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Exotic Thai
Out of a possible five

Interesting discoveries at Thai spot

Its name and its gaudy pink-lettered sign made me wonder whether it was a massage parlor instead of a restaurant.

And even though I didn’t find the food at Exotic Thai to be all that exotic, there were some good finds.

Located in Marketplace of Canterbury at what was once New China Garden, the restaurant is still quite attractive. The pillars, unique sunken floor and screens that made the old place so quaint are still there, but it has been stripped down a bit to give it a sleeker, cleaner look, and a counter has been installed in the back instead of right inside the door. The restrooms, however, are still dreadfully dilapidated.

The first interesting dish was the Thai Beef Jerky appetizer. Strips of beef were coarsely battered and deep-fried until extra crisp. The overcooking gave the meat a somewhat dry texture, but not so dry it was bad – just chewy. It had a little bit of that harsh, almost burnt flavor and came with a sweet-spicy red dipping sauce. Even though I didn’t think I would like it, I kept going back for more, and I think it would be a great bar snack.

Exotic Thai’s signature dish was called, simply, Barbecued Chicken, which was a bit surprising. The chicken had no peppers or other visible spices on its skin and it looked like any regular roasted chicken. But this bird was marinated in curry with “a lot of cilantro,” I was told. The result was a delicious bright, herbal flavor with just a little heat and a little sweetness from the sauce on the plate underneath it. The skin was also a little crisp and the meat was juicy.

The Tiger Prawns entrée, like the jerky, grew on me as I ate it. It featured about a dozen medium-sized, crispy-fried shrimp topped with red and green peppers and a ton of chopped garlic. The garlic bits were cooked so dark that I thought they were chopped peanuts at first, and there was a slightly sweet, creamy red sauce on the bottom of the plate.

The dish was not hot enough even after I asked for it spicy (servers at Exotic Thai asked each time how much spice I wanted, which was a great service touch). But the garlic flavor – you will need breath mints, a lot of them, after eating this – was fantastic with the sweet shrimp and made this dish worth having again.

The level of spice was all wrong in the Chicken Pad Thai. It was a decent mix of noodles, sprouts, julienned carrots, cabbage and tender strips of chicken with red pepper flakes and peanuts, but, again, I asked for it hot and it was not. In fact, it was extremely sweet. Sickeningly sweet. So sweet I felt poorly for a long time after eating it.

The Spicy Basil had what I was looking for in terms of heat. Chicken, pork, tofu or shrimp can be had with this dish (I chose shrimp, which cost an extra $2) sautéed with chili, onions, bell peppers, onions and, of course, fresh Thai basil. The fragrance of the basil was fantastic and it packed a huge spice punch. It had a loose, brown sauce; the vegetables were all still crisp; and the eight shrimp were delicious.

The other appetizers I tried, however, were not so delicious.

The Larb Gai (Eastern Thai tacos) were a failed attempt at lettuce wraps. Finely diced chicken was seasoned with lime juice and chili flakes, but it was served cold. The iceberg lettuce leaves were the shells for the tacos and there was some fresh basil and a small iceberg salad on the side dressed in a sweet vinaigrette, which I placed inside the wraps to help the bland, dry meat because there was no sauce provided.

The Thai Toast was like Chinese shrimp toast with ground chicken and shrimp atop bread, which was deep-fried and served with a sweet and sour cucumber sauce. The toast was fried way too long so the top became dark and burnt so I could not taste the shrimp and chicken. The only flavor it had was that of foul cooking oil.

The foul oil flavor also hurt the fried banana and ice cream – an egg roll paper-wrapped deep-fried plantain with chocolate and strawberry syrups – which could have been tasty. The other sweet offerings at Exotic Thai had no such issues.

The Thai-style iced coffee and iced tea were great with that extra sweet, spice-infused flavor, and the mango sticky rice had a beautifully ripe sliced mango with its chewy, cream-coated rice.

Restaurant: Exotic Thai

Address: 5745 St. Joe Road

Phone: 755-6904

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Thai Tacos ($5.95), Thai Toast ($3.95), Beef Jerky ($6.50), Barbecued Chicken ($9.95), Tiger Prawns ($15.95), Pad Thai ($9.95), Spicy Basil ($9.95), mango rice ($5.25), fried banana ($4.25), tea and coffee ($1.75)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter (@DiningOutDuVall).