When it comes to eating out on a strict budget, there are generally two options: you can eat badly, or you can eat lunch. Though Southwest Florida is full of dining possibilities – from steak houses to Italian bistros to seafood grills – many of them are simply out of our $15-and-under price range. Rather than despairing, and heading to Waffle House for every restaurant review, sometimes the $15-and-under crew chooses a slightly different tactic – we eat lunch.
While not every restaurant serves the midday meal, those that do often offer serious deals on the same good food that you might spend double on at dinner. It may not be as sexy as dining late and you probably can’t have quite so many cocktails, but if you’re looking for the merger of quality and value, then it’s time you tried lunch.
When I settled into a cozy booth at North Naples’ Sushi Thai around 1:30 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, it seemed I wasn’t the only person looking for a bargain. The smallish two-room restaurant was bustling, and a friendly cast of petite young women patrolled the dining rooms, checking for empty water glasses and keeping an attentive eye on their guests.
While as the name would indicate Sushi Thai offers both Japanese and Thai cuisine, it wisely makes no attempt at culinary fusion. The pages-long menu is divided according to ethnicity, keeping the intense sweet flavors of Thai curries and noodles separate from the fresh, subtle tastes of Japanese sushi and other classic dishes. After flipping through pages of Pad Thai and Pork Katsu, my friend and I found what we had been looking for: the lunch specials.
Asian restaurants are notorious for offering daytime deals that pair smaller portions of entrees with an appetizer or a soup for a price that is almost too good to be true. Sushi Thai’s specials were just what we’d been hoping for and we ordered eagerly - I, the Massaman Curry ($6.95) with its accompanying rice, soup and appetizer of the day and a spicy tuna roll ($5.75) on the side, my friend the Japanese Sushi/Sashimi/Shrimp Tempura combination plate ($12.95).
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Almost immediately, a waitress appeared with our lunch special starters: a hefty bowl of tasty miso soup for my friend and a cup of chicken soup with veggies and a small dumpling for me. Hushed, we devoured the first course of our meal slurping appreciatively.
As soon as our first set of plates had been cleared, new ones arrived, this time filling the table with dishes and bowls in various sizes. My friend’s combination plate was actually a traditional box divided into four sections with each one bearing a different taste and texture. In one square the tempura batter was light and crispy covering large pieces of broccoli, sweet potato and a few enormous shrimp. In the others, sushi and sashimi had been laid out in different guises, a dark pink slice of salmon draped carefully over rice and a tightly packed California roll. Well-chilled and firm, my friend said, the fish tasted extremely fresh.
Meanwhile, I had begun to tackle the plentiful dish of Massaman curry, which sat in front of me giving off the teasingly rich smells of coconut milk and curry paste. Coupled with a sizable scoop of rice, the curry was wonderfully flavorful and contained a large serving of chicken and sliced vegetables. However, I couldn’t find any chunks of potato in my large bowl, normally a staple in the dish.
Finally I turned my attention to my sushi, a spicy tuna roll cut into eight thick pieces and laid out pleasingly on a large white platter. Although the Massaman curry would have been more than enough, and although the spicy sauce in the roll was not the best I’ve had, I managed to finish off every last bite. And happily so.
When the table had been cleared and the bill paid, my friend and I dragged ourselves out of the booth and past the dark wooden walls laden with traditional decorations and sparkly knick knacks. We stumbled onto the parking lot completely full and more than a little sleepy. Sushi Thai’s lunch had been satisfying and more, and all for under $30.