The 28-year-old chef and owner of Cake Thai Kitchen, Phuket Thongsodchaveondee, learned to cook at his father's hotel in the idyllic southern Thai beach town for which he's named.
"This is just street food, something Thai people would eat quickly on the way to somewhere," he says.
Cake opened about two months ago in a ramshackle Biscayne Boulevard strip mall. Phuket, who once worked at Makoto in Bal Harbour and was considering heading for the recently opened Morimoto, uncovered the windows of a once-dingy Chinese takeout place and papered the walls with videogame and movie ads from Thai magazines.
Occasional black-and-white portraits of Thailand's royal families, clad in traditional garb, hang alongside pictures of the Terminator and Sean Connery's James Bond. At the front sits a buffet station that, for $8 per person, offers lemongrass-rubbed roast chicken alongside roasted rice studded with crisp shallots and fried pork. Sometimes it's Penang curry or fried chicken.
"I always sell out of that," he says of the latter.
A bowl of thin, chewy egg noodles ($12) fills a vat of duck broth sweetly scented with Chinese five-spice powder. It's all topped with several slices of crispy duck breast (Phuket said he knows Americans don't love chewing through bones the way Asians do, so he removes them), fried pork fat, peanuts, garlic, and shallots. A few cilantro leaves and spears of gai lan (Chinese broccoli) complete the soup.
After the rice, noodles and curries come his mother May Mazza's desserts. A Thai custard ($5) is similar to the Chinese egg custard found on dim sum tables, but is made with a duck egg and palm sugar that intensifies its sweet-savory balance, whic is set alight by a sprinkling of fried shallots. Most of the time she runs the register, takes orders and watches over customers while Phuket works with the wok in back.
Be warned, but not discouraged, that Phuket is learning on the spot and seems frazzled and disorganized. Such is to be expected of a young cook striking out their own, particularly while alone working a weekday lunch. Garlic infused house fermented pork sausages weren't available and a few minutes after ordering rice with shrimp paste and dried shrimp he told me to pick something else because he wasn't happy with the grains (too mushy, he said).
However, such disappointments are good signs, especially when he isn't willing to sell a dish he's not confident of. Phuket is finding his way, and if he can get to his final destination he could join Panya Thai as one of the city's very few excellent Thai restaurants.
Cake Thai Kitchen is located at 7910 Biscayne Blvd. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.