ST. PETERSBURG — It’s a pretty special moment when, as a restaurant critic, you come across a dish you’ve never tried before and fall hard for it.
This happened to me recently while dining at Sila Thai & Sushi Restaurant, a Thai restaurant in St. Petersburg that recently underwent new ownership but sports the same name as its predecessor. The dish was khao mun gai ($9.99), a plate of boiled chicken served over a bed of rice. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
I’ll admit I wasn’t totally sold on the description at first. In a time when roasted or fried chicken dishes reign supreme and we’ve become obsessed with crispy-skinned everything, the thought of boiled chicken with soft, flabby skin sounded less than optimal. I wanted those sizzling textures and firecracker flavors we’ve come to associate with Thai cuisine.
I was wrong.
First of all, this rice isn’t just any rice. It’s rice that’s cooked with fatty, flavorful chicken broth so that the end product is almost like a chicken-flavored rice pudding. The poached chicken arrives fanned out across the rice and is cooked perfectly — each slice tender and juicy. The piece de resistance is a sweet and slightly spicy soybean paste dipping sauce accompanying the chicken, and a bed of cucumbers that provides freshness and crunch. A classic Thai street food dish, it’s both bucolic and comforting in its simplicity.
Here’s the catch: I almost missed this dish. It’s not listed on the regular menu, but on a “special” traditional Thai menu. Sometimes you’ll get presented with the special menu while dining here, but sometimes you won’t. On my most recent visit, when I asked for it my server looked at me curiously.
“No one ever asks for this,” she said. “You’re brave.”
It’s not entirely uncommon for restaurant owners to assume Americanized palates will shy away from dishes they find unfamiliar. And in general, the approach here feels like a broad attempt to appease all palates — it’s the reason the owners decided to tack on a sushi menu to the roster of Thai dishes.
Plobkwan “Pat” Lertprotsombat and her husband, Aphirom “PK” Lertprotsombat, took over the restaurant on 49th Street N in September 2019. The couple moved to the Tampa Bay area from their home in Buriram, in northeastern Thailand, roughly 15 years ago. Plobkwan’s mother ran a restaurant in Largo for several years while Aphirom worked at a Thai restaurant in Tampa, but the couple had never run a restaurant of their own until now.
The restaurant is tiny and not great for large groups, but it’s a cozy setting that lends itself well to a weeknight dinner out. Servers aren’t the best at communicating some of the menu’s nuances, and when the place gets busy, be prepared for a little bit of a wait.
The raw fish selection, prepared by a sushi chef presiding over a tiny counter in the front of the restaurant, will please anyone looking for a fairly traditional and creative sushi spread, from crunchy rolls filled with salmon, cream cheese and asparagus ($13.99) to the more whimsical tuna nachos ($10.99), where pink chunks of tuna and avocado are nestled atop crispy wonton crackers and topped with scallions and drizzled with spicy mayonnaise.
From the basic Thai menu, appetizers lean toward the traditional pan-Asian selection of steamed dumplings ($6.99), which come filled with a flavorful mix of shrimp, pork and water chestnuts; fresh spring rolls ($5.99); and chicken cakes ($5.99), flavored with curry paste and aromatic kaffir lime leaf, served with a sweet chili and cucumber dipping sauce.
A shredded papaya salad ($6.99) on one visit was a little watery, and was accompanied by mealy tomatoes, which seemed like an odd choice. Pad kee maow ($11.99), a stir-fried flat noodle medley, comes with a choice of meat (I like it with chicken) and is teeming with bell peppers, onions, egg and Thai basil leaves, which impart a lovely flavor.
A note on spice: Unless you specify a desire for serious heat, the kitchen will deliver most dishes on the milder side, no doubt to appease more Americanized palates. A tiered system — mild, medium, hot or “Thai hot” — is the best way to specify what you’re looking for. I’m a spice fiend, and I found the Thai hot, made with Thai bird’s eye chiles, to be scorching, but in the very best way.
Seafood lovers will enjoy the seafood paradise ($19.99), a dish of mussels, calamari and shrimp tossed in a soupy curry sauce heavy with bell peppers, onions, carrots and egg. And the orange plum duck ($21.95) is a showstopper roasted duck dish, where the bronzed, crispy-skinned bird arrives fanned out over a bed of Chinese broccoli and orange slices.
Another favorite of mine from the special Thai menu is the khao soi ($9.99), a creamy chicken and coconut curry soup from the northern part of Thailand, and found everywhere in the streets of Chiang Mai. The dish is flavored with shrimp paste and kaffir lime leaf and is served with crunchy egg noodles, cilantro, lime and pickles on the side, so that diners can doctor up the soup as they please. Also good is the khao pad tom yum goong ($12.99), a sweet and slightly sour fried rice dish flavored with shrimp paste and the characteristic flavors of tom yum — kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal root.
For dessert, a short selection includes fried bananas ($3.95) and a sweet and creamy coconut ice cream ($3.95). It’s hard to pass up the traditional sweet sticky rice and mango ($6.95), though, made with creamy glutinous rice and sweetened with coconut milk.
Sila Thai is not short on choices, and there is plenty here that will ring familiar, whether it’s a classic pad Thai or drunken noodles or bouncy fresh spring rolls. But I’d urge adventurous diners to push the envelope a little bit and ask for the special menu. You just might fall in love with something new.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for
If you go:
3828 49th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 498-8560
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 4:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.99 to $7.99; entrees, $11.99 to $21.95
Recommended dishes: khao mun gai; orange plum duck; khao soi