The art of the everyday.
“Mee, Mee, Mee, Mee.” “Me, me, me, me.”
Just warming up the taste buds for another trek to Lee Road. West Lee, that is. You know. The shabby backside of tony Winter Park. The balding pate of ‘don’t call us tony’ College Park. Where Home Depot hugs the highway. Where WaWa’s bloom and gentrification looms. Where easy-to-drive-by Mee Thai sits waiting to make an impression on drivers observant and hungry enough to take note.
Our relationship with Mee Thai – the barebones, north Orlando Thai restaurant – began inauspiciously. It wasn’t like at first sight.
Let’s tap the brakes. Go back a bit. A way bit. Late 1800’s. Economist Thorstein Verben muses that man is not a “self-contained globule of desire.” That our wants and valuations occur in relation to others’ wants and valuations. Sheep and such. Social experiments ad infinitum have since reinforced that individual lustings are not so individual – they’re both a product of contagion and wildly unpredictable.
No shit, Thorstein. We’re social animals after all and never more so than today. Our digital puppet strings have become damn near inseverable. Add this fact to our historical disappointment in Orlando Thai restaurants and we couldn’t’ help but think that Mee Thai’s out-of-control online popularity was a result of the groupthink, hive-mind, cognitive bias, Flamin’ Cheeto-encrusted circle jerk that has us singing “Baby Shark Doo Doo Doo,” eating donut sandwiches and other such nonsensical jackassery. But something didn’t add up.
There was no winged selfie wall, nothing made with matcha, not a charcoal ice cream or boulevardier in sight. None of the typical triggers for foodie-hysteria. The type of hysteria that might account for Mee Thai being named to Yelp’s 2019 list of Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. (yes, it’s true – click here). Diner photos were far from appealing. No conspicuous drizzles or edible flowers. It all looked like – well – food on a plate.
The lingering mystery lingered. We resigned ourselves not to resign ourselves to abandoning the idea of Mee Thai altogether. It burrowed deep into our brain and festered. The festering became a gnawing and the gnawing put car keys in our hands. And we drove. Drove to the land of payday loans and – surprise – what we found there made us smile. Sort of. The fawning mob was right. Sort of.
Some perspective. We typically (not always) visit a restaurant 2-3 times before reviewing – it’s only fair. Once reviewed, we put the eatery on the shelf. Lots of other places in this town to grace with our dollar. Our 2nd visit to Mee Thai was quickly followed by a 3rd. The 3rd by a 4th and the 4th by a 5th. We just keep going back. Why? It’s simple.
Professional thinker Harry Frankfurt has never been as eloquently incisive as when he wrote, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” We’re awash in it. Mee Thai is safe haven – a bullshit free zone. It’s a kitchen that simply knows how to cook. There is no dressing up or masking with buzz or distraction. Spicing, saucing – the use of fresh aromatics – there are few Thai restaurants in town with such straight ahead, flavor forward execution. Granted, there are few Thai restaurants in town that move the needle one way or another for us. The bar is low.
Mee Thai’s deft hand is nowhere more visible than in its simple seafood soup, Po Tak. Well, not visible visible. It hits the eyes like dishwater chowder. But one bite and the soup comes alive with cilantro and lime leaf, lemongrass and chili. Floral, spicy, light yet complex. This is a soup that absolutely needs the bite and scent of fresh Thai chili. If you’re spice adverse, order a different soup.
Quality of ingredients is another matter. The squid and shrimp (and stray bay scallop) in the Po Tak are perfectly appetizing, but Mee Thai isn’t a place you visit for the quality of its foodstuff. Across all of the dishes we’ve tried, there’s been nothing to separate the plants and proteins at Mee Thai from any other run-of-the-mill Thai resto. It definitely isn’t an ingredients-first eatery nor will you find cheffed-up fare – it occupies a limbo zone between Thai home cooking and low-commitment diner. The art of the everyday.
Worth a word on sourcing. As mentioned, you won’t be ordering a perfectly seared piece of freshly caught Gulf Coast snapper at Mee Thai. It’s not that type of party. However, snapper is on the menu. Not so sure it ever makes it to the plate. We’ve ordered it twice, and if what we were served was snapper, it’s the thickest filet we’ve ever laid our eyes on. Dare we say corvina thick? Having hooked, cleaned, and eaten nearly every damn variety of snapper in Florida, it must be from out of state. Way out of state. Did it make it less appetizing? Yes. But mystery fish aside, when served as we ordered it – with a subtle, choo-cheeish red curry, it’s a decent dish. Not great, not bad.
Another quick word. Phonetics. Thai menus are goat rodeos of phonetic approximation. Laab, Larb, Lap? All the same stuff. Tom, Tam? Same. Yum, Yam? Same. You get it. So, when we start rattling off dish names below know there is no right or wrong. Pronunciation trumps spelling.
The Mee Thai clan are Isan – from northeastern Thailand – and many of the better bites we’ve had attest to this. The fact that sticky rice is served with every meal is also a glutinous giveaway. Not that there is much to differentiate the menu from most. Almost every Thai restaurant in the States fully incorporates Isan favorites – they’ve become largely synonymous with what we know as Thai food.
