It's just a couple of blocks on E Davis Boulevard, roughly between Barbados and Chippewa avenues. Tiny and quaint, the business district of Davis Islands has just a handful of shops and restaurants that have stood the test of time. Locals may head over to Estela's, or 220 East or Rick's Italian for an on-island dinner, but there's another longtime stalwart that until recently had escaped my notice. Clay McElmurray shot me an email to urge me to try Thai Island, the restaurant he opened with his wife, Penn Karach, in 2003.
As with many small restaurant owners, theirs was not a linear path: She was a banker, he was a software engineer. They met in Los Angeles and moved to Tampa in 2002. Karach's mother had worked in restaurants, and thus they opened Thai Island without much more than second-hand knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm. It seems to have worked: Thai Island has the sweet charm of a beloved neighborhood place. It's not fancy, the decor is simple and homespun, the service is as personal as it gets (if it's not McElmurray, it's Karach making suggestions and zipping over a tray — Karach's mother, Pat, is often in the kitchen).
Still, on-site owners aren't enough to explain success. What elevates Thai Island above plenty of other area Thai restaurants is breadth of menu and quality of ingredients. They have the familiar curries (green, red, panang, massaman), but the salad and appetizer sections of the menu pack some unusual finds. Beyond a gooey guilty-pleasure mee grob ($6.95) — the Rice Krispie treats of the Thai world, with crunchy rice noodles and fried tofu tossed in a sweet-sticky tamarind sauce — you'll find lush bandan chicken ($6.95). Ground chicken is steamed in banana leaves, with a subtle herbal flavor and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Peel away the banana leaf and swipe it through soy, a gorgeous dish, especially when juxtaposed with the crunchier, punchier ginger shrimp spring rolls ($5.95), really not much more than whole shrimp and a fluff of noodles swaddled in wonton skins and fried expertly.
Sure, you can head for a bowl of galangal-and-lemongrass-spiked tom kha gai soup ($4.95), but live a little and try a more underexposed Thai treat like grilled eggplant paired with chopped boiled egg, little dried shrimp, cilantro and shallots, drizzled with a zingy fish sauce/lime/red chile dressing ($8.95). That same dressing energizes nam sod ($6.95), a jumble of ground pork, ginger, peanuts, shallot and green onion. It's an appetizer in the classic sense, waking up the palate and revving the engine.
McElmurray will ask you gravely: Hot or Thai hot? Look into your heart before ordering the latter. Thai Island will, in Spinal Tap parlance, go all the way to 11. We had a green curry tofu ($10.95), crowded with green beans, green peppers and snow peas, merely hot, which prompted snuffles all around. We extinguished the fire with a more mild noodle dish ($10.95) of cabbage and basil interspersed with wide, slithery rice noodles in a sweet/tangy brown sauce.
Thai Island's wine and beer list is brief and to the point, nothing pricey, nothing kooky. A Singha or a Thai iced tea, employing different methods, will get you to the same place, cooling spicy heat either with the fizz of carbonation or a blanket of luscious condensed milk. Taken together — the chilies and lemongrass and zing of fish sauce, as well as cooling cucumber, coconut milk and sweet basil — it's a cuisine that is at once dramatic and comforting. And McElmurray and Karach have created a forum for it that feels just right, drawing islanders on date night as often as impromptu family outings.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.