In African and Asia-Pacific countries, palm trees are tapped for their sugary sap. It’s then boiled into a syrup, concentrated and formed into cakes or blocks, or evaporated to make crystallized granules. Thai cooks take advantage of this traditional sweetener to create sought-after balance in both sweet and savoury dishes. Unlike white sugar and corn syrup, these sugars can offer complexity and a more subtle sweetness. Depending on the type of palm tree tapped, the flavours can be caramelly, creamy, nutty or smoky.
At Cambridge’s Thai Coconut Island on Hespeler Road’s commercial strip, a serene statue greets us as we enter the simply decorated room. Rattan shades filter the late-day sun. Photographs hang on coffee-coloured walls as does an ornate wood carving of elephants in rice paddies. Several tables are occupied on this Monday suppertime, and a stream of people collect their takeout orders.
The menu offers a good selection of popular dishes. Often you can choose your protein — usually beef, chicken, pork, seafood or tofu — for your noodle dishes and curries. Stir-fries illustrate the Chinese community’s culinary influences on Thai cuisine. Curry lovers can choose from Massaman and Pad Panang as well as the usual yellow, green and red. Thai soups and Vietnamese pho, salads and various deep-fried, grilled and fresh starters round out offerings.
Bonavone and Meng Sisombath opened their family run restaurant in 2004. With roots in Loei, in northeast Thailand, and Xiangkhouang, Laos, they create layered flavours that highlight fresh ingredients. Here, curry pastes are started by hand with mortar and pestle and finished in the food processor. Platings are generous and unfussed, bursting with bright colours and contrasting textures. In 2017, they opened Mimo Thai Kitchen in Waterloo’s University District, run by their son, Morris, and daughter-in-law, Rita.
Service is generally good, and bumps are minor. We sip steaming green tea ($1.50) and cold coconut water ($3.50) as our first course arrives. The Green Mango Salad (with shrimp, $9.50) captures the warm colours of a summer sunset. Its citrusy dressing, punched with tamarind and fish sauce, softens thin strips of mango, carrot, red bell pepper and bean sprouts. Perched atop the mound are plump, tender shrimp under a scatter of fried crunchy peanuts.
Golden from turmeric in the coconut milk-fish sauce marinade, the chicken sate (four skewers, $9) boasts plump and tender meat. Its saltiness is tempered by the accompanying smoky sweet and sour sauce, made with palm sugar, garlic and (I think) tamarind. The other dip — a creamy peanut sauce — is savoury with the teensiest chili kick and citrusy with ginger.
The Pad Ke Mao (with seafood, $12.50), a.k.a. Drunken Noodles, is a stir-fry of just-crisp carrots, broccoli and bell peppers intertwined with bouncy wide rice noodles. For the most part, the squid and shrimp were tender, but the large coral mussel was too chewy to tackle and defeated my friend. Often this dish calls for peppery and clove-like holy basil but here, the kitchen uses sweet basil. It, along with the dish’s other aromatics, has a rather heady floral scent. The dish is described as spicy, but we thought it was rather tame — no matter, asking for a chili condiment brings a small but potent dish of ground chilies in oil.
Arriving with steamed rice, the Massaman Curry ($12.50) — beef only — features chunks of meat surrounded by carrots and potatoes. The beef is long-simmered in a mild coconut milk gravy that’s flavoured with galangal, peanuts, tamarind and spices and sweetened with palm sugar. For dessert, usually diners can choose from a couple of ice creams ($4.50, each), but as they ran out of coconut, we had heaping bowls of mango, sprinkled with crushed peanuts.
It’s easy to see how the Sisombaths have developed their loyal following. They use good, fresh ingredients in the scratch-made and generous dishes, making Thai Coconut Island a good choice for those craving a fragrant and flavourful taste of Thailand.
Thai Coconut Island
580 Hespeler Rd., Cambridge
Rating: 2.5 Forks
Fork rating: (One fork-fair; Two-good; Three-excellent; Four-outstanding)
Monday to Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday; noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday: noon to 8 p.m.
Wheelchair accessible entrance and washrooms. Well-spaced low-top tables. Low noise level. Good lighting.
Casual and contemporary family-friendly restaurant.