Friday, January 6, 2017

first thoughts: Cake Thai | Wynwood (Miami)

About a year and a half ago, I sung the praises of Cake Thai Kitchen, a tiny spot in Miami's Upper East Side opened by chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee (a/k/a "Cake"). From this little hole in a wall, Cake was putting out some of the best Thai food I've eaten in this city. This was not the "regulation issue" menu of so many other local Thai spots; Cake offered some boldly-flavored street foods, executed with that percussive attack of spicy / sour / salty / bitter / sweet / herbaceous that brings such joy when Thai food is properly done.

The only thing I couldn't unreservedly recommend about Cake was its location. It was actually great for me personally, a few miles from home and literally just a one-block detour from my usual commute. But despite some new upmarket neighbors – Paulie Gee's on the next block, The Anderson around the corner – this particular stretch of Biscayne Boulevard remains somewhat dodgy, and the utilitarian-at-best venue might not be everyone's idea of a night out on the town.[1] If I wasn't solo, it was usually a take-out option for me too.

Well, now you can have your Cake and eat there too. [Go ahead, just kill me now].

A second Cake Thai has opened in trendy Wynwood, just off the "gateway" corner of 29th Street and NW 2nd Avenue. I made my way over there for lunch just before the new year (see all my pictures in this Cake Thai - Wynwood flickr set).

It won't be mistaken for the Four Seasons, but the dining room, with seating for about 30, is bright and airy, the walls covered with white tiles, the ceiling festooned with upside-down woven baskets for decoration.

The opening menu at Cake Wynwood is abbreviated in comparison to the original location: about thirty dishes, roughly half as many as on the Biscayne Boulevard menu. It's something of a "greatest hits," but also includes some items that were semi-regular blackboard specials at the mothership (the chive cake with chili vinegar and dark soy sauce, the chicken in red curry with pickled bamboo shoots). There's also at least a few things that are completely new, at least to me: a duck larb, some new soups and large format dishes.

The new kitchen gives Chef Cake a little more room to play, and so we can expect some more in-house pantry items to be making their way onto the menu. His nuea dad deaw – dried and fried beef jerky, made here with rich, fatty brisket buried under an avalanche of crispy fried shallots – is served with house-made sriracha sauce and pickles.

I never order pad thai. I'll invariably pick at it if the kids order it, and invariably be disappointed. Until I tried Cake's, which brings the proper balance of sour and spicy and funky to a dish that is usually just insipidly sweet. Some plump, fresh head-on shrimp also help elevate the dish. Fresh bean sprouts add crunch.

(continued ...)

In contrast, the grilled chicken wings may be the mildest dish on the menu – just butter, coarse sea salt and pepper to flavor them – but they're meaty, juicy, fatty, and crispy. These are all good words.

The best thing we ate on our first visit was a soup dish I'd not seen at Cake before. The kway teow tom yum featured thin rice noodles swimming in a pork broth that's simultaneously tangy and bright while also rich and slick with fat (the menu describes it as a "tangy tonkotsu broth," which is right about on target), garnished with a trifecta of pork: charshu like ribbons of roasted pork, tender ground pork, and golden chicharrones. Wilted morning glory and a hillock of fresh cilantro complete the dish. It's wonderful, like the love child of Thai hot and sour soup (tom yum) and Japanese ramen.

Another perk of the new location: they now have a small but effective wine and beer list, including Chang beer from Thailand, Hitachino Nest from Japan, and an assortment of rieslings and other aromatic whites and smartly selected reds (Beaujolais!) to pair with Cake's food.

But the best news, for my selfish purposes, is that they are not planning to close the Upper East Side location, which is much closer to home for me; rather, they're looking to spruce it some, to make it look and feel more like its new sibling.[2] I'm looking forward to that too.

Cake Thai - Wynwood
180 NW 29th Street, Miami, Florida

[1] I always thought Cake was in the same spot that housed the briefly lived, but much loved, Taco Max, which reminded me of the great Taco Max / Ver Daddy's Chowhound debates of a decade ago (There was never any real debate: Ver Daddy's was hot garbage. I'm guessing Miami Danny just never went there sober). Turns out I was wrong – Taco Max was in the same strip, but a couple doors down. For the curious, it appears Arturo from Taco Max ended up in Santa Rosa, California.

[2] Many of the overlapping menu items carry something of a "Wynwood premium" at the new location. This is by no means a surprise, with retail rents in Wynwood comparable to those on tony Miracle Mile in Coral Gables these days.

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