October 31, 2014

Appetite

Winging it: For 15 years, diners have flocked to Em-On’s Thai Café for traditional dishes, such as peek kai tod or stuffed boneless chicken wings.A Thai High

We could have put the address into our GPS, but where would the sport have been in that?

So it was that we overshot our destination and found ourselves tooling around the mostly abandoned Granada Shoppes at U.S. 41 and Immokalee, gaping at all the empty storefronts.

“When did Expo close?” I murmured. Tom looked around blankly and shrugged.

“What’s Expo?” he asked, oblivious to all shopping that doesn’t involve books and music. Too bad Borders was shuttered as well.

We headed east on Immokalee and found Em-On’s Thai Café tucked back from the road.

“Do you have a reservation?” the hostess asked us, giggling at her own joke. Every table was empty—on a Saturday night, no less.

“What’s going on around here?” I whispered to Tom as we were seated.

“It’s a ghost town,” he agreed.

“But Em-On’s has lasted since 1996. I’m sure we’re in for some good food.”

Our giggling hostess, Joslyn, returned as our giggling server.

“What do you like to eat here?” Tom asked. Joslyn rattled off five favorites and we ordered them all, adding a few more for good measure. “Have you been working here a long time?”

“Em-On’s my stepmother,” Joslyn said, blushing slightly.

All in the family: From the service staff, including her daughter Thanida Panyang, above left, to the recipes, for dishes such as gang ped yang or duck in curry sauce, Em-On Bartley’s family is part of her restaurant’s success.“So is it authentic culinary talent, or just a talent for pressing family into service, that accounts for Em-On’s longevity?” I whispered. Never let it be said that restaurant critics can’t be hard-nosed investigative journalists. Radicchio everywhere should tremble.

From our first spoonfuls of soup, we realized that Em-On’s survives because its chef-owner has some serious game. The tom kha gai ($3.99 small/$7.99 large), a chicken in coconut milk delicacy with mushrooms and cilantro, had just the right amount of chili heat. Em-On’s take on the classic wonton soup, kiew nam ($3.99 small/$7.99 large), boasted thinly wrapped dumplings, vegetables that retained some crispness and a flavorful broth. Joslyn steered us towards the satay ($6.95), which can be prepared with either chicken or pork. We saved the pork for her next suggestion, the tasty khanob jeeb ($6.95).

Joslyn eyed us curiously as we embarked on an equally regal—and varied—selection of entrées. The other tables began to fill with regulars, and we smiled.

“They’re going to weather the economic storms just fine,” I said, clinking my Singha (Thai beer, $3.95) against Tom’s glass of house cabernet ($4.99). (My beer was the better choice.)

“Finally, a great pad Thai [$12.95],” Tom said. “It’s the most popular dish, and yet nobody else in town seems to make a consistent pad Thai.” I was equally smitten with the signature Thai noodle dish.

“How do you feel about the kao pad delights [$11.95]?” I asked Tom, who takes his fried rice dishes very seriously. His happy moans showed the dish was appropriately named.

“The cinnamon in the roasted duck [$18.95) is innovative and delicious, too,” he said.

“I like it even more than the chicken sizzling platter [$13.99],” I agreed.

“How does the ma-sa-man curry [$13.95] hold up?” I asked. 

“Amazing,” came the verdict. The only false note came with the pad-pak ($13.95), a stir-fried beef dish that begged for a better cut of meat.

Pad high: Our reviewers gave top marks to the Em-On’s pad Thai saying, “Finally, a great pad Thai.”We talked with the chef-proprietress as another server named Thanida brought us iced jasmine tea. We savored some unusually light tempura bananas—the restaurant’s only dessert ($3.95)—and learned that Em-On Bartley comes from a family of restaurateurs. Her sister has a place of her own in Thailand. Em-On flies home to see family and friends once or twice a year.

“Have you taken Joslyn there?” I asked. 

“Next year, she’ll go!”

Don’t wait that long to try Em-On’s Thai Café.

 

Em-On’s Thai Café. 2364 Immokalee Road, Naples; 566-1993. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.

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