By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
The phrase novelty act usually is used as a diss, implying that the sole thing the entertainment entity in question has going is a gimmick rather than talent or any other kind of solid quality. But this show-biz term actually has respectable, or at least neutral, origins, as I discovered when my first rock band was forced to join AFTRA (the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) after making a nonunion appearance on national TV. We were already Musicians' Unions members, but -- surprise -- that only covers playing instruments; open your mouth to sing, and it's another union's territory. So after getting caught, we were given a choice of getting listed in AFTRA's membership directory under one of three official categories: actor, singer, or ... novelty act.
Since the band was all female and had, therefore, long been categorized as a novelty act, I was all for going for said category, as a sort of punk nose-thumbing gesture, one that made me laugh. And being in this category would've made us stand out in AFTRA's registry, as there were roughly only thirteen novelty acts (including the Singing Dogs). But our group's eminently experienced manager -- he had formerly been a dentist -- convinced us we'd get more job calls as dignified singers. We got no job calls. As the strippers' anthem from the musical Gypsy says, to stand out from the crowd, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." And that's true whether you're a musician or a year-old Thai/sushi restaurant, opened by former employees of Coral Gables' Bangkok Bangkok and trying to distinguish itself from South Florida's plethora of other Thai restaurants with sushi bars.
Naturally Bangkok Sushi's name alone alerts diners they're dealing with a novelty act since, of all the Asian nations that historically have influenced Thailand's cuisine, Japan is about the only one that has not. But one look at Bangkok Sushi's menu and you know you're dealing with a world-class novelty act, an eatery that has figured out a quirky, humorous marketing gimmick that makes it stand out from the rest. Under the category "All Time Thai Favorites," for instance, is that well-known classic Thai dish "Miami Springs Volcano." Right. In the same category is ancient Thai fave "Kiss Me," the gimmick being serious garlic. And why not? As Thai-cookbook author Kasma Loha-Unchit has noted, it is characteristically Thai to adapt "foreign gems" from Western explorers and adjacent Eastern nations alike into the Thai-cooking lexicon; "Miami Springs Volcano" might not be authentic Thai today, but 700 years ago neither were Thai curries, which came from India and were "taught to sing in a Thai chorus." So bring on the Singing Dogs -- oops, I mean the sushi.
Unfortunately places splitting ethnic identities generally have a weak half, and on a first visit this weak spot seemed to be the sushi. In the "Sushi Chef's Special" rolls, we ended up with an assortment that tasted mainly of cream cheese, mayonnaise, and eel sauce -- and even included, in one case (the "Bangkok Bomb," described as "mixed tuna, salmon, white fish, masago, mayo, scallions, crab, carrots, avocado, cucumbers"), a sushi roll that was deep-fried rather than raw, though not identified as such on the menu, and was gloppily sauced. Among the "special" rolls, try to find a unique one that's uncooked, or sans supersweet sauce and/or cream cheese. Additionally what is called "crab" here (as in the "Tropical Roll" of "crab," banana, lettuce, mayo, and sesame seeds) was, as at most Miami sushi spots, surimi: fake cr... cr... okay, I want to say "crab," but it comes out "crap." Because it is.
But there's a reason why responsible restaurant reviewers sample eateries more than once, and Bangkok Sushi supported this, textbook-style, on a second visit, which concentrated on raw-fish basics -- individual nigiri and sashimi slices, the latter a bargain, since at 50 cents to $2.50 per order, just one piece of sushi includes two sashimi pieces. Salmon, tuna, hamachi, and the day's special, local snapper, were all glisteningly fresh. Also wonderful was a rainbow roll (tuna, salmon, and white fish wrapped around a California roll), which the accommodating chef customized per our request by subbing Alaskan king crab for the roll's crapcrab, for an additional $1.50. And a large list of rice-free rolls wrapped in cucumber thrilled a friend on a low-carb diet; the "3 Cute Fish" maki (ponzu-bathed tuna, salmon, snapper, avocado, and scallions) was especially tasty.
As for the Thai side of the menu, the main fault was one shared by most American Thai eateries: uniform oversweetness, even in dishes not described as containing any sweetener whatsoever. Still, both Bangkok Sushi's original creations and its Thai standards were tasty and obvious crowd pleasers. "Miami Springs Volcano" proved to be a stir-fry in a thick sauce the menu called "rich delicate." It actually was intensely rich; its appealing salty/syrupy flavor tasted as if it came from Thailand's unique molasses-fermented semisweet soy sauce. On the recommendation of a regular who assured us she'd never had a Thai dish here she didn't like, we substituted beef for chicken breast and were rewarded with remarkably tender steak bits.