Atchana is done Thai-splaining.
Before the Chuaindhara family came to the United States in 1978, they owned a restaurant near a U.S Army base in Thailand where they compromised, cooking mostly American food and Thai cuisine adapted for American palates.
At her parents’ restaurant in Miami, Thai Silk, where she and her siblings worked between going to school, they had a new challenge: teach Miami’s young palate to differentiate between Thai cuisine and Chinese, Japanese and Indian. They made progress when she took over her uncle’s beloved Siam Lotus Room, a longtime locals’ favorite in a mantis-green South Miami building.
And that’s how they arrived at Coconut Grove’s new Atchana’s Homegrown Thai. Compromise is not on the menu here.
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Atchana Capellini (her married name) took some of her family’s favorite recipes and put them on the menu without apologies. The result: This corner on Grand Avenue with floor-to-ceiling windows is a fishbowl filled with diners every night of the week.
Atchana’s has a sense of place, from the green counter stools and lavish tropical fish aquarium that recall the popular Siam Lotus Room, to the reclaimed wood walls made from crates from the Coconut Grove marina. Capellini met her husband here (during a date at the late Village Inn), and her family, which helped establish the Thai Buddhist Temple in Homestead, has put down roots deep enough for them to be called locals.
Her menu here is streamlined. Dish ingredients (many of which are farmed in Homestead) are clearly spelled out, and a knowledgeable wait staff does their best to encourage diners to step outside their comfort zones. A first good step: The server asks whether diners have any food allergies (peanuts play into several dishes) or dietary restrictions for vegans and vegetarians.
From there, forge ahead for dishes that range from foreign to familiar.
A great place to start is Son-in-Law Eggs, or khai luk khoei, a hearty portion of hard-boiled eggs that have been quickly deep fried to emerge with a crisp outside and tender inside. They are served with a choice of sauces, all house made, from a mild Sriracha-style jarred sauce to fermented green chilies in a pungent fermented fish sauce that help style the dish with the myriad flavors that make Thai cuisine so complex.
If you order the Thai Beef Jerky, morsels of tender flap meat quickly fried, you may find yourself popping them like candy. That is unless the juicy and crispy Bangkok Wings, served with three other housemade sauces, have you ordering some to take home. (They’re apparently a favorite of University of Miami football players when Atchana’s caters school events.)
The papaya salad was perhaps the only letdown of my meals here, as the green, julienned strands were insipid despite sitting in a pool of palm sugar sauce where they became soggy. It made me long for the miang kham, a sort of lettuce wrap (though they shudder to call it that) that lets you make your own bites with wild piper leaves (havested in Homestead), coconut, lime, ginger, garlic, shrimp, peanuts, shallots, peppers and tamarind. It has been so popular that it was sold out both nights I visited.
I didn’t, however, miss out on the crispy duck, which the kitchen debones and rubs down with five spice, cinnamon and star anise before lightly flouring and frying it. Served over a bed of vegetables and a reduction, the dish is crispy, meaty and satisfying.
Thai also means noodles and curry, and Atchana’s makes family recipes of each where you can taste that home-cooked inspiration.
The rice noodles are made in house for the Pad Thai and the Pad See Ew, and each is a wonderful version. The Pad Thai, with minced pork and shrimp, hits every flavor note — sweet, tangy, acidic, salty, umami (from the fish sauce) — and the Pad See Ew combines the crunch of blanched broccoli with tender al dente noodles.
Atchana’s panang curry is creamy simplicity, with coconut milk and basil fragrance, especially if you do yourself a favor and ask for bit of heat in the red curry base.
Finish with Thai doughnut holes. They’re worth the calories, sitting in a pool of condensed milk with dips that include coconut shavings, caramel bits and chocolate sauce.
Delicious food needs no explanation.
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If You Go
Place: Atchana’s Homegrown Thai
Address: 3194 Commodore Plaza, Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 305-774-0404, Atchanas.com
Hours: noon to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: $7-$16 starters; $14-$24 entrees; $8 desserts
FYI: Wine, craft beer and sake available. Off-street metered parking.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)