There are five tables in this tiny downtown venue, room for 16 seats in all. Asian appointments adorn the entrance, and an enlarged black-and-white photo of New York City's Flatiron Building graces one of the walls — I'm not sure why. A waitress does busy work behind a counter in back, and beyond that is a teeny kitchen with one Thai chef. His name is Pakorn "Peter" Phansuwana, and he is proprietor of the five-week-old Thai Churos.
Peter Americanized his moniker because he grew tired of people mispronouncing Pakorn as popcorn. If he looks familiar, it's because he has been a hairstylist in Aventura for quite some time. Since coming to Miami eight years ago, however, Thai Churos has been his dream (churos are the same fried dough treats as the Spanish churros; they're sold as street snacks in Bangkok).
A petite menu, wisely sized in proportion to the limited kitchen space, is a five-by-eight-inch rectangle of thin white paper that lists three salads; a pair each of soups, noodle dishes, and curries; three sauced entrées; and one fried rice. We sampled everything except the house salad, panang curry, pad see-ew noodles, and vegetables with ginger sauce. We responded to everything with either oohs or aahs.
Thai Churos: 134 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-577-4323. Lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Seafood salad elicited both reactions. Perfectly tender squid bodies and blimp-shaped mussels as large as the shrimp beside them get tossed with onions, peppers, lemongrass, and cilantro in a chili-fired dressing; cucumber and tomato slices were fanned along the frame of the square white plate. Shrimp didn't play much of a role in papaya-shrimp salad; only a single boiled crustacean, nearly devoid of color and flavor, came plunked atop an otherwise fetching nest of julienned green and yellow papaya plugged in with electric chili-lime-cilantro dressing.
Churos's two soups are split between cool and hot. Spicy tom yum is fueled by chili paste and bolstered by basil and rough-hewn slices of ginger — with a tangy twang from lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and lime juice. Tom kar kai possesses many of the same ingredients, but with sweet coconut milk cutting the piquancy. Snow mushrooms bob in both broths, along with choice of chicken, pork, beef, or for a slight surcharge, shrimp. Pork and chicken were, on consecutive visits, more tender than the beef.
The same protein selections are offered with each entrée. We picked pork for our red curry course, which gets wok-fried with red peppers, bamboo shoots, onions, basil, and kaffir lime leaves in a moderately spicy coconut-based sauce not unlike the tom kar kai. Glutinous Thai rice on the side was prepared just right.
Beef in Thai basil sauce was even better, with onions, mushrooms, and glistening fresh red and green peppers savorily simmered in a brick-red sauce fragrant with the namesake herb. Also impressive was a thin, subtle light brown garlic sauce that pooled snippets of chicken and the aforementioned stir-fry vegetables herbed with cilantro rather than basil and crunchy with crisp-ribbed napa cabbage. Incidentally, if you wish to be lit up like a Christmas tree with pepper, let your desire be known to the waiter.
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Pad thai is so common an entry point to this cuisine that it might as well come with training wheels. The version here is darker, sweeter, and punchier than many local renditions; its succulently chewy rice noodles are festooned with onions, scallions, scrambled egg bits, and minced peanuts. What beer or wine matches best with pad thai? You can choose from thousands of options: The policy is BYOB.
Some folks might find the fried rice lackluster. It certainly looks that way — the grains barely stained with soy and seasonings, the pale pile of starch seemingly flecked only with yellow dots of freshly fried egg. Yet while softly sautéed onions, tomatoes, and skinny white squares of pork might be difficult to discern with the eye, their presence subtly but surely stimulates the palate.
Churos charges preciously low prices: All dishes cost $9.95 or less. Lunch brings an even bigger bargain, with entrées just $6.95. The mom-and-pop service is commensurate with what you pay — kind and courteous, if not of professional caliber.
On one occasion, the sole dessert was a scrumptious square of sweet, steamy, sticky rice capped with a layer of caramelized coconut custard. The single option on a return visit was fresh, soothingly spiced pumpkin pie. More desserts are on the way to this still-in-the-rough gem. Perhaps some Thai churos?