By Mary D. Scourtes
Consider Wat Mongkolratanaram a way station for hungry nirvana-seekers who can’t cross the Universal Dateline. Every Sunday, the Thai temple affectionately nicknamed “Wat Tampa,” opens its compound, about a half-mile from U.S. 41 on the banks of the Palm River, to sell an amazing array of foods and produce.
You watch an assembly of men, women and children chop, grind and pound seeds, shoots, roots and leaves for the Thai dishes. The cheerful cooks volunteer their time and ingredients and give the proceeds to the monks who serve the temple. Sometimes, you can be lucky enough to witness a wedding or other ceremony at the gilded Thai temple with gold dragon ornaments and elaborate woodwork.
Dozens of early visitors arrive before 9 a.m. but most guests find 10:30 is just right for finding a savory selection. The meals are available until mid- afternoon, or whenever the food is gone. Experienced visitors fine tune their trips by toting Tupperware containers to instantly “doggie bag’’ their selections. They also split their party so that as one cools the heels in the barbecue line another waits elsewhere for something different. Luckily, we caught some breeze at picnic tables near shady oaks and were dressed comfortably for the summer heat. Seating is limited but even when a dining group is divided, it’s easy to make conversation with other adventuresome souls.
The variety of food is diverse, a contrast of flavors and textures, comfortably homespun, and range from a familiar pad Thai to unfamiliar yellow dessert “pearls,’’ probably made from squash. Dishes have enticing aromas because herbs play a prominent role in Thai cooking. The noodle soup, practically a meal, is a must-see production line that would have been the envy of Henry Ford. A cook chooses an arrangement of angel hair, fettuccine or thick noodles, douses each in a flavorful broth, and another cook adds pork or beef meatballs, sprouts and other aromatics. A nearby condiment table holds other additions to add punch: pungent fish sauce, vinegar-y sriracha sauce and sliced jalapenos.
The food fair keeps your interest as you hear a lively foreign conversation and have no idea what the folks are saying. I do know I liked it all: shrimp and basil pad Thai that has just the right amount of tamarind to balance the slippery noodles, a light-bodied chicken and vegetable stir-fry, and a bold, green chicken curry. Barbecue devotees will have no problem finding something good from the big grill, set up down by the river. It’s smoking with pork satay, spicy sausages and plump chickens that offer a real snap of flavor.
You may reach into your wallet often but you don’t mind as prices are low. Spring rolls are $1 each and dinners barely break a $10 ceiling for a plate piled high. This is probably the best foodie deal around.
No meal is complete without sweets. We see pastries, puddings and huge woks the size of cauldrons where men are frying enough battered bananas and sweet potatoes to feed a football team. Equally mesmerizing is Thai puffy art, or kanohm crokein, cupcake sized, coconut rice cakes. One cooks pours a sweet batter from a teapot into an egg like griddle, another squirts each with slivered scallions and the slightly caramelized, sweet cakes are perhaps the crowning glories of the market.
This Thai food market is worth a try.
What: Wat Mongkolratanaram
Where: 5306 Palm River Rd
Directions: To find the market, take the 50th Street exit off the Selman Crosstown Expressway, drive south across the Palm River, turn left at the first light, and soon after the railroad tracks, turn left into a big parking lot.
Another yummy for the tummy: John Zhao adds his special touches to a new Yummy House at 2620 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa (the first Chinese Yummy is on Waters Avenue) with a large 5,500 square feet of space that seats 200 diners. “People are waiting outside the door when we open at 5,” the owner told the St. Petersburg times earlier this year. The new menu features shrimp and other shellfish and fresh fish (taken from fish tanks).
Losing your noodles? From simple to lavish, we enjoy every type of noodle. Now there is a new one where your only calorie worry is from the cheese or cream. The no-calorie, no-carbohydrate, no-gluten, no-fat noodle is called the NoOodle. Made from Japanese yams, it sounds like something from space, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen it locally yet but the heat-and-eat NoOodle meals include marinara and primavera. This miracle pasta is made of water and glucomannan fiber from the yam and has been used in Japanese sukiyaki and hot pots. http://www.nooodle.com/