For Thai Spice owner and chef Michael Tatton, the restaurant business in general – and the northeast Fort Lauderdale/Oakland Park restaurant business in particular – is a way of life. It’s something in his blood.
“I grew up in the industry,” he says. “My father was the maître d’ at the Mai-Kai for 37 years. I grew up in it, I live it, I breathe it.”
Today, Thai Spice has been in business for almost as long as Michael’s father worked at the Mai-Kai – 31 years, to be exact. In that time, the Fort Lauderdale restaurant scene has changed profoundly. But Tatton believes a few core principles have given his place that rare restaurant gift of longevity. Nothing’s frozen, and all of the seafood, like the Chilean sea bass, is local. Thai Spice also mixes up the usual Thai/Asian fusion concept – namely, Thai food and sushi – that’s become so popular in the US.
“We have a little bit different concept,” he says. “The concept is, we’re not a sushi bar; we don’t offer sushi. We have one or two sashimi items … but what we’re more focused on is prime steaks and chops.”
It might seem odd – although to be fair, these days steakhouses are as much a part of the Japanese food landscape as sushi. Thai Spice uses a special rub on the meats, and Tatton believes that unique menu combination makes the place appeal to diverse groups of diners. And if it seems like an odd or unlikely combination, well, he can point at the scoreboard: in business for more than three decades. Something must be working.
Many of the people in the restaurant are also longtime employees. Chefs have been with him for years; he’s even got four different dishwashers who have been with him for more than 20, he says. That’s fairly unheard of. “Being here 31 years, I’m really, really proud to say the longevity of our staff speaks volumes.
“Service is our main emphasis. You can have the best food in the world but without great service, you just become another place.”
The eatery opened in 1989 as a tiny shop with a kitchen for takeout and delivery. It might have been tough then to imagine now – the massive Commercial Boulevard restaurant with room for live entertainment – or, in these times, plenty of social distancing.
In those early days, Thai food was almost unheard of in Fort Lauderdale. But when it hit, it hit in a big way. Suddenly there was a lot of competition.
“Thai food, when it came into Fort Lauderdale, it became a popular cuisine,” Tatton says. “Everybody had the same type of m.o. in terms of the menu. Thai sushi, Thai sushi, Thai sushi. But from the beginning, we were always different. We weren’t following the norm. We always wanted to be like a five-star place; that was my passion.”
Over the years, the restaurant has expanded five different times. But those core principles remain intact. “I firmly believe that Thai Spice is a dining destination here in Fort Lauderdale,” Tatton says. “I think our accolades also help support my idea. And we continue to strive for perfection.”
The Dish: Thai Spice Seafood Red Curry
Prepare all the ingredients ahead and the final execution will go quickly.
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp. Thai red curry paste
- 1 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
- ¾ cup sliced bamboo shoots
- 12 pencil-thin asparagus spears, 2-inch tips only (last minute to prevent overcooking)
- 4-6 ounces fresh grouper fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
- 4-6 ounces jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 4-6 ounces fresh U-10 dry-packed diver-scallops (about 4), any side muscles removed
- 1 large red bell pepper, seeded & cut into ½ by 3 inch strips
- 1 medium zucchini, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, then cut into ¾ inch thick slices
- 4-6 ounces cleaned calamari rinsed well, dried and cut into ¼ inch rounds
- 1 ¾ cups unsweetened coconut milk
- 5 tbsp. Thai Tiparos fish sauce
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 cup fresh Thai basil leaves
- 4 cups cooked jasmine rice
In a large heavy skillet (at least 12 inches) or a wok, heat oil over medium heat. When wok is hot, stir in curry paste and garlic; cook, stir, about 1 ½ minutes or until paste melts and garlic is fragrant. Add red peppers, zucchinis, bamboo shoots, asparagus, grouper, shrimp, scallops and calamari. Toss well. Add remaining ingredients except basil leaves and jasmine rice. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Let simmer 2 to 3 minutes, or until seafood is just cooked through. Do not overcook. Stir in basil. To serve, place a cup of hot cooked rice in each of 4 large serving bowls. Divide curry among them. Makes 4 servings.