I try to eat at a lot of out-of-the-way places. It's like a treasure hunt; you never know what you'll find when you open the door of that falafel shop or upscale Belgian restaurant or combination bait shop and Cajun sandwich shack. That's urban exploration, for you. Even if it isn't good, it's difficult to feel disappointed. There were no high expectations to be unsatisfied, no preconceived notions to be shattered.
Besides the joy of treading unfamiliar ground, there are other rewards. Occasionally, like a roving talent scout, I discover something truly exceptional. Then I can forever claim to have been a fan "before they made it big." Thai Sweet Basil is that kind of place.
TSB (that's what the insiders call it, which I should know, since I'm an insider now) puts out elegant fare miles ahead of your local Thai joint. Unless, of course, you live near Dale Mabry north of Bearrs; then I envy you, because TSB can be your local joint. For me, it's a bit of a drive, but no matter where TSB is, I'll make the trip.
When I take the first bite of yum beef salad ($7.95) — spicy chili, tart lime and fragrant lemongrass achieving perfect harmony with slices of grilled meat — I know that it was totally worth the drive. It's Thursday night, and the simple and serene dining room is almost empty, just a few diners nodding to each other over bowls of tom yum goong ($3.50), the steamy broth laced with the hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors that define Thai cooking. We're all on the same wavelength. We're fans.
We reverently dunk cool and crisp TSB rolls ($4.95) stuffed with glass noodles, veggies, and shrimp into puddles of peanut and sesame sauce. Golden brown potato croquettes ($5.95) stuffed with ground chicken and sweet, rich yam provide a fried balance to the fresh rolls, while another fried dish — angel wings ($6.95) — manages to exceed expectations. Crunchy breadcrumbs coat chicken that has been stuffed with chicken sausage fortified by onions, glass noodles and ginger. Each bite is crisp, meaty and soft, all at once.
Those dishes are merely an opening act, though, good enough to draw a few folks to the show, but certainly not the biggest attraction. The main event is heralded by the arrival of a deceptively simple pile of ground chicken larb ($6.95). Each bite is punctuated by the crunchy counterpoint of roasted rice ground into the soft meat, contrasting textures that distract my palate just long enough for the full effect of the powerful flavor to sneak up on me. Fresh green cilantro, shocking lime juice, pungent fish sauce, and scorching dried chili somehow manage to be composed and riotous all at once.
That's how TSB separates itself from the pack of run-of-the-mill Thai restaurants. The food is dynamic and exciting, but not rustic or sharp-edged. It's elegant and serene, but not drab or bland. It's just damn good.
Duck curry ($16.95), which might be a bowl of a sliced breast and coconut milk at another place, looks like the presentation of a high-falutin' chef at a chic restaurant when dropped on the table at TSB. A large square platter is anchored by a golden-skinned duck thigh at the center, with sliced breast fanned to one side and a deep moat of pink red curry sauce on the other. The skin is crisp, the meat is moist, and the curry is redolent with coriander and lemongrass. It is very spicy (we ordered it hot) but just a brief blast of scorching heat reaches the tongue before being subdued by the fat in the coconut milk that provides a base for the sauce.
That same heat is left wild and free in pad prik khing ($9.95). Every tender green bean and slice of mild chicken is permeated by brown sauce tinged with brick-red highlights. Each bite stokes the fire in my mouth higher and higher, but it's so good I can't help myself. Such delicious torture.
A pile of fried fish sits next to the deep-fried skeleton of the snapper that gave its all for this next dish ($17.95). The first bite seems subdued, almost drab. However, each subsequent piece shows another layer of flavor — heady ginger, then the earthy and tart fruitiness of tamarind, then sweet chili with just enough heat to make the other flavors blossom. It is also ideally cooked, a rarity among deep-fried fish dishes served around town.
By this point, the place is empty. Just us hardcore fans remain, picking at the remains of our feast. It turns out that Apple — our server for the evening — is also one of the owners. Oddly enough, she used to run a Thai restaurant in Milwaukee called The King And I, near the convention center. My regular dining companion Writer Rick has eaten there, and they share a momentary reminiscence. Damn. Undoubtedly — before we even reach the car — he'll be crowing to me how he discovered TSB before it even moved to Tampa.
We order some TSB pork fried rice ($8.95) to go, for later. The rice is pillowy soft, the wafer-thin pork so tender I could mistake it for a more delicate meat. The massive amount of Thai basil infusing the rice will undoubtedly fill my car with its heady perfume for days to come. Best air freshener ever.
I wholeheartedly recommend that you do not immediately head to Thai Sweet Basil. Sure, it's the best Thai you're likely to find in Tampa, but if all of you start flocking to the place, what will become of me? I might find it difficult to get a table on the weekends, or the dining room might become obnoxiously loud with diners who don't show the proper respect.
All of the newcomers will dilute the coolness factor of my hardcore fandom. People might think that I merely jumped onto the bandwagon with the rest of you schmoes. Please, just stay away, for my sake.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.