For instance, Waterfall Beef (nam tok neua) is an Isan staple and Mee Thai’s version is solidly good. The beef is studded with roasted rice powder that’s pleasingly crunchy under tooth and tossed in a jumble of the usual suspects (lime, sugar, chili, red onion, cilantro, etc.). The meat itself is OK – overcooked and chewy – but the accompanying flavors are so harmoniously addictive that the extra gnawing is almost a bonus. For what it’s worth, the better versions of this dish employ meat that’s pulled off the grill once the juices start to flow (like a waterfall).
Larb Gai (minced chicken salad) and Som Tum (papaya salad) are also both very Isan. The papaya salad was appropriately fresh and enjoyable but relatively indistinct (we prefer ours doctored with dried shrimp). The chicken larb, albeit dry, was successful in marrying fragrant, spicy, sour and sweet.
Pardon me as I indulge in a critical Larb-based detour: no one in town is currently slinging Larb Pla. Specifically, Larb Pla Duk or minced catfish salad, which is a very common in Northeastern Thailand. Orlando restos, are you listening? Please make this happen. Specials are fine. Here’s a picture of the dish from Pok Pok in Portland. Just copy this.
Ahem, some yum. A yum with crispy duck would have been far more yum had it been far less sweet. A bit cloying with ‘Thai sauce’ and thankfully an outlier. There were plenty of other solid options for getting our crispy duck fix.
Duck finds its way into a number of other dishes including a Crispy Duck Fried Rice loaded with basil and roasted chili that my Mee Thai wingman (sorry, wingperson) — The Wig — has fallen in love with. “Why don’t you marry it?” I asked. “I think I will,” he replied. They will be honeymooning on his couch – she dressed as leftovers in Styrofoam, he in boxer-briefs, plastic fork in hand.
We also enjoyed a crispy duck with red curry. The curries we’ve tried at Mee Thai are texturally thinner than what many may be accustomed to. Makes perfect sense. Curries tend to be thinner in the north of Thailand where they’re based on broth or stock. Never fear. The flavor’s still there. Ours had a pleasantly pronounced coconut oomph and its lighter style played well with the fatty crisp of the meat, the quality of which is – again – firmly average.
Nam Sod (ground meat salad with peanuts) and Pad Krapow (phat kaphrao, pad gra pow, pad kapraw, phat gaprao, etc. – your call) are both barometer bites for us and the barometer read fair weather – come out and play. On the front counter, there’s a special listed on a small whiteboard that never seems to change. It’s Pad Krapow Gai (chicken in Thai basil sauce) topped with a fried egg. The underlying holy basil sauce is one of the better versions we’ve had. Intensely flavorful without being heavy handed. The Nam Sod (which we ordered with pork in order to buy some moist) was equally enjoyable.
For many, noodle dishes are the gateway to Thai food. Pad Thai and Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles) are two of the most common. Pad Thai at Mee Thai features a thinner noodle than most, Pad Kee Mao a traditional wide noodle and both are a touch loose and sweet with tamarind. Not loose, loose or sweet, sweet – just comparatively so. It’s what chili trays are for. A little additional fish sauce had us slurping like Goldilocks. Neither of the noodle dishes did much to distinguish Mee Thai from its restaurant sistren but were enjoyed in what by now had become a firmly established ‘everyday eats’ context.
Finally – two Thai menu mainstays; a Tom Kha Gai (coconut soup with chicken) redolent with galangal and a tangy Tom Yum Goong (hot and sour shrimp soup) were both fairly faultless and will be ordered again.
Apart from food, much has been written about the friendliness of Mee Thai. We concur. To a person, staff has been genuinely, warmly and engagingly friendly – far from end-of-meal, angling for 20% friendly.
Drinks? Not really. You won’t find fancy cocktails. In fact, you won’t find cocktails. Or beer. There is no liquor license. Mee Thai is located adjacent to a school, which makes it a legal no-no. Our meals have been fueled by a high octane iced tea that’s been more functional than enjoyable. Chatter, chatter, eye-pop. There’s mango juice and coconut water and some other odds and ends, but nothing distinct enough to make mention of. If you go, you’re going for the grub.
Environs? We enjoy the ambience – it makes us feel like we’re at a snack bar in a Bangkok bus terminal. But, for those big-night-out, strap-on-the-stilts folks whose atmospheric appreciation doesn’t extend across the full aesthetic spectrum, it might come off as hole-in-the-wall. Strike that. It will come off as hole-in-the-wall. Because, it is. Hole in the wall.
Which brings us back to this art of the everyday thing. Rare – very rare – is the restaurant that is greater than its component things. Ho-hum digs and ingredients are not the makings of a masterpiece. But in Mee Thai’s capable hands, unquestionably average is painted into reliably good. Don’t go expecting a mind-blowing, multisensory, instagrammable experience. It is not one of “The Top 100 Places to eat in the U.S.” It’s an everyday type of eatery that won’t wow or disappoint but will likely always please. Simple, tasty food from appreciative, friendly people.