“Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and nestles against the Indian Ocean Coast some 870 kilometers south of Bangkok. Then Phuket reveal itself, the pearl of the Andaman Sea with lush green hills as far you can see.”
– Our Funny Planet
Let’s just say that Phuket, Honduras 4169, Palermo, 4861-1679, isn’t lush and green, and isn’t a pearl in any sea. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s the sort of place that I’ve heard mixed reviews on, and my feelings are mixed as well. Let’s start with the ambiance… I’m not fond of it – concrete floors, uncomfortable chairs, and a squeezed-in feeling tiny space (14 seats crammed into a space meant for about 8-10), and a weird attempt to cover one wall with a sort of faux bamboo look, using cheap wood slats (why? bamboo poles are available here) that are splintered and rough. The room, such as it is, is dominated by an oversized counter that is used for nothing other than a pile of menus and a laptop computer, and a soda/beer refrigerator that belongs in your neighborhood kiosk. It’s also worth noting that the location is strange, on an otherwise deserted block at night, across from a couple of car dealerships. It’s definitely a “destination” spot, as there’s no foot traffic of people looking for restaurants on the street.
The service – friendly, but odd. I gather, though I may not be correct, that the setup is, mom and dad in the dining room, dad playing manager, which means he spends most of the evening staring at the laptop computer, and mom playing waitress – son is the chef, along with a couple of friends of his who help out in the kitchen. None are Thai, but then, I don’t think any of the Thai restaurants here in town are run by Thais. Dad initially came to our table to drop menus, and also at a neighboring table, where he proceeded in loud voice to disparage the “two other Thai restaurants in town”, Empire and Sudestada, as inauthentic fusion spots that weren’t worth going to, and asserted that Phuket is the only authentic Thai spot in town. He’s wrong on Empire, which is pretty damned authentic, and excellent to boot, and Sudestada is supposed to be fusion, they don’t claim otherwise. He’s also wrong in that he missed Lotus and Tuk-Tuk, which, when I brought them up to him, he’d never heard of. Mom later came onto the floor and though Dad had taken the order, she came back to the table and re-took it. We’d also just about finished our first bottle of beer and asked for another, she declined, telling us to finish the one we had first, and didn’t bring another bottle until we’d literally drained the last of our glasses. Really? You’re not my mother, we’re paying customers. Really?
On to the most important part, the food. Some of the menu items are available in different spiciness levels, others are not.
The nem, interestingly after dad’s assertion that all of their food is authentically Thai with no fusion, is described on the menu as “Vietnamese pork springrolls” (which should be nem rán, as nem just means pork). Not. First off, no spice option, and the sauce they’re served with is a sickly sweet pineapple something or other, the rolls themselves, soggy, completely flavorless, and the pork ground so fine as to be a paste inside. Actually bordering on unpleasant. And, of course, anyone who knows Vietnamese springrolls knows they’re thin, crispy, and served with lettuce (not that wilted yellow piece on the plate, either), vegetables and herbs in which to wrap them before dipping them in a spicy sauce.
The satay wasn’t a whole lot better, though at least wasn’t a bad dish. The meat (choice of chicken or pork), is stated to be marinated in coconut milk and herbs – probably true – though no spices. The peanut sauce not only devoid of any spice (no spice options on this dish either), but devoid of any peanut flavor. To be honest, we couldn’t decide quite what was in it it was so neutral. At least the meat was nicely grilled….
Things did pick up after those two poorly showing dishes. Sort of. We had wanted to order the laab kai, a spicy chicken salad and one of my favorites, but it wasn’t available. Neither were the yam neua, a spicy beef salad, nor the som tam, the papaya salad. We ended up with the yam tale, the spicy prawn and squid salad (which, weirdly we thought, other than the meat in it, should be exactly the same dish as the beef salad above that was not to be found). It’s available in spicy or extra spicy. It was neither. It was sweet. It was at least fresh, with nice herbs and vegetables, a few squid rings, and two, count them, two, small shrimp. Not prawns, small shrimp. Two.
But, it was tasty, and when mom asked, we did tell her we were a bit disappointed that the “extra spicy” wasn’t. Her response was “we follow the recipes and that’s the way it’s supposed to be”, which leaves me wondering if any of them actually know Thai food. But, she did return about 3-4 minutes later after going into the kitchen, pulled up a footstool and sat down at the table, where in conspiratorial tones she informed us that 1) she’d screwed up and not marked the check for the extra spicy (not true, since she checked off the box on the pre-printed ordering pad right in front of us, and it was marked on that very form when we received it as the bill at the end of the night – obviously the kitchen just screwed up, or that really is as spicy as it gets); and 2) that her son, the chef, was actually taking the night off, and the kid in the kitchen who was helping out didn’t know how to make a lot of the things, which is why there were menu items not available, and perhaps why things weren’t as good as they should be. Okay….
We contemplated canceling our main course order, given how disappointing the appetizers were, but she assured us that the curries would be excellent, and “extra extra spicy”, as we’d ordered. And we were already sitting down, you know?
We’d ordered two different, though somewhat similar curries – the fiery phaenang, with prawns (turned out to be small shrimp again), and the slightly milder (traditionally) red curry with pork. Okay, we’ll give them that they were spicy. Not blow your mind spicy, and phaenang can be when made right, but at least break a sweat spicy. Keeping in mind that that was level three spicy, I can only assume that the level one is pretty much at the “pass the cocktail sauce” level of spice. They were also well prepared, and a decent portion, served with a generous portion of jasmine rice (on the menu “tasmin”). And I’d say that while not completely authentic, they were at least in the ballpark, and quite satisfying.
So, where does this leave us? Not thrilled with the ambiance nor service. Mixed thoughts on the food, is it fair to have reviewed the dinner from a night when the chef was not there? I debated that internally, but I think yes. They chose to open, and they eliminated menu items that the assistant didn’t know how to prepare – I think it’s fair game to take them at their word that he knew how to prepare the items they were offering, if not, they shouldn’t have offered them, or simply closed for the night. I do think it was intriguing enough to go back and try it out once more when the chef is there. But I’m not going to rush back, and based on what we had, I think that both Empire and Lotus pull it off better. Still, we’ll see. For now, an “okay” is all I’m willing to give it.