Mee Thai

Happy holidays, folks!  Sorry it has been a while since my last review, but I have written a few new ones I’m getting ready to stuff down your chimneys.

I rarely eat Thai food — I have to get that out of the way right away.  Always a late bloomer, I only ever ate it ONCE before I left my parents’ home to go off to college.  We had a jazz musician friend who was playing a gig at a Thai restaurant in Miami, and he invited us out.  My parents really don’t like trying new foods or going to new places, but they were cool enough to step out of their comfort zones that evening.  But none of us were prepared in the pre-Internet era of the mid-’90s to know what we might like, so we all very likely ordered the wrong things.  I know my dad didn’t like his at all.  It was a whole new world of spices and flavors, and he was not having it.  He said his food made his bald spot tingle, and it made him ANGRY, like he was about to Hulk out.  So that was it for Thai food for a few more years.

At least now, I’ve been to enough Thai restaurants over the years to generally know what I like and what I don’t.  My favorite dish is pad kee mao, AKA drunken noodles: wide, flat, chewy rice noodles stir-fried with a protein, onions, bell peppers, basil, sometimes carrots, and some spices.  It gets its name not because the recipe includes any alcohol, but because it’s great late-night drunk food.  I believe it, but as a non-drinker, trust me when I say it’s perfectly fine no matter what state you’re in or when you enjoy it.  It can be spicy, but I tend to go with medium heat.  That’s my go-to dish whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, because even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good.  Don’t get me wrong, I also like pad Thai and some other dishes, but drunken noodles are where it’s at.

Well, I’ve been hearing great things about Mee Thai (https://mee-thairestaurant.business.site/) for a while, on Lee Road in Orlando, not far off I-4 exit 88.  Mee Thai is ten minutes from Winter Park Village, and two minutes from another favorite of mine, LaSpada’s Cheesesteaks and Hoagies.  It’s a small building with a green roof that makes it hard to miss in a relatively industrial stretch of road with a surprising amount of intriguing restaurants around.  And Mee Thai, specializing in food from the Esan region of Thailand, was definitely intriguing.

When I arrived, the two ladies working were extremely friendly and welcoming, especially when I said I’ve been reading good reviews online and this was my first visit.  I was ordering takeout to bring home for my wife, but they were so nice, I already couldn’t wait to come back with her to dine in.  I ordered drunken noodles with chicken for myself, pad Thai with beef for my wife, a Thai iced coffee for her, and an order of Thai doughnuts to share for dessert.  They didn’t have mi krop, my wife’s favorite Thai appetizer, but it was still a large menu with lots of selections.  The menu had prices for lunch and dinner entree portions, I didn’t specify, and they didn’t ask, but it was lunchtime, so I assumed they gave me the lunch portions.

While I waited in the restaurant, the young lady was kind enough to bring me a small salad to enjoy.  It was a simple salad with crispy iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, but the dressing brought it to a whole other level.  It was some kind of vinaigrette, a little sweet, kind of a creamy white color, and I feel like a boob because I’m not enough of a Thai food expert to describe it any better, but it was delicious.  I would have bought a whole bottle of that salad dressing if they sold it.  Anyway, here is the salad they packed for me to bring home for my wife.  (She didn’t eat it today, so hopefully I’ll get to have it tomorrow!)

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When I got the food home, we were both extremely impressed by the quality, freshness, and flavors of everything, plus the generous portion sizes (pretty huge if they were the lunch portions).  The drunken noodles had that chewy consistency I love, and while I think I would have been happier with beef or pork, the white meat chicken was so flavorful, if a little dry.  The medium heat had a pleasant kick, and next time I might be brave enough to try the hot, but maybe not “Thai hot.”  I love what Thai basil brings to this dish, plus the onions and bell peppers, which were stir-fried to a very nice softness.  It was such a large portion that I didn’t finish it all in one sitting, which is a good thing that I don’t do often enough.

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My wife was a little surprised at first that her pad Thai didn’t have the orange hue she is used to, but if anything, that probably makes this version of the dish a little healthier and a little more authentic.  It had everything — tender, juicy beef, chewy noodles, a little citrusy tang and sweetness in the aftertaste.  I had to try it as well, and we both agreed it was one of the better versions of pad Thai we’ve had around here.  Probably the best.  Same goes for my drunken noodles.  Very impressed.

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The Thai doughnuts came with an order of six.  They were light and fluffy, not greasy at all, and they came with a little dipping container of sweetened condensed milk.  Now, I LOVE sweetened condensed milk.  It’s so fantastic as a component in desserts, but I think I’d be perfectly content if dessert WAS sweetened condensed milk.  Just bring me a can and a spoon, and I’ll go to town.

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So that’s Mee Thai, a wonderful restaurant that has been open for about a year, that I highly recommend.  I’ll give it my seal of approval over every other Thai restaurant we’ve been to in Orlando, which is at least six or seven of them, and I think these prices were cheaper than most of the others I’ve been to.  They are open seven days a week, from 11 AM to 9:30 PM, they are incredibly nice, and the food is great.  I intend to become more well-versed in Thai food in 2019, and I can promise I’ll go back to Mee Thai regularly to try new things and revisit my go-to favorite, drunken noodles.

Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.