Cake Thai in Wynwood is a formal step up from the MiMo District dive that Chef “Cake” whittled three years ago out of a Biscayne Boulevard strip mall, enticing off-duty chefs and fans of Bangkok-style street food.
For starters, there are bathrooms and air conditioning.
Still, nobody would call the former Makoto cook’s orange-painted, 1,300-square-foot café upscale. There are metal folding chairs too low for tables and missing rolls of toilet paper in the ladies’ room.
Yet when the evening sun dips and the ceiling lights filter through a sea of upended woven baskets overhead, the 30-seat dining room gets downright magical.
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Hip-hop music rattles the house and plastic serving bowls shoot like rockets out of the kitchen, where Phuket “Cake” Thongsodchareondee can often be spotted in his backward baseball cap handing off dishes at the window.
What passes through are carefully orchestrated platters of his native cuisine designed to stretch Miami’s palate. Instead of sweet coconut and peanut butter sauces striving for mass appeal, there are curries that hit floral notes with Makrut leaves and soups that are simultaneously sour and spicy, tempered by thick square omelet chunks with veins of fresh, tender cha-om, a Southeast Asian vegetable.
Raw, berry-sized Thai eggplants are snappy, slightly bitter surprises in an earthy green short rib curry, with extra layers of flavor from ginger-like finger root and basil. Wobbly flat rice noodles are wok-smoky and salty, stir-fried with dark soy sauce, fermented soybean, pork shoulder, Chinese broccoli and eggs.
“Let us delight you with something you may have never tried before,” implores the one-page menu.
Divided into small plates, salads, noodle dishes, entrées, and two “large format” dishes (a fish of the day and a 22-ounce ribeye served with shrimp fat “crack sauce”), the options include many favorites from the original Cake’s Thai Kitchen that the chef and his mother, Nutthamon Mazza, founded in 2014 in Miami’s emerging MiMo neighborhood.
Mazza reportedly nicknamed her son “Cake” because that’s what she craved when she was pregnant with him. What the two are bringing to Wynwood is pretty sweet.
Opened in December, Cake Thai is a partnership between the mother-son team and local restauranteurs Javier Ramirez and Leopoldo Monterrey, who founded Alter. Chef Cake comes to Miami via a childhood in Phuket, Thailand, where his father had a seafood restaurant. He studied at the Perth School of Hospitality and Tourism in Australia, landing in Miami in 2008 and working in several sushi restaurants before joining Stephen Starr’s high-end Makoto in Bal Harbour with the talented chef Makoto Okuwa.
Cake Thai has none of Makoto’s sleekness or discipline, but the practical space is cozy and bustling, with interior white-tiled walls and outdoor patio seating. The friendly wait staff is young and informal. Their knowledge of ingredients is hit-or-miss.
Fans of Chef Cake’s original Biscayne Boulevard post will find upgrades like additional seating and a beer-and-wine menu with craft beers, ciders, and sparkling and fruity wines.
This is the place to be on Wednesday evenings, when a “Bangkok Night” fixed-price, four-course menu offers rotating family recipes not normally seen. Small starters rev up the palate with such combinations as grilled Florida mackerel with lime, peanuts and dried shrimp wrapped inside thick-and-chewy Chinese broccoli leaves or a salad of tender, grilled steak strips tossed with crunchy cucumber, white grapes and tomatoes in a spicy lime dressing.
The velvety chicken thigh stir-fry with soy sauce, ginger and wood-ear mushrooms was a simple, down-home delight. A nam jim jaew sour-and-spicy dipping sauce of dried red chillies on the side turned it into a house party.
Unfortunately, the crispy pork belly sautéed with Brussels sprouts and garlic came out tooth-cracking hard. The lack of knives on the table made it even tougher to eat.
From the regular menu on another night, the lump crab meat in creamy chili sauce with sweet peppers was a soggy disappointment. Too few vegetarian options made it difficult for some in our group.
Dessert specials, however, are invitations for adventure. Our hesitancy turned into exhilaration as we spooned our way through “crunchy ruby” water chestnut dumplings in cold coconut water granita, mildly sweetened with coconut milk and young coconut flesh. It was the perfect, plucky ending.
With a duo of restaurants to his name and a town awakening to Chef Cake’s authentic Thai food, it looks like Miami diners will be able to have their Cake and eat it two.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
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If You Go
Place: Cake Thai
Address: 180 NW 29th St., Miami (Wynwood)
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 305-573-5082, cakethaimiami.com
Hours: Noon-11 p.m., Sunday and Tuesday-Wednesday, until midnight Thursday through Saturday. Closed Monday
Prices: $7-$19 small plates and soups, $13-$25 entrees, $8-$10 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; beer and wine; free parking in adjacent lot.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)