By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
My friend is convinced that you can tell if a Thai restaurant is going to be good by whether or not the proprietors proudly display a portrait of the royal family, the presence of the royal family a sure sign of quality. This same friend has a lot of other more farfetched theories, but for me this one has often held true. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej came to the throne in 1946. Deeply loved, he is the longest reigning monarch in the world.
He's nowhere I saw at the year-old Thai Spice. The theory is shot because Thai Spice is a fabulous find. Owner Supattra Head and staff possess a dazzling use of bright chilies, cool basil and luscious coconut milk. The menu is not surprising, not filled with exotica. It is largely composed of the familiar pad Thai, green chicken curry and the like.
But here's a tip: The kitchen likes things hot, but it's a deep, nuanced kind of spiciness that builds slowly and is mellowed by herbs and peanuts and tiny salted shrimp.
Think "medium spice" when you approach the tom yum soup ($3.95 cup), a little cup filled with pink-tinged clear broth, button mushrooms, and your choice of chicken or veggies. Twigs of lemongrass, hunks of galangal and sly chili sauce infuse the sweet-sourness. Yum beef and larb gai (both $6.95) are delicious salads, packed with lettuce, cukes and red onion with a fish-sauce pow, the latter (ground chicken) sporting a neat crunchy texture imparted by rice powder.
Curries can be made with your choice of chicken, pork, veggies or tofu ($8.95), beef, shrimp or squid ($9.95), scallops or seafood combo ($15.95) — ask which one makes the most sense with a particular sauce. I liked the richer panang best. It's sweeter and creamier than the others, but with good heat and chopped peanuts in the reddish sauce.
Don't stop at the curries, though, because the menu continues with a long list of more exotic dishes, many of them worth note (but significantly more expensive). Whole fresh red snapper ($21.95-$24.95) comes two ways, either topped with sweet-burn chili sauce (delicious) or busier with cucumbers, cashews and pineapple.
Most dishes make great leftovers at home the next day. Good to know since dessert is a must. Perhaps one of the world's perfect foods: a disc of sticky rice, topped with a drizzle of faintly jasmine-scented coconut milk and surrounded by fans of heady-ripe mango. King Bhumibol Adulyadej may not be smiling down from the wall, but if there's any justice, Thai Spice will have a similarly long run.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.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.