Mid-day traffic dense and unpredictable, a flock of visitor’s vehicles trying to maneuver their way out to Siesta Key, and Eating Companion (EC) and I are anxiously trying to get to Gulf Gate’s Thailand, a restaurant that, you guessed it, specializes in its namesake’s cuisine. A friend who knows of EC’s and my love of Thai curries and spring rolls tipped us off a while back, but it has taken us ages to actually visit.
Thailand is located on the south side of Gulf Gate Drive, in a strip mall that must house thirty-something local businesses – Chinese restaurants, cobblers, Scandinavian gift shops, and more. Inside, the place is typical of proper Thai restaurants, low-lit, dark woods and wicker, lots of crimson and gold.
EC and I got wise to Thai restaurants’ whole game a while back, realizing it was silly for us not to take advantage of the often ridiculously affordable lunch menus, where most entrees are around 30-percent cheaper than a dinner entree and come with soup and a spring roll. It’s just good economics.
Thailand’s menu is pretty typical, with a number of curries, several sir-fry options, pad thai and the like. The lunch menu is priced according to protein, with beef, chicken, and pork options running just $6.50 for most dishes, while shrimp, scallops, or squid will cost you another dollar and “seafood” will set you back another four.
We order some Thai iced tea and decide on some lunch specials: EC wants a cup of the tom yum soup ($3.95); we decide to split a pineapple curry with beef and a panang curry with chicken; we have to give the pad thai a whirl for good measure; and the cashew nut just sounds too good to pass up.
The tea is incredible, one of the best I’ve ever had. Super rich and creamy, but not syrupy, with an earthy, almost carrot-like sweetness. The calorie count on one of these has to be insane.
Our spring rolls and the soup arrive about eight seconds after our waitress enters the kitchen with our orders. You can tell this place can crank out some serious numbers on a lunch shift.
The spring rolls are small and a little greasy, but nice and crisp with a sweet, jammy sauce. The soup that accompanies lunches is a sort of chicken noodle, heavy on the garlic, not bad, but it’s a joke compared to the tom yum. Full of vibrant reds and oranges, with a light, but substantial, hot and sour broth oozing with lemongrass and magroot, the tom yum has a tangy, soothing warmth that makes me regret not sending a loved one out for some each and every time I have ever fallen ill.
The curries arrive together, and are surprisingly large for a lunch portion. EC and I both get the sense that if we did have day jobs it would be difficult to go back to work after a meal like this. Both curries pack a very unique, mellow spice that lights up your tongue by the second bite, but isn’t overpowering. The meat is thin-sliced and tender. The panang is sweeter than most I’ve had – nutty, thick, and smooth. The pineapple is tangy, sweet taking a back seat to the heat.
The pad Thai is pretty average; most all pad Thai tastes the same to me – it’s like introductory Thai food – and most places tend to play it safe, with a mild, sweet sauce, a generous dusting of ground peanuts, tender chicken and some scallions for color, to break up what would otherwise be a big blob of brown.
The cashew nut, on the other hand, is a triumph and a treat, a bouquet of colors – red and green bell peppers, carrots, pineapple – with plenty of whole cashews, all sitting in a smooth, vaguely sweet brown sauce. It’s subtle, bright and balanced.
We’re out the door, back out into the mid-day hustle and bustle, our stomachs distended – suffering, happily, from what EC has coined “Rice Belly.” After years of limiting our Thai food options to only Sarasota’s venerable Bangkok and Venice’s Thai Bistro, Thailand now happily enters our regular rotation.