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Thai Scores

Experienced restauranteur goes north to the lake

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Toi (Sukanya) B. Rogers, a native of Bangkok, met her husband on an airbase in Thailand and moved to Charlotte in 1972. "All the time people tell me they love my food and asked me to open a restaurant," says Rogers. Twenty years ago, she and some partners opened Thai Cuisine on Central Avenue. That restaurant became phenomenally popular. After five years she sold her share of the business back to her partners. By the early 1990s she wanted to try her hand again in the restaurant business and opened Thai Orchid in the Strawberry Hill Shopping Center. Rogers sold her interest in that restaurant two years ago in order to open the 60-seat Thai Marlai in Cornelius."I had many customers from the Lake Norman area and they asked me to open a restaurant near them. I thought I would give it a try," she continues. The restaurant was scheduled to open in early spring of last year, but construction delayed the opening until December 2002.

Thai Marlai is located in a strip center space that had been a take out pizza joint. The owners have masterfully converted the interior by faux finishing the walls and adding Thai art and artifacts, and dark wood furniture. Says Rogers, "We created the tables ourselves. We wanted to make sure they looked Thai. From the moment my customers come into the restaurant I want them to feel comfortable." To that end the broad glass expanse has been framed with white cafe curtains. The only structural problem remaining is the entrance. Patrons enter into the center dining room. A barrier of some sort would go far to protect diners from cold air and incoming patrons.

In the kitchen is Rogers' partner Chef Toon who apprenticed in her aunt's "country style" Thai restaurant in Bangkok before coming to Charlotte. Toon then spent 10 years with Rogers' former partner Chef Tony Pornchinda at Thai Cuisine and then Thai Cuisine Garden on Independence Boulevard, which Pornchinda opened after selling Thai Cuisine. A third partner in Thai Marlai is Mr. Pol.

Thai Marlai's menu has expansive descriptions while offering the better-known Thai dishes typically found around this region: curries and stir fries, noodles and soups, whole fish and salads. Even though I told my server that I wanted my food full flavored and seasoned as "true Thai" she gave me a Jack Nicholson "You can't handle the truth" look. I knew my order was doomed to be mild and resorted to using the condiment tray.

The uncomplicated and meek Mee Krob needed to be enlivened by a healthy dash of chili sauce. The steamed spring rolls filled with bracing mint and basil leaves, on the other hand, were served with a thin, piquant sauce of honey, vinegar, chili peppers, and chopped peanuts.

In Thailand, Pad Thai, the fusion of hot, sweet, sour and salty, is best served by inexpensive eateries, not "fine" restaurants, just as spaghetti and meatballs are not found in "fine" Italian restaurants. As Rogers put it, "Pad Thai is like a hamburger: really common, delightful and easy to eat." At Thai Marlai, this bellwether dish is well executed in as much as the components of the dish are pliant and not over done, but the flavors are constrained.

But the most delightful source of invigoration are the kitchen's specials. The rolls are impressive while the weekend special Haw Mok is a deliriously seductive curry. Presented in a bowl-shaped banana leaf, this steamed curry shimmers with flecks of chilies and thinly sliced kiffir lime in a coconut milk and flour mixture, with big chunks of luscious salmon, tender bits of squid, savory diver scallops and tails-on shrimp. This is a great dish and worthy of a 20-mile trip or a short one from around the corner.

The modestly priced entrees range from $7.95 to $13.95. Lunch specials are offered daily.

Rogers knows her crowd's food moods and remains a constant presence in the dining room. "You like beef?" she asks one table. "Then try the Ka-Ta-Ron. It is very good." The room becomes progressively noisier as more tables tried Rogers' suggestions. You may need the condiment tray to achieve the fire many hot-head Thai-food fans crave, but Thai Marlai goes a long way to recharge dining fun at Lake Norman.

Thai Marlai, 19700 One Norman Boulevard, beside the BiLo, Exit 28, Cornelius, 704-892-7191. Lunch hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30am until 2:30pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5pm until 9:30Pm; until 10:30 on Friday and Saturday. MC, Visa.

Eaters' Digest

In 2002, the Society of St. Andrews in North Carolina rescued nearly 14 million pounds of produce (32 millions pounds nationally) that would been thrown away. This was accomplished by rescuing tractor-trailer loads of food and gleaning in the fields of area farmers. Food from this organization fed people in Mecklenburg and all other counties of NC. SoSA is one of the nation's largest nonprofit providers of fresh produce. If you are a farmer who would like to participate, or a person who would like to volunteer to glean, please contact Marilyn Marks of the Gleaning Network: 704-553-1730 or sosawnc@endhunger.org.

Chef Geoff Bragg of the Peaceful Dragon Restaurant, 12610 Steele Creek Road, is offering an International dinner series featuring gourmet vegetarian dishes from Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. The first wine dinner is 7pm on Tuesday, March 4, and features the foods of the Mediterranean. Tickets are $30 per person or $100 for all four dinners. Call 704-504-8866.

The Pewter Rose, with sibling Tutto Mondo Night Club, celebrated its 15th anniversary last week with a fund-raiser for the Metrolina AIDS Project.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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