To me, sitting in the drive-thru and inhaling auto exhaust does not qualify as a dining experience. It's just eating. There's a difference. That's what you're often stuck doing, driving down one of Brandon's many civic eyesores, its eight-lane main arteries, clogged with fast-food and chain restaurants.
It makes you wonder what John Brandon envisioned when he left Mississippi in 1858 to farm 40 acres with his wife and six sons to a property south of what is now State Road 60.
The city of Brandon remained teensy until the early 1960s, when it began to grow — and grow. It had only 8,000 residents in the early 1960s. Now more than 100,000 people live there.
I lived in Brandon a short time myself, in a cabin on a pristine lake surrounded by orange groves, but the town now reminds me of Joni Mitchell singing, "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot."
Still, as is true almost anywhere, if you look closely enough, you can find privately owned restaurants. Seeking out Brandon's unsung, out-of-the-way neighborhood eateries has been my enjoyable, self-appointed task, and I hope the next time you're zipping along Brandon Boulevard, and thinking about patronizing a Burger King or McDonald's, you'll reconsider and choose instead the small, independent restaurateur who is your neighbor — and your friend. Here are a couple of recommendations:
Simply Thai It doesn't look very promising, tucked in the far corner of the monstrous Bloomingdale Square shopping center, dwarfed by a gigantic Wal-Mart, a Publix and a huge Dollar Store. But among the monsters, you'll find a tiny, one-room restaurant that's worth a trip for delightful food, unusually tidy and pleasant surroundings, and conscientious service.
I've dined there a number of times, over several years, and found its fare consistently well done. It is a family business in the best sense, owned by Puntip and Curtis Rogers and their daughter Jane Tunuttitum. They are assisted by another daughter, June Rogers, and her husband, Brian Smith; cousins Praphaiphak and Suradej Suttiruk are the chefs. The family immigrated here many years ago from Ang Tong, a small city in Thailand. A restaurant of their own had been their dream; it has been open five years.
Mostly through word of mouth, Simply Thai has a developed quite a following. Thai food may be a stretch for some people, but it's an easy stretch, since you can order simple shrimp or chicken and vegetables if you're not willing to test something more adventurous, such as nuclear wings ($4.95), which fully live up to their moniker. And, the server can bring a dish of Thai peppers — among the hottest in the world — if you want to turn up the heat on anything.
We started with fried tofu appetizer ($2.95), tofu bathed in a seasoned soy sauce with fried garlic and chives, and served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. The tofu tasted rubbery, and wasn't tender enough to cut with a fork, but we ate all of it, anyway, accompanied by a glass of plum wine ($3.75), with a deep, pinkish color, fruity and sweet, but not cloyingly so. Its shivery cold wash across my palate left a refreshing aftertaste that complemented the aromas and flavors of the food.
A couple of other appetizers were better — mushroom delight ($4.95), a moist, plentiful garden of thumb-size, button mushrooms, sauteed with garlic, white wine and black pepper, and just spicy enough to be interesting; and sate ($5.95), five skewers of marinated pork grilled to a sizzling perfection, served with a gooey peanut sauce. Yum! We made short work of it.
After a fluster of activity in the kitchen, our efficient server began bringing entrees, starting with a simple chicken dish laced with stir-fry snow peas, onions and baby corn ($7.95) for my dining companion, who had not yet tried Thai food; and cashew shrimp ($8.95), the freshest, plump shrimp bedded with a jungle-green panoply of crispy vegetables, accented with cashew nuts.
Both simple dishes were delightful, but I swooned over a more complex choice, twice-cooked duck ($15.95), big chunks of meat, roasted first, deboned and skinned, and then sauteed in a peachy shade of panang curry sauce.
"Thai food is about sauces," explained Puntip Rogers. She said her American clients prefer a garlic sauce, but the more popular choice in Thailand is the panang curry, named for the Asian city from where the spice originates. Smooth, with subtle hints of paprika and cloves, the sauce's extraordinary range became an enjoyable trivia game for the tongue.
For dessert, we finished with sweet cinnamon chips ($2.25), an addictive plate of thin, crunchy pastry cut in triangles, spread with butter, and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar; and fried bananas a la mode ($3.50). The heat from the frying pan deepened the benign flavor of the fruit.
Ben's Family Restaurant Another good Brandon restaurant, Ben's has won a following for straightforward American comfort food that's mostly homemade and almost all handmade. It's owned by Ben and Mark Crisler and has been a popular choice since 1981. Inside, it's sparkly clean, all shiny tiled floors and gleaming window glass. The service is invariably fast, friendly and efficient.
Regular breakfasts are served with a choice of two sides from a list of 12. I ordered one scrambled egg and two slices of bacon ($5.15) with buttermilk pancakes.
The eggs were done exactly right, the meat was hot and high-quality, and the pancakes so light they seemed to melt along with the butter in my mouth. I chose as side dishes fresh fried apples — real apples fried in butter — and inch-high biscuits that fell into an endearing, crumbly mess on the plate as my knife sliced through them. A thermos of hot coffee that even I could not drink to the bottom arrived with the food.
Dinner another day entailed sliced, fresh-roasted, white-meat turkey ($7.99) set atop soft homemade stuffing and ladled with brown gravy, brightened with turnip greens and washed down with an invigoratingly icy glass of freshly made tea. But my companion scored the best dish, an outstanding soup, which came as a side with a 10-ounce sirloin steak ($11.95). The steak was a strapping specimen, well-cut and grilled just right. The soup had a steamily thick broth with hearty chunks of white meat, vegetables and tender, postage-stamp-size, flat-cut dumplings. Like they say in the country: Woooeee!
Oh, I could nitpick — instant mashed potatoes and a handmade pie crust that looked delectable but had lost its snap — but overall, Ben's does it right.
Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.