In South Florida, it is always a relief to find a Thai restaurant that’s simply a Thai restaurant. The sushi-Thai combination that has become ubiquitous never made much sense to me, because mixing the purity of raw fish with the herbs, spices and chilies of Thai cooking can be a troublesome clash of cuisines. Thankfully, M and M Thai Café in Boca Raton sticks to chef-owner May Natural’s Bangkok roots. That means Thai flavors and authenticity abound, although she does temper some dishes and preparations to less adventurous American palates.
In my mind, spicier is better at M and M Thai. Thai food is meant to be sweat-inducing, with chilies tickling taste buds in a masochistic dance that takes diners to the blistering edge of discomfort, to be doused with swigs of cold Singha beer or sweet Thai iced tea thickened with condensed milk.
So I was happy when I took my first slurps of tom kha kai soup ($5.99), spicy coconut milk with lemongrass, mushrooms, scallions, white-meat chicken and fresh cilantro sprinkled on top. The silken white broth wasn’t too heavy, and it had perfect heat, flecked throughout with prik kee noo, Thai hot chili peppers.
And I was even happier when I took my first bites of spicy pork salad, called moo num tok ($15.99). Julienned strips of lean pork were tossed with limes, chilies, fish sauce, fresh mint, Thai basil and cilantro, and coated with a crunchy, granular dust that looked like sand. We couldn’t tell what it was — ground peanuts or sesame? When May came to the table, she explained it was a slow-roasted, pulverized mix of sticky rice, coffee leaves, lemongrass and galangal.
“We roast it until it is golden brown, and then smash it up,” May says in a follow-up phone interview. “It gives the dish an earthy flavor.”
Consider me hooked. Listed as a blackboard special and served over lettuce, the spicy pork salad, May says, has been so well received it is now available every day, although sometimes she uses beef to mix things up.
That dish encapsulates the best of M & M Thai, a cozy spot on East Palmetto Park Road near the beach that has gained a loyal following since opening in 2014. Natural’s given name is Daranart, but everyone calls her May. Her partner, whom she bought out early on, was nicknamed Ma’am. Hence, M and M Thai Café. There are only 26 seats inside and a few tables outside, so waits are common. Things can feel a little cramped when the place is full, and sometimes servers get a little overwhelmed, with empty dishes sitting on tables for long stretches.
But there’s an earnest mindfulness on those plates, made with ingredients nurtured with care and passion. That’s because May, who oversees the kitchen and roams the front of the house, is a longtime restaurant and hospitality veteran. She grows many of the herbs, roots and peppers in a garden at her Coral Springs home. She stresses clean, simple flavors. Another delicious example of this philosophy is the papaya salad ($11.99), spaghetti-like strands of shredded green papaya with tomatoes, peanuts and chili-lime dressing.
“I want to educate people to eat healthy and right,” May says. “I use natural sugars, organic sugarcane. I use herbs, not MSG.”
She began her career at an Intercontinental in Bangkok, then worked in hotel management in the Middle East. She left Oman for South Florida in 1990, before the first Gulf War, and ran a Thai restaurant in Delray Beach, Bangkok Express. When that closed, she shuttled between Thailand, where she has a son in the film industry, and Florida, where she has a husband from Ohio and a son at the University of Florida.
When her American son went to college, May decided to return to the restaurant business. “It’s been working out,” May says. If things keep going well, she hopes to move to a bigger location.
The menu features stir-fries and Thai curries of varying heat levels, each offered with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or scallops. There are also fish and lobster dishes. But there is bending to Americanized and Boca palates. There is no whole fried fish such as snapper on the menu, a staple at many Thai places, but there are grilled salmon fillets ($24.99) with “M and M sauce,” sweet chili and lemon sauce with fresh basil.
We had ginger lobster ($30.99), a perfectly steamed Florida lobster tail coated in a light sauce with fresh ginger, served with vegetables and a mound of brown rice. May uses a mix of Japanese brown rice and Bhutanese red rice that she says is healthier than traditional jasmine white sticky rice. I liked both.
Dishes neutered of spice lose a lot, bordering on blandness. My preteen daughter ordered a chicken pad thai ($13.99), which May brought in mild form. The rice noodles, tamarind, scallions and ground peanuts were fine, but almost too subtle. My daughter asked for soy sauce to boost the flavor.
There is beer, wine and Japanese sake, but they were all priced too aggressively for my liking. Beers cost $6.25. Some wines were marked up nearly triple the retail price, including a Whispering Angel rose ($50) from Provence that you can get for $18.97 at Total Wine and a Kim Crawford Sauvingon Blanc ($40) from New Zealand that you can find in stores for $11.97. You can also bring your own bottle, with corkage a reasonable $15. We stuck with the creamy Thai iced tea ($4.50) and a tasty hibiscus raspberry iced tea ($4.50).
Only one dessert was offered the night of my visit, Japanese-style mochi, but there is an ice cream parlor next door. If you do M & M Thai Café right, it’s the perfect way to cool down after a hot and spicy night.
M and M Thai Café
891 E. Palmetto Park Road, Boca Raton
561-826-7749 or Facebook.com/MMThaiCafe
Cost: Moderate. Appetizers $5-$15. Noodles, rice and mains $14-$31
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner 5 to 9 nightly (until 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer, wine and sake
Sound level: Conversational
Wheelchair access: Outdoor seating at ground level, a few steps to main entrance
Parking: Free street and lot in rear