Piyarat Arreeratn is not in the kitchen. Tonight, the boyish chef with spiky hair roams the dining room at his family-run restaurant, Oishi Thai. He pats a blond kid on the head, wipes down an empty table, and bounces around asking guests if everything is all right. Chef Bee, as he is commonly known, then vanishes down a narrow hallway. He emerges cradling a grand dish -- seafood pad thai crowned with a massive lobster tail and a lone lilac orchid.
"Tweet it. Enjoy it," he says, grinning widely and planting the plate on a nearby patron's table.
The woman snaps a photo and tweets it. And, almost immediately, Chef Bee tweets it too.
This sort of publicity push might seem odd at Oishi Thai, a sushi and Thai spot that occupies the same strip mall as T.G.I.Friday's and Publix in North Miami. But this isn't a regular night for the soft-spoken, inky-eyed chef and his tidy, dim restaurant. It's a homecoming of sorts.
For much of the past year, Chef Bee oversaw Khong River House, a posh restaurant off Lincoln Road that earned a James Beard nomination for its refined northern Thai cuisine. But two months ago, he suddenly quit and returned to Oishi Thai, the restaurant he helped found in 2005.
This abrupt departure did not go over well. On August 27, Khong's owner, 50 Eggs, sued Chef Bee and Oishi Thai, alleging breach of contract. According to the 45-page complaint, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Chef Bee violated a noncompete agreement when he trained with 50 Eggs, resigned, and went into competition against the restaurant group.
The drama has saturated Miami's food scene, and neither plaintiff nor defendant has come out unscathed. While 50 Eggs impugns Bee's competence, other chefs such as Jamie DeRosa, Jeremiah Bullfrog, and Kevin Sbraga have lambasted the restaurant group. Social media flutters with support for Oishi Thai. Even at the restaurant itself, diners coo encouragement. "It's about money," one patron remarked. "Greed!" another declared. "I can't believe they are doing this to you."
But tonight, no one can bring themselves to ask the question pulsing through the city's dining panorama: Is Chef Bee really operating a "competing business," as the lawsuit alleges?
The answer to this question lies in how Khong and Oishi Thai advertise themselves. When Khong opened in December 2012, it was marketed as a redefinition of Miami's Thai food, doing away with rich curries and mundane pad thais. It was new, bold, and different. Today, the menu features boat noodles, fish cooked in banana leaves, and head-on prawn. Cocktails mix red chilies with gin, and the crowd is urbane.
Meanwhile, at this Biscayne Boulevard strip mall, families swarm Oishi Thai's dining room to sip miso soup and pop salted edamame into their mouths. Servers carry plates of chicken teriyaki, California rolls, and gyoza around lacquered tables. The restaurant's cooking satisfies cravings for essential Japanese and Thai dishes, catering to those who covet mochi ice cream as much as wonton soup.
Still, despite its nondescript location, thrilling dishes hide among the tilapia and fried rice. Oishi Thai's whole deep-fried snapper flakes off the bone, melding with a salty garlic-soy sauce that rides alongside. But even this fish is ordered rarely. "Have you been to Thailand?" asked our young waiter, staring curiously at the bare spines. "Americans don't usually eat whole fish."
Regulars instead opt for more dependable choices such as noodles. The restaurant serves seven variations of pad thai, its rice strips tangling around chicken, beef, vegetables, or shrimp. Pad kee mao fuses sautéed bell peppers with bamboo shoots, basil, and chili sauce -- a plate that fares well as take-out, especially when paired with spring rolls, some Netflix, and a fluffy, worn couch.
Unlike Khong's polished cuisine, the food at Oishi Thai comforts. Tom yum soup features poached, shredded chicken in a spicy lemongrass-infused broth; jumping shrimp salad layers pale lettuce with chili-paste-coated crustaceans; and tiger's tear beef couples the same greens with bits of piquant meat. The duck red curry is also delicious. Sloshed in a rosy sauce with shrimp paste and coconut milk, fried duck breast shimmers from the oil's heat. The same treatment graces soft-shell crabs, fried golden and crisp, and served with soy sauce.
The unfussy approach defines desserts as well. Sweet sticky rice, steeped with sugar and coconut milk, couples beautifully with slices of ripe mango. "In Thailand, the mango is even better," declares a waitress, her caramel eyes shining with mirth.
While Khong exclusively features tastes found along the Mekong River, Oishi Thai offers Japanese flavors too. The tajima beef sushi, prepared with black Wagyu steak, may not be a looker, but the scored meat is smoother than the finest pork belly or pâté. Other Japanese ventures, however, prove clumsy at times. A cloyingly sweet dish of thinly sliced white fish, doused in yuzu, truffle oil, and lychee, drowns in excess liquid.
Much more successful is the fried tofu salad. At $7.95, it melds chunks of pinkish globe tomatoes with deep-fried bits of soybean curd, sitting on a mattress of lettuce. It lacks flair, and sometimes that's exactly what patrons at Oishi Thai want.
But it might also sound familiar.
The salad was once proffered at Khong. At the South Beach hub, browned cubes were soaked in an astringent red-chili vinegar dressing. The tofu smothered ribbons of red onion and peppers with crushed peanuts and Technicolor cherry tomatoes. At $13, it was an explosion of flavors and hues -- all stacked upon a cool, emerald plate.
And, in a sense, the dish provides a metaphor for the restaurants. Both have served fried tofu salad. But their versions have distinct differences and lure divergent crowds.
Perhaps that explains why Chef Bee looks so unfazed this evening. The busy chef seems pleased with his noncorporate gig -- serving pad thai, wandering from table to table, and muttering his now-favored phrase to friends: "It's not my recipe. It's not [50 Eggs'] recipe. You cannot claim to own Thai food."
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.