Gimme That Gimmick
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.
The more well-done beef in a classic green curry was considerably chewier, but the dish as a whole was topnotch. Of Thailand's most well-known curries (red, green, yellow, massaman, and Panang), green usually is the hottest and the most typically Thai-tasting -- or at least less Indian or near-Eastern influenced -- owing to its predominance of fresh herbs over dried spices. And Bangkok Sushi's green sauce, made with ingredients the menu says are flown in from Bangkok, was properly thin though complexly flavored, and nicely spicy if not truly hot. Massaman curry (potato, avocado, and chicken, plus cashews) came in a sauce that was thicker and milder, as is characteristic of this Muslim-influenced curry, but also was cloyingly rather than "lightly" sweet. (Although we defaulted to the chef's heat preference for both the above curries, diners can pick their own, on a one- to five-star scale, from mild to "Call the Fire Dept!" for all dishes.)
Oddly, though the massaman curry's chicken was tenderly moist, that in pad thai, though plentiful, was hard and cardboard-dry. The dish's small shrimp also were drastically overcooked. The noodles themselves, though, were less mushily overdone than they often are in this dish, and lots of bean sprouts provided the fresh sparkle the poultry and shellfish lacked. "Crispy Duck Darling" was another overdone poultry casualty -- unfortunate since the sauce surrounding the dry duck and its accompanying crunchy sautéed vegetables had an extremely appealing, illusive tang balancing its (surprise!) unadvertised sweetness; I suspect tamarind.
We ordered "You and I" because the menu called it "outstanding" (I'm a sucker for self-touting) but mainly because we were curious about this dish's difference from Chinese sweet-and-sour stuff. There was none, except that the meat was unbattered; the dish's sauce was the usual neon-orange suburban Chinese/American syrup. There also was nothing particularly Thai about Bangkok Sushi's spring rolls, but the cabbage/carrot/rice vermicelli filling was particularly tasty. Hint: The rolls are better dipped in lemon-spiked soy sauce than in their accompanying jelly, an inauthentic Chinese-type duck sauce. And they are better yet washed down with Singha, an authentic, and fabulous, Thai beer.
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