Go Thai high at Tampa's Thai Gourmet Market 

You can bank on the freshness at this restaurant and market.

When financial wizards are looking for blue-chip stocks, ROI (Return On Investment) looms large in their thinking. If you shift that concept to the world of gastronomy, your evaluation is based on a more subjective equation: flavor intensity + complexity per mouthful ÷ cost per bite = culinary ROI.

Well, regardless of how you do the math, the food at Thai Gourmet Market explodes with so much flavor at such a modest cost that I feel like I’m guilty of insider trading. Luckily, there’s no Martha Stewart jail time in my future. But at the core of the market’s success are owner Petta Chantharangkul Brown’s four homemade Secret Gourmet sauces (tamarind, satay peanut, green and red curry) that I’m willing to bet Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia would welcome in its portfolio.

At the restaurant there’s a strong emphasis on absolute freshness and a no MSG policy. On our visit the lone appetizer was an absolutely delicious quartet of open-topped steamed dumplings with slivers of pork, shrimp, and fresh blue crab plus a colorful tiny carrot cube peeking out of the top of the soft wonton wrapper. With a drizzle of olive and garlic oils, the thinnest julienned ginger, and a few wisps of scallion and cilantro, these dumplings are complex and scrumptious. I could’ve eaten a dozen.

That, however, would have been a mistake. Because even though the menu is limited by design, the entrée flavors explode off the plate. We skip the tom yum minced pork and lime soup and the sea bass, which is available steamed or pan-seared, to dive into the mix-and-match entrées which serve as the core of the menu.

Thai cuisine is notable for copious use of fresh, rather than dried, herbs and spices. This is particularly evident in TGM’s Thai basil entrées. Fresh, fragrant leaves straight from the garden need only a touch of soy to form the core of a delicious veggie stir-fry offered with a choice of prawns, pork, chicken, tofu, or a two-protein combo. There’s also the option of topping the whole thing with a Thai-style fried egg for those of you who can’t pass up the extra richness of dripping yolk. It’s all accompanied by healthy, crunchy, Asian slaw dotted with carrots and red pepper. The sweetness of the dairy-free dressing balances the heat of the dish.

The menu offers a choice of green (milder and slightly sweeter) or red (spicy) curries with a choice of pork, tilapia or chicken. Either way you get an ample helping of organic black rice packed with iron and full of taste, plus the aforementioned slaw.

The curry sauces are complex affairs. The green version, for example, begins with a paste of green chilies with savory hints of garlic and shallots spiced with coriander, cumin, cardamom and turmeric. Layers of flavor are added through lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, wild ginger and its Thai cousin, galangal. Then, with a touch of shrimp paste, and some fermented fish sauce (the Thai equivalent of soy), the whole affair is combined with coconut milk and sweetened to taste with raw turbinado sugar. The restaurant combines the sauce with julienned eggplant and bean sprouts to luscious effect.

The rice noodle-based pad Thai is built on the tamarind sauce with crisp sprouts and scallions; it, too, is fresh and full of flavor, but served without the side dishes that accompany the curries.

A word on heat: Thai food is spicy with a capital S. Chef Pet will happily match her tasty creations to your palate on a continuum from wimpy American to steamy Bangkok native. Unless you’ve had a lot of Thai food and know you have an asbestos mouth, I suggest you think conservatively. You can always add more heat from the Asian spice trolley at the center of each table. Speaking of tables, there are only two four-tops separated by a sleek black shelf with stacks of Secret Gourmet sauces. There is also counter seating for 12. Three lucky stools face the kitchen for food voyeurs, and there are five spots looking out the window onto Memorial Highway in case you need traffic to distract you from a mistaken choice of too much spice.

TGM urges you to “discover your taste buds.” The market sells red, sweet, jasmine brown rice and black, brown, or buckwheat rice vermicelli, plus oodles of Thai noodles. Ian and Pet Brown have created a “one stop shop” that is most certainly, as their business card touts, “deliciously convenient.” Their website points out that Thai food is mainly designed for spoon feeding, but they also provide chic stainless steel chopsticks because the eating of noodles has yet to escape the influence of Chinese culture. I always try to use chopsticks (when provided) to work on my less than native technique. Using the chosen implement of a culture helps you have a more immersive experience; I often find myself nagging my dining companions just to try. You can only get better if you practice.

The restaurant/market is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday only till 8 p.m. Weekends are saved for proffering their wares under the “Discover Your Tastebuds” tent at St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market and Tampa’s Downtown Market on Sundays — except for the first Sunday, when they’re stationed at Hyde Park Village’s Fresh Market. Pay a visit; the ROI is blue chip.

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