ST. PETERSBURG - Take a look at the map. There’s Thailand down there, Myanmar up above it and Cambodia below. Japan, on the other hand, is way up there, Taiwan and a whole lot of other stuff in between. So why is it that in these parts Thai food is so often partnered up with Japanese sushi? Sure, it could be because the Japanese love to visit Thailand or because there’s a hefty Japanese expat community there. But I think it’s this: In the late 1980s when Thai restaurants first started to proliferate in American cities, restaurateurs were hedging their bets. Who knew if diners would take to the kaffir lime leaf and galangal and green papaya? Better to have a back-up plan: California rolls!
Now we hardly bat an eye. The King and I served Thai and Japanese at 445 Central Ave. for years, as did Mango Tree after that. And now, since July 14, Pin Wok & Bowl is doing it too. Owners Som and Roger Rattanachane closed it for a month this summer to open up the floor plan a bit by taking out booths and adding one long bench along one side of restaurant. The woodsy mural and new-grass-green color scheme remains largely unchanged, but it was a charming asset at Mango Tree, so it’s all good.
The name is a riff on rock ‘n’ roll (I hope not with a gesture at a bad Asian accent), the Pin part a reference to a lute-like stringed instrument in Thailand, the instrument a subtle decorating motif in the new restaurant.
Lunches begin as they did in King and I times, with a bowl of simple chicken broth floating scallion rounds, a handful of rice and some small pieces of white meat chicken lurking at the bottom. Very light, a nice appetite-whetter, as is the skinny finger-length spring roll with tiny ramekin of sweet chili sauce.
The menu is vast, a long read at lunch or dinner, the lunches a range of combos that run $9 to $13. This is a tiny bit steep for downtown St. Pete, a locus of much Asian fusion already. But the quality of preparation (Som is the talent in the kitchen) merits the prices. But if you go Thai curry and sushi roll, the question arises: Which utensil to use? Looking around the dining room, it seems like a multi-prong, ahem, approach is popular, fork for curries and chopsticks for the rolls (Thai people only really use chopsticks for noodles).
Best dishes on a couple visits included a red pumpkin curry, just a little spicy and lush with coconut milk and crowded with green beans, slivered bamboo shoots, green bell pepper and basil; as well as an eggplant green curry with a similar lineup of ingredients but nice fried wheels of golden eggplant. With both of these, you choose the addition of a protein: chicken, pork, beef or tofu for $9, shrimp for a buck more, the curries themselves a good-sized portion in a bowl, a dome of white rice adjacent on the plate.
And on the sushi side, all of it prepared at a workhorse sushi bar at the center of the dining room, you’ll find traditional rolls (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura with avocado and cuke) as well as the more-is-more style rolls with cream cheese and spicy aiolis. Either way, preparation is clean and exacting, plate presentations careful but not overly fussy.
Pin’s ramen doesn’t reach the heights of nearby Buya or the brand new Ichicoro Ane, but a lineup of poke bowls (like acai bowls, these things are catnip to millennials) are appealingly composed, from a classic of spicy ahi cubes married with avo and mango ($11) to a Buddha bowl of chilled tofu married with sweet potato and tomato ($9). And basically the same lineup of ingredients can be had as trendy nori-wrapped sushi burritos.
I haven’t mentioned the curry bowls, wok noodle bowls or a whole range of soups, with a nice array of options for the vegetarian or vegan. Instead, I’d like to spend a moment on the pink milk tea ($3.50), among the most perplexing beverages I’ve had in a while. Like liquid bubble gum, the color of Susan G. Komen Foundation shirts but with white milk you swirl in dramatically with a straw, it was a drink first delicious, then frighteningly sweet, then back to delicious. Huh, but I might go with a beer next time.
Pin Wok & Bowl is in many ways an assemblage of Asian dishes we have come to love. And in this increasingly multicultural melting pot, no one seems to take umbrage at a meal that veers from crab Rangoon to pad Thai and a fried grouper Tampa roll. As the British say, we don’t give a Pin.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced;
the Times pays all expenses.