Some have described the scene as jarring — a beautiful, colorful Thai temple standing near the shore of Hillsborough County's industrial 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 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 paid for their Thai outpost.
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. Plates and bowls go out, exquisite tiles and gold gilding come in. I like to think that my oversized appetite can claim credit for some of that bling.
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 more functional than grand.
Simplicity and sincerity are also 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. If the increasing crowds around the food stalls every Sunday are any indication, the temple's delicious fundraising is no longer a secret.
And for good reason. I've always found most of the Bay area's Thai restaurants to be capable but largely unexciting. The first time I visited the temple a few years ago, though, I was a happy man. Finally, I'd found Thai food that seemed sincere, rustic and homemade, like papaya salad that burned my tongue with the heat of chilies. And that's a big part of the appeal — these cooks don't pull any punches.
The food donors/cooks must earn many blessings thanks to 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 bring friends and cash — but you won't need much. Ten or 20 bucks will do, depending how adventurous or gluttonous you are. I bring twenty.
On the hot line are entrees served with rice and a side of pad Thai that will set you back $5. There're also the frying woks, grills, desserts, soup and salad stations, and more.
But start with soup. In America, we usually serve soup as an afterthought, boiled to a slow, briny death or drowned in cream or cheese. East Asians appreciate soup as a meal, with lovingly prepared broth and fresh ingredients added upon serving. At the temple, you choose your noodle and meat, and they do the rest, accenting it with fresh herbs and enriching it with pork and fish balls.
Working with boiling oil in large woks, the fry guy clearly knows what he is doing. He's perfected the glaze for the 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 in there, and they blend seamlessly into the glazed wonders, served in paper bags for $3 or $5. If the temple opened a booth at the Florida State Fair, they'd make a mint.
Who could visit Thailand — even an outpost — without noshing on pad Thai? A five-dollar order gets you a veritable trough of noodles, chicken and sprouts. There's also red pork curry over rice, a similar pumpkin curry that's just as good, and spicy chicken, chili, and lemongrass sausage. That last one is just a $1.|
There are many desserts, but I'm always drawn to the custardy coconut-onion cakes. First, the cooks pour in the coconut rice batter, then trickle on some green onion batter. 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 sugary as an American would expect, but the sweet and savory flavors mesh perfectly.
While noshing on my finds, I'm always 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 — often American ex-G.I.'s who married Thais — sell the drinks and bottled water.
On good weather days, the ambiance around the temple cannot be beat, with the bustling market area, riverside picnic tables, and a playground. The temple is more than a place of worship, and the people there blend food and socialization in a way that rivals most big church pot luck suppers. If there's a Southern Baptist congregation that throws down like this and invites all comers, I'm all ears.
The temple is a great asset to the community, an ideal place to have a cheap feast on Sundays. My only complaint about the food is the lack of consistency in some areas. Because it's prepared by donors who may change from week to week, some stations can vary in quality and choice. I've never had a bad meal there, but the depth of my food nirvana varies with the whims of the cosmos.
To me, though, that's all part of the charm. You're never sure which dish will truly shine that week. Just bring $20, relax and enjoy the food and whatever surprises it may bring. Buddha would appreciate that.