Comfort food: Every cuisine has it. Whether it's American macaroni and cheese, English trifle or French cassoulet, comfort foods share certain basic qualities lots of carbohydrates, a lack of challenging texture or spices, and a comforting reminder of childhood. And on those terms, Pilin is a total success.
American "Thai" food is undoubtedly different from what you might eat in Thailand. The dishes on the menu at Pilin (and most Thai restaurants) would probably seem as foreign to a Bangkok native as your neighborhood Chinese restaurant's kung pao chicken would to a diner in Beijing. But as Thai overtakes Chinese as the ethnic cuisine of choice, those "Thai" dishes are becoming just as codified: phad Thai, tom kha gai soup, Panang curry; all are as familiar as moo goo gai pan these days. For some of us, a steaming coconut-scented bowl of tom kha gai is just as comforting as Mom's chicken soup.
After some aimless driving and a U-turn, we finally found the place (it's in a strip mall on the north side of the street, near the intersection of 436 and 434). A mirrored back wall augments the wide-open feel; there weren't many people seated in the room, but there was a booming takeout trade. We sat near the front, and there was a steady in-and-out of locals picking up brown paper bags. Service was very friendly, somewhat hampered by the fact that our waitress didn't speak much English and seemed to be baby-sitting her very young sister and providing service to every table. Still, she was quite attentive and tried her best to answer questions.
We started with a selection of appetizers. The chicken satay was juicy and lightly seasoned with turmeric, accompanied with a mild peanut sauce; the tom kha gai was creamy, packed with chicken and straw mushrooms; so far, exactly what you expect from your neighborhood Thai place. But we were thrilled to see green papaya salad on the menu. It was referenced as "Thailand's most favorite salad," yet it's inexplicably rare at Thai restaurants around Orlando. We took a flyer on "tofu todd," fried bean curd served with a weak vinegar/sugar dipping sauce and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. And it's a good thing we did our pal Todd was utterly bland ("useless" was the general sentiment), but that blandness complemented the papaya salad, the cool crunchy strands of which were lip-tinglingly spicy.
Now here's where the comfort-food aspect of the evening started to become apparent. The massaman curry chicken, pork, beef or tofu with potatoes, onions and a mild peanut-coconut sauce was as soothingly creamy and bland as any 5-year-old could wish for. I mean that in the best possible way. This is the dish to order on those days when you crawl home after an exhausting day at work or when you're looking for culinary consolation. The potatoes were tender; the onions almost melting, all sharpness simmered away; the curry was velvety-smooth. A little boring, but heavenly.
Our other entrée, the phad lad na, was also addictive, though somewhat spunkier: wide, silky noodles and crunchy-crisp broccoli swimming in a wine-scented broth. The menu advised that it was "recommended to mix with vinegar chili pickles and chili powder," and they brought out a pretty, green china tray of condiments: chilis pickled in vinegar, dried chili seeds, chopped peanuts and chili paste. Delicious as the dish was without it, the enhancements gave a nice kick to stir us out of our massaman stupor.
In the interests of thorough research, we decided to try dessert. I'm not much of a dessert fan, but we ordered the sweet sticky rice with mango, and it was the high point of the meal. A small slab of chewy rice was lapped in sweet, thick coconut milk, contrasting with slices of ripe, peppery mango. Lush yet zingy, it was as though the two halves of our comfort-food equation came together.