I grew up in the kitchen. It started with miniature cakes in an Easy-Bake Oven, which cooked by the heat of a standard light bulb. Inspired by a talented mother, I soon moved on to the real stuff. Most days after school I tied an apron over my plaid jumper, pounded chicken for scaloppine, rolled plump meatballs, and erected sturdy layer cakes before I was tall enough to reach the stovetop.
But it was during my college days in New York City that my affair with food really began. Over the course of the decade I lived there, I read and religiously clipped the food columns in New York magazine and The New York Times, quoted the Zagat restaurant survey more accurately than I did Shakespeare, spent most of my book money at the Upper West Side gourmet emporium Zabar's, and learned how to truss a chicken (among other things) from the charming chef Michael Romano of the famous Union Square Cafe.
I also managed occasional field trips to the local culinary temples, including Le Cirque, the Russian Tea Room, the Quilted Giraffe, Le Bernardin, Chanterelle, Lutece, and Peter Luger's -- thanks mostly to invitations from fellow foodies with trust funds or expense accounts.
Despite my obsession with New York's gustatory offerings, I still often found it difficult to decide where to eat in a city of thousands of restaurants, especially on a student's budget. When I wasn't starving myself in anticipation of a meal that sometimes ended up costing almost as much as airfare home to Miami at Christmastime, I explored the many ethnic enclaves that pepper the metropolis. From Brighton Beach to Bensonhurst to Chinatown to Little India, there were innumerable kitchens dishing up extraordinary fare for next to nothing. The challenge, of course, was to find some gem that hadn't yet been "discovered" -- and therefore ruined -- by an almighty critic. Then and now my method for locating a good ethnic eatery, though frequently effective, is hardly scientific.
First, the place has to smell good before the door is even opened. Second, the lights cannot be too harsh or too dim (I like to see what I'm eating). And a restaurant always gets extra points if it is slightly out of the way, say on a side street, in a basement, or on a second floor. More than two credit card logos pasted on the window makes me suspicious, as does an empty dining room. A mob scene is almost worse. Too many people can mean a long wait for a table and a meal. Plus, an "in" spot usually attracts a high percentage of tender-tongued Anglos. You know the type: People who wreck it for everyone else by insisting on ordering spicy dishes and then sending them back because of their incendiary kick. After a few such scenarios, of course, waiters learn to humor would-be fire-eaters: "You like it hot? Okay, very spicy."
Finally, I confess to employing that age-old (and probably politically incorrect) strategy of judging how authentic a restaurant is based on the number of customers who look as though they share the same ethnicity as the food. A dim-sum place without at least one Asian grandma hunched over a portion of chicken feet while her relatives slurp soup from bowls doesn't rate with me.
Using this battery of tests to gauge the Coral Gables Thai eatery Lotus Garden would disqualify it immediately. It fails on every single count. Still, in Miami-Dade County (where, according to the most recent census, slightly more than one percent of the population is Asian) I've learned that word of mouth is worth more than appearances. And since I had been hearing raves about this place and had tried it only once back when it was located in a dark and tiny storefront just across the parking lot from the Publix at Le Jeune and Andalusia, I thought it warranted a visit at its new digs. This past January, in order to compete on equal footing, the Lotus Garden moved across the street from the more upscale Thai Orchid.
The new dining room is nearly twice the size of the old place, and can accommodate at least 60 people at its large and well-spaced tables. Unfortunately, what the restaurant has gained in size it has lost in charm. The decor, dominated by shiny, salmon-pink walls, is accented with garishly striped wallpaper reminiscent of an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor; landscapes framed in gaudy, gold-tone frames; travel posters; silk flower arrangements; and glaring, overhead fluorescent lights that serve only to highlight the cheap, synthetic tablecloths and napkins. Along the back wall is a large aquarium stocked with brightly colored exotic fish.
When a girlfriend and I visited on a recent afternoon, several dozen people -- many of them dressed in crisp suits -- occupied the spic-and-span dining room. From our seats along the front window we looked out at Thai Orchid's purple neon sign.
A waiter, a son of the owners of Lotus Garden, explained why the family chose to make such a bold move: "Our lease was up, and we had this place in mind for a while. They [Thai Orchid] have their own customers. But we have a very loyal customer base. Otherwise we couldn't have done it."
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.
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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.
Wasn't it only a few short years ago that Thai food made its debut and captured the fancy of the American palate? As it turns out, in true immigrant fashion the imaginative cuisine has already been assimilated. It's become as difficult to find real Thai food as it is to find authentic Mexican or Chinese. If things continue this way, pad Thai will soon take its place beside other great American foods such as pizza, burritos, and shrimp fried rice.
Lotus Garden 318 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-446-2360. Lunch weekdays from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday, plus Sunday, from 5:00 p.m. till 10:30, Friday and Saturday till 11:00 p.m.
Hot and sour soup