, all priced at around $5, with each including soup of the day and fried rice. We splurged on an order of egg rolls to start. The crisp, golden cylinders looked and tasted like your basic Chinese takeout variety, complete with overly sugary dipping sauce. Filled mostly with shredded lettuce and celery, these appetizers were hot and filling but unimpressive.

The hot-and-sour soup was also disappointing. As sweet and thick as maple syrup, the broth was hot only to the touch. It had neither spice nor zing. Instead, the brown, almost gelatinous stew tasted something like the pineapple-tinged duck sauce you find in plastic packets. In the soup were the usual canned vegetables, including baby corn, straw mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. Bits of fresh scallion and wood ear mushrooms added some welcome bite, but couldn't salvage this concoction.

A main dish of sauteed basil shrimp was composed of a handful of tiny but meticulously cleaned crustaceans that were overcooked, underseasoned, and served with a mound of fluffy and steaming white rice. Faded basil leaves floated impotently in a mono-flavored sweet brown sauce.

The pad Thai, a half-plate of pale and perfectly pliant noodles, was delicately laced with a sweet -- almost caramelly -- coating. Too bad only a few bland shrimp and a wisp of cilantro provided any contrast to the luscious noodles. I longed for a traditional Thai seasonings rack of chilies, hand-ground peanuts, fish sauce, sugar, and lime to doctor it up. As it was, I felt as though I was watching a favorite Saturday morning cartoon show in black and white.

With lunch prices so cheap, I thought it would only be fair to try Lotus Garden again some evening, and order from the regular à la carte menu. I brought along my husband, as well as a couple who have traveled throughout Asia and who appreciate good food. When we arrived at about 8:00 p.m. on a Thursday night, we had our pick of almost any table. With the exception of a Spanish-speaking trio near the door and a couple illuminated from behind by the bluish glow of the aquarium, the restaurant was ours.

We settled at a table across from a glossy bar, which serves wine and beer. Of the four of us, only two wanted wine, and so we ordered by the glass. At our waiter's suggestion we chose a French Bordeaux. "It's a sweet Chinese- French wine that goes with spicy food," he explained.

While studying the lengthy menu, which offers more than 100 main courses, we ordered three appetizers to share. A chicken satay bore no relation to the version sold by the ubiquitous vendors on the streets of southern Thailand. There, a complex melange of seasonings and pickles enhance the creamy taste of coconut-marinated chicken pieces. Here, there was no such subtlety. (Luckily, the wine was, as the waiter promised, a great complement to the food.) Plump and juicy strips of white meat arrived on a flaming pot of Sterno -- it nearly singed my eyelashes -- accompanied by a smear of thick peanut sauce and a limp cucumber salad. The chicken, though moist and tender, was flavorless; the pasty dipping sauce and lifeless salad not much better.

A signature appetizer, Lotus Garden shrimps, consisted of neat little packets stuffed with a delicate and flavorful filling of whole shrimps, minced pork, crab, and scallion. They would have been sublime had they not been marred by the gummy, deep-fried egg-roll wrappers.

The best starter was tiger's tear, a perky salad of spiced beef strips surrounded with crispy raw onions, scallions, and lettuce. Hot and refreshing at the same time, this dish was the only one that evoked even a vague memory of the exciting tastes of true Thai cooking, in which sweet and sour, hot and cool are carefully orchestrated to create an explosion of flavors that reveal themselves gradually with each new bite.

Main courses were even less inspired than the appetizers. Pla jearn, a whole snapper served fried, was drowning in a sea of sweet brown sauce speckled with colorful vegetables, notably onions and red and green peppers. The same sauce smothered three of our four entrees, and bore an uncanny resemblance to the hot and sour soup I'd sampled the week before. The fish was so overcooked that neither the eyes nor cheeks (delicacies) were edible -- or even identifiable.

The crispy duck was far from crisp. Instead of the characteristic crunchy layer of skin the dish ought to have had, these dark hunks of fowl were surrounded by globs of fat and the ever-present brown sauce.

By the time we ordered dessert, the restaurant had filled with a diverse -- but decidedly Western -- crowd of at least 40 patrons. Thai donuts, little brown balls of fried dough (like a miniature version of the elephant ears you can buy at an outdoor fair), were an appropriate finish to the tawdry meal. We dunked the crispy morsels into a dish of condensed milk and lamented the loss of what once seemed destined to be a great addition to this nation's culinary landscape.

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