The King and Stir-Fry
The version of Thai food one encounters at the King and I restaurant is about as real as the vision of Thai culture one encounters in the Rogers & Hammerstein musical of the same name -- which is to say, not very. Not that this is necessarily bad; it just isn't necessarily Thai. The real-life nineteenth-century British schoolmarm Anna Leonowens (on whose distorted memoirs the musical was based), for instance, was by all accounts an ill-tempered pill, not nearly as charming as Broadway's Gertrude Lawrence whistling a happy tune. And while real King Mongkut did establish the entire government infrastructure of modern Thailand (then Siam), surely neither his rendition of "March of the Siamese Children" nor his haircut could hold a candle to Yul Brynner's. Similarly while food critics may be right that one doesn't encounter the most authentically complex dishes such as the searingly spicy yet cooling, sweet yet tart green papaya salad outside Thailand, one also does not encounter the need for the sort of phrases essential in many authentic eateries inside Thailand -- such as "No live red ant appetizer for me today, thanks!"
So the real question regarding the food at the King and I isn't is it authentic, but is it good? The answer: It's good enough -- and midday, when specials of entrée (choice of about three dozen) plus unlimited soup and salad average only $6 to $9.50, it also is extremely good value.
Lunchers following the American custom of eating soup and salad as starters will likely find disappointing both the King's weak poultry-flavored rice broth (nothing like Thailand's often thin but always flavorful soups) and the salad of iceberg lettuce with a few cucumbers and carrot slices (nothing like Thailand's many-ingredient masterpieces). So using the stuff throughout the meal Thai-style as, respectively, a palate-refreshener and a crunchy counterpoint for richer dishes, makes more sense. Both the tangy miso and creamy peanut/coconut salad dressings are tasty. Among the many beef, pork, poultry, seafood, and vegetarian sautées and curries available as lunch special entrées, duck basil is a standout. The generous portion of breaded and deep-fried poultry was crisp but nearly greaseless outside, still juicy inside; sautéed onion plus red and green pepper chunks added vegetable crunch, bracing holy basil (different from Italian pesto stuff) contributed more than a hint of mint, and a dark brown sauce provided heat (the latter customizable: mild, medium, or hot). Another choice, pad thai, is a superior version to most in Miami owing to plentiful shrimp and egg, bean sprouts that are not overcooked to limpness, and, especially, lighter and less-cloyingly-sweet-than-normal saucing. Heat-seekers should note that in general, red and green curry specials beat yellow, which taste somewhat processed.
As well as Thai food, the King serves Japanese dishes. While many South Florida Thai eateries do, this is again inauthentic since, ironically, Japan is about the only Asian nation in a long list (including China, India, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia) whose cuisine did not, historically, influence Thailand's. Still, a lunch-special combo featuring six glistening-fresh pieces of hamachi, salmon, and tuna sashimi, three individual nigiri sushi pieces, a California roll, and an eight-piece shrimp-and-vegetable tempura assortment with big prawns, for under ten bucks, is, by the standard's of any nation's rulers, kingly treatment at pauperly prices.
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