Wynwood's Cake Thai Gives Miami a Real Taste of Thai Cuisine
Each Saturday morning, Tawin Thongsodchareondee rose early in his hometown of Phuket, Thailand, and loaded a tall dented pot with a pig's backbone, mounds of pork trotters, and chicken feet. As it boiled, he made fresh rice noodles before cleaning pigs' livers, stomachs, and kidneys. Then he'd stuff pig intestines with ground pork seasoned with garlic and black pepper before roasting bird's eye chilies and then pulverizing them. Next came peanuts to create a sticky, sweet, and spicy paste destined to be mixed with fish sauce and lime juice. After an hour or so, he tossed it all back into the pot and turned up the flame.
When it was done, he set out the broth, noodles, various pig parts, greens, and garlic crisped in pork fat, allowing everyone in his family to fill their bowls however they pleased.
"The meat became the condiments," says his son, Phuket Thongsodchareondee, who goes by the nickname "Cake" and opened Wynwood's Cake Thai this past December. "I always used to try to get as much of the stomach and liver as I could."
Cake, now 32 years old, followed his father into the kitchen and in doing so has become one of Miami's best Thai cooks. He has piercing almost-black eyes that seem misplaced above his toothy grin. He can rarely be found without his baggy white chef coat and backward baseball cap.
His childhood, he says, overflowed with his father's pork soup, which in Thai is called kway teow tom yum. Those all-day, weekend cooking marathons were some of the few times his father could spare away from his seafood restaurant. There, customers seated on plastic stools near the azure waters of the Andaman Sea wolfed down spiny lobster and flower crab.
Yet Cake wasn't born with an encyclopedia of Thai dishes preloaded into his head. His father started him off in the kitchen at the age of 6 or 7 with an omelet. Two eggs were furiously beaten with a dash of fish sauce and some white pepper. The mixture was poured into blistering oil that would fluff the eggs into a delicate sponge. It took years for Cake to turn out a version that satisfied his father.
"He kind of hated my food," he says with a laugh. "He wouldn't even touch it."
Cake's parents split when he was 17. He lived much of the time with his father and cooked to earn money when he wasn't in school. Sometimes he would visit his mother, who had moved to Bangkok. Together, the two would trawl the capital's streets, soaking up the bounty of the cacophonous city's food vendors.
He planned to study business, but that soon unraveled. "All I wanted to do was cook," Cake says.
So he hopped a flight to Australia and spent five years in the Perth School of Hospitality and Tourism. He worked nights as a dishwasher in a restaurant called Thai Corner that specialized in the overly sweet and coconut-flavored curries that have become the archetypes of westernized Thai cuisine. Soon he fell into that same booby trap when he opened a stall in a food court in Scarborough, a suburb of Perth. Disheartened yet eager to continue cooking, he agreed to learn how to make Frankencurries from the lady who sold him supplies.
He moved to Miami in 2007 and got a job at South Beach's now-shuttered Sushi Saigon. Later he moved to Myles Chefetz's Shoji Sushi (also closed) before joining the kitchen at Makoto, Stephen Starr's high-end Japanese place in Bal Harbour, in 2011. All the Thai places he worked — even the six months at San Francisco's Amphawa, an allegedly traditional place — told him to make the same thing: peanut-buttery pad thais and cloying curries.
"They all used me the wrong way," Cake says, shaking his head. "I had such better food in me."
All of it came bursting out in late 2013, when he and his mother opened a pint-size spot on Biscayne Boulevard at the northern end of the MiMo District serving the sour-and-spicy delights of their homeland. Soon restaurateur Javier Ramirez and his partners in Wynwood's Alter and Brickell's Bachour Bakery + Bistro took a shine to the place. They decided to put some money into the kid who was doing for Thai food in Miami what Kevin Cory of Naoe did for the city's sushi. They targeted a pocket-size space on NW 29th Street in Wynwood and decorated it with myriad oblong baskets that hang upside down from the ceiling over a compact dining room filled with 30 steel folding chairs.
Among Cake's first decisions about the menu was to include his father's soup. When the place opened in mid-December, he served it just like Tawin's, complete with chunks of stomach, liver, and ground-pig-stuffed intestine. Untouched bowls came back to the kitchen almost as soon as they left.
"Only the foodies would eat it," Cake gripes.
Dismayed but not discouraged, he started searching for ways to edit the recipe that would preserve the soup's essential flavors without abandoning its original form.
So now at 8 a.m. almost every day, Cake or one of his cooks arrives to fill a hulking stainless-steel cauldron with water and set it to boil. Eventually, someone switches on the lights and some music, which on a recent morning was the instrumental version of the Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M." (cash rules everything around).
He charges up the broth with nubs of garlic, black peppercorns, and cilantro root. Rather than use a cornucopia of pig organs, he settles for one fatty slab of pork belly that simmers for 12 hours, giving the broth a milky color along with a porcine aroma and fatty tackiness.
To fill out the bowl, he gently poaches ground pork shoulder in the soup's broth before combining the meat with a ladle full of fish sauce (the place goes through 12 gallons of the stuff each week), a healthy squirt of lime juice, and the same peanut-ground chili paste his father used to make.
Finally, it's poured over a few slices of chilled and sliced pork loin resting atop a knot of warm rice noodles. It's topped with green onions, sprigs of cilantro, a dusting of white pepper, and a handful of crisp pig skin curls.
The result is a soup whose complexity bests almost every other bowl in the city. An inundation of fish sauce and lime juice gives it the traditional sourness that is often missing from Thai food in Miami. (North Miami Beach's Panya Thai is one exception.)
After a minute or two, the rice noodles begin to soften and uncurl. They soon prove to be the ideal vehicle for a broth that slowly sets your mouth to burning. The sliced pork gives the dish enough heft to make it a full meal, while the sour elements and crisp pig skin balance each other with precision. The soup's tang might be off-putting to some, but it's elegantly balanced and maintains the spirit of the food his father taught him to cook so many years ago.
And that soup isn't alone. Cake's one-page menu is littered with the delights he picked up as he grew from a young home cook into a professional chef. There is kaprao moo krob, featuring ground pork belly or duck depending upon the night, which is quickly sautéed in a salty amalgam of chili and garlic. Jiggly flat rice noodles combined with chicken thigh; bits of springy, briny cuttlefish; salted cabbage; and house-made sriracha sauce fill out the dish he calls kua gai. And Cake's green curry, which the menu calls gaeng keaw wan nuea ayutthaya, features a mound of fork-tender short ribs doused in a pungent forest-green sauce that also clings to snappy Thai eggplants and a ginger-like tuber called finger root. After the first bite, you'll turn your nose up at every coconut-laced curry you encounter henceforth.
Yet sadly, Cake's most important guest will never sit down to try any of it.
His father, Tawin, passed away last year following a stroke before his son's crowning achievement was ready to open.
"I wish he could see all this," Cake says quietly. "There are so many things I want him to eat."
80 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-573-5082; cakethaimiami.com. Tuesday through Sunday noon to midnight.
Kway teo tom yum $16
Kua gai $16
Gaeng keaw wan nuea ayutthaya $24
Kway teo tom yum $16
Kaprao moo krob $20
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