Food nirvana at Tampa's Thai Temple

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[image-1]The Thai temple’s delicious fund raising is no longer a secret, as the increasing crowds around the food stalls attest every Sunday. But among Tampa’s foodies it still seems that more like talk about it than actually go see it and taste it for themselves. I’ve always found most of the Bay area’s Thai restaurants to be capable but largely unexciting. It seems they are largely complacent, serving the same curries and dishes laced with coconut milk with little verve or variation. The first time I visited the temple a few years ago, I was a happy man, indeed.  Finally, I found Thai food that seemed sincere, rustic, and homemade. I finally found a papaya salad that burned my tongue with the heat of chilies. And that's a big part of the appeal -- the cooks don’t pull any punches at the temple.


I’m also amused by the division of labor: Thai ladies cook and serve most of the entrees, soups, and desserts; Thai men convene around the grill and the frying woks; and the Yankees -- unmistakably American ex-G.I.’s who married Thais -- sell the drinks and bottled water.


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Taken on a very windy day, the pictures here don't do justice to the temple's many fans. On good weather days, the ambiance around the temple cannot be beat, with the bustling market area, riverside picnic tables, and playground. The temple is more than a place of worship, and the people there blend food and socialization in a way that rivals the most grand church pot luck suppers. If there’s a Southern Baptist congregation that throws down like this and invites all comers, I'm all ears.


While the temple itself is bejeweled and opulent, the rest of the facilities are humble. The first time I visited, I was struck by the simplicity of terracing the riverside slopes with cinder block steps. The veranda around the recreation center is just as simple and functional. The simplicity and sincerity are the most endearing parts of the temple’s fundraising strategy. Temple members donate the food and labor and sell it cheap to raise a steady stream of revenue. The method works brilliantly for everyone involved.



[image-3]The food donors/cooks must earn many blessings with their efforts. Buddha himself, who clearly liked to eat, would approve. The choices can be overwhelming for someone who wants to taste everything. Be sure to brings friends and cash, ten or twenty bucks, depending how adventurous and gluttonous you are. I bring twenty. This is just the hot line (right), where entrees are served with rice and a side of pad Thai that will set you back five bucks. There's also the frying woks, grills, desserts, soup and salad stations, and more.  Finding a place like this is enough to convince you that this Buddha fellow must have been a great man.


Start with some soup. In America, we usually serve soup as an afterthought, boiled to a slow, briny death or drown the ingredients in cream or cheese.  East Asians appreciate soup as a meal, with lovingly prepared broth and fresh meat, herbs, and vegetables added upon serving. At the temple, you choose your noodle and meat, and they do the rest. This soup (below) was vibrant with herbs and enriched with pork and fish balls. 


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Working with boiling oil in large woks, this guy clearly knows what he is doing. He's already perfected the glaze for his sliced bananas, sweet potato, and taro root that he fries every Sunday.


He operates in the open, but his recipe is a closely guarded secret.  Coconut and sesame seeds are involved, and they blend seamlessly into the fried items. The temple serves the glazed wonders in paper bags for $3 or $5. If the temple opened a booth at the Florida State Fair, they'd make a mint. Forget cotton candy and funnel cakes, I want the temple's fries. All of the fried items are filling, so be sure to share. This is where your friends come in handy. Best of all, the fry master is working on a dipping sauce, and I can attest to its superiority.


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Who could visit Thailand without noshing on pad thai?  A five-dollar order gets you a veritable trough of noodles, chicken and sprouts.


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Do it for the temple: red pork curry over rice. I also sampled a similar pumpkin curry that was just as good. A spicy chicken, chili, and lemongrass sausage ($1) lurks in the background, looking rather provocative.


There are many desserts available, but I'm always drawn to the custardy coconut-onion cakes as St. Pete Times food writer Chris Sherman identified them.  First, the cooks pour in the coconut rice batter, then trickle on some green onion batter (top).  The two blend sweet and savory perfectly.



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To serve, cakes are flipped on top of one another and removed from the griddle. The first taste may seem rather strange, and not nearly as sweet as an American would expect, but bewitching nonetheless. They're great for munching later on, too.


The temple is a great asset to the community, an ideal place to have a cheap feast on Sundays. I've always found it curious that professional food writers have largely ignored this gem, except for Chris Sherman, whom I mentioned above (Editor's note: CL knows about it but has never reviewed it). Sometimes I think the professionals are more interested in trying the next trendy thing than finding places we can actually use.


My only complaint about the Thai temple -- perhaps the reason why most food writers have ignored it -- is the lack of consistency in some areas. Because the food is prepared by donors who may change from week to week, some stations can vary in quality and the food they serve. I've never had a bad meal there, but the depth of my food nirvana varies with the whims of the cosmos. And to me, that's all part of the charm. You're never sure which dish will truly shine that week. Just bring the $20 required by gluttons, relax, and enjoy the food and whatever surprises it may bring. Buddha would appreciate that. 


Wat Mongkolratanaram


Open Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. to around 1 p.m.


5306 Palm River Rd. Tampa, Florida 33619


Off U.S. 41/50th Street, a half-mile south of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and State Road 60


Phone : 813-621-1669

Some have described the scene as jarring — the beautiful, colorful Thai temple standing near the shore of Hillsborough County’s Palm River — but it seems so natural to me. Having studied immigrants for many years, especially their food and restaurants, I'm filled with admiration for the enterprising Thais who built up Wat Mongkolratanaram and, in a sense, made the landscape conform to their creation rather than the other way around. I’m also impressed with how they built up their Thai outpost: with food.  Every Sunday, supporters of the temple prepare vast amounts of Thai food at their own expense to sell in exchange for donations to the temple. I’ve watched steaming kettles of soup and bubbling woks of oil build the temple over the last few years - bringing in the exquisite tiles for the roof and gilding the building with gold and glittering gems.  I like to think that my oversize appetite can claim credit for a few of those tiles and bling.

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