A Thai Grows in Kendall

On Kendall's portion of South Dixie Highway, a small, single-business building such as Thai Silk frequently escapes attention. Shopping centers, mini-malls, and massive outlet stores -- most located on the eastern side of the road -- dominate the view. In daylight, the endless array of retail shops reminds the driver of errands that need to be done; at night, the lights shining in the big storefronts are as enticing as a party. Bombarded by glittering shopping opportunities offered by, say, Borders or Ross, few commuters glance at the relatively desolate west side of the street, almost abandoned underneath the MetroRail, and think about having Thai food for dinner. Everything about Thai Silk Aits low single-story profile, inconvenient access, and mediocre decor -- renders it less than alluring. Everything, that is, except the tantalizing food and personal service.

The parking lot is just one of its problems. Because it precedes the restaurant, it's easily bypassed, with no sign to alert you; longer than it is wide, it's also difficult to traverse. And the building itself is unattractive. Trailer-shaped, Thai Silk appears as if, given wheels, it could actually join the daily commute. MetroRail trains, roaring overhead, shake the beams inside and reinforce diners' impressions of impending movement. Inside, the dining room is plain, accented only by purple window-treatments hung like crepe-paper.

Despite these distractions, it wasn't difficult for Thai Silk to build a local following when it first opened in early 1991. The restaurant doesn't attract people with stylish surroundings, just good food. Fresh from a two-year stint as manager of South Beach's Thai Toni, owner-chef Muthita Atirukpinyo was optimistic when she opened -- she knew her Thai heritage and recipes would win customers. After all, she reasoned, if Thai Toni could become profitable even without a Thai at the helm (owner Toni Kakarada is Japanese-American), she could certainly do no worse.

Although Atirukpinyo believed a main street location would help, she chose the South Dixie address because it offered her a freedom she couldn't get elsewhere. In other words, it wasn't South Beach, where the high rents practically force a partnership. Atirukpinyo, wary of losing management control, realized that her gender, coupled with her inexperience as a restaurateur, could mark her a victim. To avoid that end, she started Thai Silk by herself, working seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Then, a successful year and a half after she opened, she became a victim anyway. Hurricane Andrew arrived.

It ripped into Thai Silk as if anxious for a good meal, destroying the property. A small insurance company wouldn't honor her claim, denying her the capital she needed to come back. Those commuters who did scour the west side of the street on their drive home became accustomed to the restaurant's closed sign. Even now, five months after its re-opening, Thai Silk's regular customers haven't fully returned.

Fortunately, Thai Silk is finding some new patrons, but they are only filling the place on weekend evenings. The lunch crowd, though, is starting to grow, due to the bargain $3.99 specials, and early-bird dinners will soon be offered as well. I'd certainly brave the southbound after-work traffic for Thai Silk.

On a recent Friday evening, we were comforted by the generous portions, the caring preparation of sturdy, traditional fare. We began our meal with chicken satay, a tender version of a common starter. Strips of chicken, marinated in coconut milk and curry, were skewered and grilled on a miniature hibachi at the table. Seared, the chicken took on a smoky flavor. The dish was cooled by a sweet, tangy cucumber sauce, garnished with whole slices of the vegetable rather than shreds, and a light peanut sauce, rich but not syrupy.

Another familiar appetizer wasn't as finely tuned. Mee krob, crisp rice noodles dressed with a honey and tomato sauce, formed an ungainly clump. Only a few shrimp dotted the nest of noodles, and the whole was overly cloying. The portion, though, was so large that it served four of us, twice each. And the thin, membranous noodles held their crunchy texture despite the overabundance of the honey-tomato paste.

Fried bean curd, triangles of deep-fried tofu, also kept their shape, though in this case, we would have preferred a bit more, well, ooze in the dish. When prepared by deep-frying, the inside of the bean curd turns as soft as hot brie and can be a wonderful treat. Thai Silk's version was close enough to satisfy our craving. Because of its mild flavor, bean curd is often intended as a rest from spicier dishes, but it is prone to blandness. For those of us who wished to abuse our palates, a dish of piquant red chili sauce, spooned onto the tofu, was an appropriate countermeasure. The added spice, of course, did not provide the respite from the upcoming servings the tofu was meant to offer.

Another appetizer, jumping squid, was ordered medium. But as our waiter warned us, medium in Thailand means hot, hot, hot the world over. The squid -- small slices of the mollusk's body meat curled from the wok's heat Ahad been flavored with chili paste, lemon grass, lime juice, red onions, and hot peppers. Served over a fresh salad, the warm sauce functioned like a dressing. The clean citrus tastes of the lemon grass and lime juice tamed the fiery attack of chili paste, red onions, and hot peppers. Though the squid was perhaps a bit tougher than I would have preferred, the precise balance of flavors in this dish was notable.

Like the appetizers, the main courses reflected fresh preparation and immediate service, arriving singly as they were ready. Basil duck was crisp and boneless, stir-fried with chili sauce and sweet, pungent basil. Served on a bed of spice rather than vegetables, there was no hiding here -- the duck was on display, the sole focus, and worthy of it. We savored its crisp, flavored skin, its tenderness underneath. This entree alone justified the trip.

Pad woon sen also focused on a single ingredient, the cellophane noodles (vermicelli) for which the dish was named. These thin, wiry noodles, prepared from soybean flour, are only available dried and must be soaked before use. The trick is not to allow them to absorb too much water, or they will soften and stick when cooking. Our woon sen were mixed with scallions, mushrooms, and egg, and were topped with shrimp. Though I wasn't impressed with the quality of the shrimp -- medium-sized, they lacked sweetness -- I thoroughly enjoyed these expertly cooked noodles. The slippery, chewy woon sen had a wonderful flavor, imparted from traditional ingredients like soy and fish sauce.

The sauces, in fact, were one of this restaurant's great strengths. The fish dish we ordered, for instance, featured deep-fried slices of ginger grouper. Inside its coating, the fish was dry. But the flavor of the sauce, as with all the dressings at Thai Silk, was intense and wonderful. Slightly thick, the flowery ginger sauce clung to fish and vegetables and ladled beautifully onto the rice. Thai Silk offers both ginger and fish -- mainly snapper -- in several other dishes, including the popular whole-fish dishes that are often more tender than stir-fried fillets.

Of course, no Thai meal is complete without a curry, and we ordered a vegetable curry. Though many believe curry is a single spice, it is actually a conglomeration of many spices, including coriander, cumin, and red chilies. These spices were ground and mixed with additional flavorings, such as peanuts and even coconut cream. Our vegetables, mostly leafy greens, onions, and broccoli, tasted strongly of the coconut milk in which they were cooked and the curry's ground peanuts. As is typical of Thai curries, the sauce was thin (Indian curries, perhaps more familiar to the dining public, have a stew-like consistency). A terrific complement to the basil duck, this dish was an excellent testimony to the capabilities of Thai Silk's kitchen.

Atirukpinyo, who aside from a prep cook or two is the kitchen, appeared at every table to make chef's recommendations. Her list, taken directly from the menu, was so long we lost track. After the meal, we composed our own highlights: duck, curry, cellophane noodles. These were the true stars, the dishes deserving of emphasis, the fine silky surprises even a hurricane couldn't blow away.


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