By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
A Thai tamale, its homey corn masa filled with a spicy stir-fry kicked up with a hoisin salsa flavored with garlic, lime, peanut and Serrano. Or pad Thai con carnitas, traditional fish-sauced rice noodles getting a topper of chipotle stir-fried pork.
What Nitally's is doing seems all new. It's not a fusion cuisine, exactly, with two disparate flavor profiles blending to create a third. It's more like a musical mashup, something new made by blending two songs, both overlapping and seamless but also recognizably themselves.
Nit Jintaseranee is from Thailand; Ally Valdez from Mexico. They married five years ago and, in addition to daughter Eva, they've created something else lovely at Nitally's. Half Nit, half Ally, it is the area's first Thai-Mexican restaurant. They've had a stall at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market for the past two years. At the behest of devoted market customers, they set up a largely takeout shop for a while at 1040 Fourth St. N, but relocated in September to the Grand Central district when the Roman Gardens space became available.
The cafe is charming, with whimsical decor (check out the bathroom), a big chalkboard of teas and daily specials and Ally whisking back and forth from the pass-through where Nit deposits the finished plates.
She's the cook, having grown up in her parents' Thai restaurant in Tulsa. The Thai-Mex came about by accident. Going to Cancun on vacation, Nit lugged along the essentials (fish sauce, a real suitcase killer if not properly quarantined), but forgot curry. Ally suggested a mole substitute (truth is, he was tired of eating Thai all the time, despite her skills with the classics). And it worked. Then he nudged a bit more. How about corn or flour tortillas? ("You can't imagine how hard it was to convince her," he says.)
The purist can opt for straightup Thai food at Nitally's: spicy basil chicken ($7.99), red curry/coconut milk panang shrimp ($9.99) and so forth. But these concoctions seem more exotic when tucked into a burrito or onto just-griddled corn tortillas. Since both cuisines can kick up the spice level, there is usually a nice slow burn to a dish at Nitally's, and the juxtaposition of Thai basil or punchy ginger with corn tortilla brings out the essential deliciousness of each.
On one visit I had an appetizer sampler ($9.99) of fried wontons, spring rolls and lettuce cups and none of it made my heart sing (also, several desserts are like sweet-salty coconut milk soups that didn't totally add up for me). Instead of these, I'd go for the curries and stir- fries, many dishes arriving with little ramekins of spicy peanut sauce or Sriracha (quickly replacing ketchup as America's favorite condiment). Imagine it: Green peas, sweet basil and chicken, all frolicking in a bath of red Thai curry, Mexican mole and coconut milk ($10.99). Spicy panang mole at Nitally's is a winning international collaboration.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.