Thai Island

210 E Davis Blvd
Tampa, FL 33606



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October 6th, 2005

Thai Island is a family operation, with Clay McElmurray and his wife Penn - a native of Sukhothai in Northern Thailand - at the helm. That's why, on my first visit, I was surprised that the menu showed significantly more influence from the country's Southern coastal regions. Pineapple, raw coconut and coconut milk are prevalent, and the menu includes a long list of curries, as well as a wide range of more typical Thai classics. Still, the menu seemed pretty standard. Ho-hum, even - like so many Thai places I've encountered across this metropolitan area lately. Needless to say, I was unprepared for the ass-kicking my dormant taste buds gratefully suffered at the hands of some of Thai Island's standout food. The restaurant's design is strictly no frills. Two plastic tables outside overlook Davis Boulevard and passersby. The interior has an almost neglected look. With white walls and ceiling, a few random pieces of Thai art on the walls, and decades-old fans stirring the frigidly conditioned air, Thai Island looks like it was thrown together over a weekend. It's not bohemian, or sparse - it's just a bare room. The food must take center stage in such a vacant setting, and my guests and I ordered a prodigious amount of it. Our server brought the dishes as they were prepared, ignoring fine distinctions like pacing and separate courses. That encourages sharing, as everyone picks at whatever is available while waiting for "their" dishes. This method produced some fast-paced fork duels over some of the favorites. Two of these favorites were fried. Thai Corn Fritters ($5.95), essentially jazzy hush puppies, were golden, brown and delicious. More like a savory funnel cake studded with golden kernels of sweet corn than the heavy, doughy balls at your typical church fish fry, the fritters seemed to melt in the mouth, a hint of Thai spice appearing at the finish. Stuffed chicken wings ($5.95) were also like re-imagined carnival food. Large wings were sliced open and stuffed with ginger-scented ground pork and strands of clear glass noodle, then fried and sauced. It seemed odd at first. (Two different species of meat in the same dish? Sacrilege!) But the crisp, fatty chicken combined with tender, subtly flavored filling quickly grew on us. Mmmm, sacrilicious. We could have used another plate of them. The rest of the starters were typical Thai fare. Thai Island's Tofu Pad Thai ($8.95) would make great takeout; fried wontons ($5.95) were filled with standard curry and cream cheese; and tom yum ($3.95) was scented with lemongrass and galangal as expected. Everything was at least adequate, which does give Thai Island a leg up on most Bay area Thai joints. Two Thai standards did stand out, if only a little. The spring rolls ($3.50) are filled with ground chicken and mushrooms, along with the standard veggies and noodles. Also, the ubiquitous grilled chicken satay ($5.95) was good, but the accompanying peanut sauce was well above average. It had a darker, deeper color and a heavily roasted flavor that set it apart from the normal insipid sesame and peanut butter blends. Thai Island injects a remarkable amount of spicy heat into its food, distinguishing it from ho-hum places that cater to the lowest common denominator. This heat made itself known in two excellent salads. Yum talea ($12.95) featured plump shrimp, tender squid and barely cooked mussels bathed in zesty, bright lime juice and the fresh, fragrant hit of cilantro. Tiny, diced Thai chilies accented every few bites with a heat-filled punch to the tongue. Hot, sour and good Thai Island's chicken larb ($6.95) had a more subtle approach to heat. The pile of seasoned ground chicken and crispy rice mixture - which you scoop onto bite-size sections of crispy, raw cabbage leaf - was excellent, the Thai chili powder providing a slow, but powerful, build-up of burn. By this point, the frigid air conditioning, hefty caffeine intake and mouth-searing spice had sent everyone at the table into a euphoric state. We were loud, we were funny, and everyone knew it. Just like happy drunks. Probably due to our increasing noise level, our server stopped asking us if we wanted more Thai tea and coffee and brought our entrees rather quickly. A duck special ($11.95) was your standard stir-fry of bell peppers, onions and luscious slices of dark duck breast. The others were more memorable. Spicy (but not hot) home-grown Thai basil inundated the pork pad kra proa ($8.95). The basil permeated every bite, but was balanced by an equally powerful blast of fried garlic and sliced chili. Even with all of the strong seasonings and aromatics, the thin, sliced stir-fried pork found a way to shine through. Everything worked together; no ingredient fought for supremacy. Massaman beef curry ($9.95) is all about the sauce, in this case a puddle of golden liquid dotted with hunks of potatoes and sliced beef. It was intoxicating, perfuming the air with tart tamarind, heady cinnamon and cardamom, and unctuous coconut milk. Ultimately, the individual ingredients were a bit too prominent; the dish was a bit lacking in unity. Still, with a tender piece of potato and a section of seared sirloin, it was the biggest party I've had in my mouth in a while. The owners of Thai island grow all of the herbs and peppers for the restaurant, as well as making many of the table sauces for the entrees. Try the intensely salty and spicy chilies preserved in evaporated fish sauce. It is altogether unlike any condiment you've used this month. Items like that will bring me back. With so many Thai places in the Bay area forking over dowdy food that once seemed exotic, a few intense, passionate, unapologetic dishes that I found at Thai Island provided a wake-up call.

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