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Review: Eathai in Delray Beach should leave you clamoring for more

 

★★★½

Eathai in Delray Beach is not your typical South Florida Thai restaurant. Instead of tom yum goong soup, the kitchen offers marvelous, family-size vats of spicy oxtail soup ($18) and Thai seafood bouillabaisse ($18). Thankfully, there is no forced marriage of sushi with Thai here, but there is chicken French toast ($6), a weird and wonderful variant of a traditional Thai dish.

Usually, it is made with minced pork, but chef-owner Sopanut Sopochana makes his with marinated, chopped chicken layered across the bread, which is then egg-battered and fried. It comes with a perfectly balanced sweet chili sauce. The dish is comfort food at its finest, a crisp and crunchy mashup of breakfast and dinner, sweet and savory, East and West. Sopochana later told me his mother used to make him the dish as a child in Thailand and as a teen after the family moved to New York.

Eathai, which opened in May 2016, also features wheel-like contraptions to soften firm rice paper in warm water so diners can assemble their own summer rolls when they order whole roasted fish, and sugary concoctions made from fresh-rolled ice cream that are sure to please children of all ages.

“Is that breakfast cereal?” one tablemate wondered when she looked at colorful bins lining the bar. Yes, it was, for breakfast cereal is among the items — along with doughnuts, candy, marshmallows and graham crackers — that are smooshed into and scattered atop the frozen desserts. The sundaes ($7 to $8) are assembled in a corner where fresh cream is spread thin on icy metal slabs and take solid form (imagine the temperature inverse of crepes) and then rolled into stubby, layered logs.

Some of the food may be unusual, but do not get the mistaken impression that Eathai is a gimmicky place designed mainly for millennials. It is for anyone who appreciates a good meal.

Located in a corner of a Federal Highway strip mall, Eathai is a fun, loud (sometimes too loud when the dining room is full) and very good restaurant where the vibe is casual, the food is creative and tasty, and good cheer carries the day, even on days when service is scattered and disorganized.

Our group was seated promptly with a reservation on a busy Saturday night, then left hanging as it took awhile — and two servers — to get menus, water and drinks. Once we got food ordered, the night flowed smoothly. I later learned that two servers were absent on the night I dined (one sick, the other with car trouble), which left Sopochana and his team scrambling.

Diners will feel as if they are spinning their wheels — in a good way — if they order whole fish roasted in banana leaf ($35, typically snapper or hogfish). It arrived on a platter with a wedge of iceberg lettuce, a mound of vermicelli rice noodles, fresh cilantro and basil. Then came the fun part, a demonstration by the server of how to make summer rolls. She cut chunks of moist fish, layered on noodles, tore some herbs and lettuce, drizzled on two sauces (sweet chili and peanut) and then rolled the gelatinous and near translucent shell into a sort of Asian fish burrito.

She then left us to our own devices, and we soon got the hang of it. The more brutish among us simply tore into the fish (oh, those sweet cheeks) with our fingers. It was perfectly cooked. The dish was much more entertaining — and much better value — than the whole fish preparations in fancier restaurants that seem to be swimming above the $70 mark with alarming regularity.

Eathai’s decor is sleek and modern, with a boxy and barren dining room featuring rustic wooden walls, bare-bulb pendant lighting, a neon sign hanging behind the bar, communal wooden tables with backless benches in the center (where we sat) and tufted leather banquettes along a window. The hard floors make for some lousy acoustics and big noise, but the din subsides once the room thins out.

The Bangkok-born Sopochana owned two restaurants for a decade in New York, where he began cooking after starting as a dishwasher. Tired of winters, he moved to South Florida three years ago. He landed a job at Thai Spice in Fort Lauderdale, a venerable and popular restaurant, which allowed him to learn about local tastes and diners. He ventured back on his own in 2016, and also has opened an ice cream shop (ICE NY) in the Wellington Mall and plans to open another (the Tree Cafe) in Boca Raton in July.

At Eathai, he blends traditional Thai flavors of lemongrass, lime, cilantro and fish sauce with Americanized and localized twists that go over well with the coastal crowd. Alligator fritters ($10) are tender inside and crunchy outside, coated with panko breadcrumbs, marinated with chili rice powder and served with a sweet-chili sriracha sauce. Grilled lamb chops with egg noodles ($14) have been a hit, served with a spicy rice-powder dipping sauce. Crab fried rice ($14) is straightforward and delicious, lightly cooked rice studded with vegetables and egg and crowned with a generous portion of sweet blue crab meat.

Sopochana also delivers satisfying bites of Bangkok street food with lamb satay skewer ($8), fish ball ($7) and chicken basil ($13), a bowl of minced chicken with peppers, Thai basil, jasmine rice topped with a fried egg. With food as comforting as this, Eathai is worth a drive and the clamor.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Eathai

1832 S. Federal Highway, Delray Beach

561-270-3156 or EathaiFlorida.com

Cuisine: Thai

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $7 to $20, soups and salads $10-$18, noodle, rice and vegetable dishes $12-$18, meat and seafood $14-$35, sides $2-$5. Desserts $6-$8

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily (until 11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Craft draft and bottled beers (including Singha Thai beer), wine by the glass and bottle (featuring a small list mainly from Washington) and sangria (white and red)

Noise level: Can get uncomfortably loud when crowded

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

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