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Where flavor and friendliness rule

Nori Thai in St. Pete Beach serves up fresh Asian food at hospitable prices, with all the comforts of home.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published February 17, 2005


ST. PETE BEACH - Times change. There is a place where everyone knows your name, but it's not a burger and Bud beach bar.

Not even close. Nori Thai is in a mundane strip center and serving the ubiquitous grouper, but here the fish is in Panang curry and the rest of the seafood runs from eel to salmon skin sushi. And the beer of choice is Singha.

It doesn't feel foreign in the least. What makes the place as familiar and comfy as an old Bucs jersey or a pair of flip-flops is Suwanna Chompunich, who presides over the cash register at the entrance in spectacles and has become a virtual house mother for her own Cheers crowd. She knows almost everyone who comes through the door by name (and boyfriend) and sometimes has drinks on the table and orders in the kitchen before they sit down. Her husband, Chawalit, kibitzes from the sushi bar.

If knowing your customers is the oldest principle in restauranting, the combination of Thai cooking and sushi is now a basic one, too. The new neighborhood fixture shows how our tastes in Asian food have changed.

Flavor, even fire, and freshness now rule, and noodles are as exciting as rice, maybe more so. Chinese restaurateurs who want to get back in the battle for that franchise should heed it all.

Yes, you can get sweet and sour chicken or pineapple curry, but the menu has six pages of choices that intrigued me more, longest and strongest on the Thai half.

I haven't plumbed the whole of it or dared to go off-menu, but I might have found a few that have escaped diligent regulars.

One is the best-spent $1.25 in a restaurant: Nori's a la carte tempura vegetables, especially yasai ten, squash and other vegetables that are julienned and lightly fried like a bird's nest of potato sticks (surely with less guilt).

Another is kanisu, a pretty assemblage of shrimp, crab and avocado, rolled in very thin cucumber and then sliced in pinwheels, dotted with black and white sesame seeds and red caviar in rice vinegar: bright, fresh and not a carb in sight (if you care). Hard to eat but easy to swallow.

A surprise on the Thai side is not-so-subtle Jumping Jack Shrimp. This falls into the general class of yums, or meat salads, which together with soups and satays make up my favorite part of any Thai menu. These shrimp danced hot over chili paste and chilled out with lemongrass, cilantro and lettuce. That's more than good nutrition; getting a dozen shrimp for $6.95 made me feel like a glutton - and a thief.

Yum talay, a salad made with a mix of seafood, would have been better if the shrimp and squid had more noticeable thrill of the grill to balance the tart freshness I like in a Thai salad. It was also disappointing that satay chicken came to the table already cooked. Tableside toy hibachis may be silly, even dangerous, but I like the shtick - and my sticks would stay on the fire longer.

Nori Thai does the full range, from tart tom yum goong soup to whole fish, crispy duck to a long list of sushi tempura and teriyaki. From the Japanese side, I can vouch that tempura had good crunch and the sushi bar did its best with creative rolls, such as a cone of chopped scallops with kim chee, rather than plain sashimi, which was timid.

The service was best when there were three servers on the floor, plus Suwanna intervening. The place stays so busy that on a night with two servers their fast pace cost the dinner some of its grace and warmth.

You never doubt that Nori Thai is a neighborhood place, especially when you see the prices, which seem downright old-fashioned. You can have lunch for $5, many dinners are $8 and trimmings such as appetizers are still $3 to $4. Heck, you can try your first bite of sushi for $1.50.

The friendliness and hospitality here is genuine and has made Nori Thai a landmark. It's a fixture in the diet of single parents with small kids, beach oldtimers and daters old and young in an era when pad Thai is as common as key lime pie.

Both have the same important ingredient: generous hospitality.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

NORI THAI

7612 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach

Phone: (727) 367-6535

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays, 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Reservations suggested

Details: Beer, wine; takeout available

Prices: Lunch, $4.95 to $7.95; dinner, $7.25 to $21.95