Once upon a time, indulging in Thai cuisine was an exotic foray into the unknown, but now Thai restaurants can be found on just about every main drag in town. What's next? McThai drive-throughs with satay nuggets and curry value-meals?
Thankfully, much more originality and attention to detail are in evidence at Royal Thai, which opened in 1997, making it an early entry in the Thai trend. When we visited shortly after the restaurant opened, near the busy crossroads of Semoran Boulevard and Colonial Drive, we found some aspects of the menu and service lacking.
But Royal Thai has only improved with age. Two recent revisits offered a delicious presentation of the prowess of chef Jintana Bant, who hails from northern Thailand. Service was more efficient, too -- we were in and out within an hour.
The simple dish param ($8.95) was handled with such a deft touch that it caught us off guard. The traditional stew of meat (which we declined in lieu of tofu) and spinach is nothing too fancy. But then we spooned some of the light peanut sauce over the pan-seared tofu cubes and vegetables, and took a taste. The hot, spicy flavors revealed themselves quietly and successively, like the trail of glitter in the aftermath of fireworks. It was at that moment we knew we were in the hands of a pro.
We had a more delayed reaction to the formidable "Thai beef stew" ($8.95), which is prepared in a red curry paste, backed up by a chorus of onions, peanuts and potatoes. Halfway into it, we realized we had crossed into extremely hot territory. We set this dish aside to be later enjoyed a few bites at a time and moved on to the next delight.
The "golden squid" ($5.95) was a refreshing antidote; these were jumbo rings of tender, chewy meat flash-fried into golden fritters. Left alone, they were fine, but when the appetizers were lightly whisked into a dish of chili-plum sauce -- as light and sweet as a glass of wine -- the taste was much more intriguing.
Our only disappointment was the mee grob ($4.95), which could have used more than four shrimp. Otherwise, it was an able rendition of crispy rice noodles sautéed in a sweet-and-sour sauce, garnished with bean sprouts.
On two visits, we never saw more than a dozen customers in the dining area, which resembles a cool, dimly lit garden cottage. But they do a busy takeout business here. If Royal Thai is still uncharted territory, be assured that two years after opening, it is a worthy destination for sophisticated Thai classics.