Lung Yai Thai Tapas, a Veteran Cook's Passion Project, Breathes Fire in Little Havana
Almost overnight, seats at a nicked wooden counter within earshot of Calle Ocho's racket have become a hot commodity. Diners order yeasty, sweet Singha beer and sit back to watch 42-year-old Bas Trisransi toss needlelike vermicelli noodles into a ripping-hot wok that spits orange flames. Moments later, the slender chef, who sports a wispy mustache, plucks a half-dozen bean-paste-marinated ribs from the fryer, showers them with scallion loops, and sends them off.
Though his name is uncommon, you may know the family well. His brother Bond, age 44, is the flamboyant, tall-haired restaurateur behind a small fleet of Asian-fusion spots. The Bangkok natives moved to Miami in 1994 to work for an uncle who owned South Beach's now-defunct Sushi Rock Café. As Bond went on to open a handful of places, Bas served as his top lieutenant, reliably manning the stoves at places like Mr. Yum, Brickell's Bonding, and the now-shuttered 2B Asian Bistro.
Several months ago, Bas decided it was time to branch out from Bond's sushi. He revived recipes they learned as boys working for their grandfather, Yung Lai, who for almost five decades ran a small place in Ayutthaya, about 50 miles north of the Thai capital. "He was a country chef who taught with a gentle hand," Bas says. "He opened a restaurant so he could survive, so he could afford school" for his nine children.
However you choose to label it, Lung Yai is a much-needed addition to Miami's small cupboard of respectable Thai places. For years, the best options have been North Dade's Panya Thai and Ricky Thai Bistro. The latest entrant is the MiMo District's Cake Thai Kitchen. John Kunkel's 50 Eggs offered a flash of hope when it opened Khong River House in late 2012 with a wild array of dishes from Thailand's northern Chang Mai province. Some of them may return when that restaurant's former chef, Piyarat Areeratn, opens NaiYaRa in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour in the coming months.
But right now, Lung Yai is among your best bets. If you're not used to the searing heat of Thai spice, ask for the larb — a chilled ground-pork salad spiked with hefty doses of cumin, chilies, and star anise — American style. Another salad, yum ped, tosses thumb-size slices of crisped Long Island duck meat with just-cut red-onion matches, pineapple, and cashews in a delicate lime dressing. It's a perfect expression of Southeast Asian cuisine's peerless balance of salty, sweet, and sour ingredients. The same carries over to a trio of grilled pork skewers accompanied by fish sauce for dipping. The sinewy meat is marinated in coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, and cilantro that coalesce into a fragrant, sweet crust once cooked.
Of the more familiar dishes, Bas Trisransi's tom kha gai soup is the most exemplary. It's the broth that's key. A fragrant chicken base is fortified with coconut milk, but not so much as to give it the heft of New England clam chowder. Doses of lime juice and fish sauce add a cheek-squeezing piquancy that makes it the perfect partner of another dish, palo moo. While some plates offer a five-flavor balance, this one is a glorious fat and sweet bomb. Knots of pork shoulder and sticky curls of belly float in a sweet soy broth fluttered with cilantro. Alone, each dish is more than satisfying. Together, they create the kind of meal you could eat over and over yet continue finding novel nuances.
Other stunners aren't as striking at first glance. A few strips of pale chicken thigh meat arrive resting atop a dome of white rice. Though the plate may look like some sort of underwhelming $3.99 almuerzo from a nearby cafeteria, the khao man gai is in fact among one of Trisransi's best dishes. Whole chickens are gently blanched in a bath perfumed with cilantro, galangal, and salt. Once the bird is cooked, it's lifted away. The resulting stock is spiked with garlic and shallots and used to infuse every grain of rice with an intense umami. The only thing the dish requires is the accompanying bowl filled with a funky fermented soybean sauce emboldened with Thai chilies.
Miami needs more places like Lung Yai. Every plate that emerges from Trisransi's pocket-size kitchen bursts with flavor while remaining approachable, surprising, and reasonably priced. It's about time Bas stepped out of his older brother's shadow. And who knows? With this place, he may just stake his own claim to the moniker Mr. Yum.
Lung Yai Thai Tapas
1731 SW Eighth St., Miami; 786-334-6262; lungyaitapas.com. Monday through Thursday and Sunday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday noon to 2 a.m.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.