Last Cinco de Mayo, my daughter and I sat on the patio at Royal Palace Thai. In my crafty parental way, I was trying to instill in this teenager a visceral "yuck" reaction to South Howard's parade of seriously sozzled young adults, many of them narrowly avoiding traffic. We made our way through lush-spicy tom kha gai soup and red curry tofu as we watched girls who would surely regret that sixth Corona. And then I realized that none of the hammered hordes were dining around us.
Tapanee, Nachaya, Nitchnan and Kasinee Damrongwatanasuk, the four sisters who have owned Royal Palace since 1999, clearly noticed. With nearby apartments going up at a dizzying clip and South Howard's long restaurant row going gangbusters, the four sisters wanted in, but without alienating their largely grownup customer base. So, for Gasparilla, they launched something new: a pan-Asian Hawkers menu that draws from the street foods of China, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines.
They still offer the steamed whole fish, panang curries and basil duck for which they've made a name, but the Hawkers menu is a one-page, inexpensive, easily shared, low-commitment array of things the MacDinton's crowd might hanker for. It's the brainchild of Tapanee's husband, Randall Knowles. A frequent traveler, he has noshed his way through Asia and brought back his favorites. There are meat-filled Philippine lumpia ($4; tiny fried spring rolls); a range of wings ($5 for five) that swing from Korean to Philippine to straight-up spicy jalapeno; sliders filled with pork belly, chicken satay or tofu; and smallish noodle plates and soups ($7).
Now add to these a tremendous cocktail list (they added a full liquor license a few years back but have recently amped up the range and ambition of the bar offerings) and the mild-mannered and lovely Thai restaurant is fit for the party peeps. From a very respectable Sazerac ($11) to the Asian-food-appropriate lychee-tini ($8), it's a nice list, and there are enough happy hour specials and drink deals (half-price wine bottles on Wednesday) to appeal to the bargain hunter.
A stable crew of servers in the restaurant administer ably to those ordering from the traditional Thai menu as well as those ordering from the Hawkers sheet, and they're amenable to a mix-and-match approach.
One dinner began with crispy wonton strips with duck sauce ($2) and the nearly redundant carbo load of crispy naan strips with a curry-inflected dipping sauce ($3) and a small bowl of salted edamame, then segued into a shared order of banh mi sliders ($7) on little brioche buns topped with pickled daikon, carrot and cuke and a spicy mayo smear. But then it took a turn toward tradition with a pretty blue and white bowl of smoldering green chicken curry ($12.95) studded with bell peppers, basil, sweet peas and bamboo shoots in the rich coconut milk broth. Flavor-wise, a surprisingly coherent meal.
A couple of years ago in Orlando, Hawkers Asian Street Fare opened with a similar fusion concept set in a hip, industrial space. What charmed me about that take on street food was the inclusion of Malaysian dishes (roti with curry dipping sauce, noodle mee goreng), Singaporean dishes and lesser-known Korean fare. Since all of those cuisines are fairly underrepresented in these parts, perhaps the Damrongwatanasuk sisters, or their field tester Mr. Knowles, could be persuaded to expand their search a bit. That may not be the kind of fun the South Howard revelers are looking for, but for the rest of us, a little Singaporean mei fun might be a welcome novelty.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.