Thai Temple: No Passport Required
Sawatdee ka! Welcome to Tampa’s Authentic Thai Market
Nestled between the sprawling neighborhoods of eastern Hillsborough County and Tampa’s industrial side, you’ll find acres of old Florida … but in the spirit of a much more exotic locale.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, more simply known as the Thai temple, was established as a Theraveda Buddhist temple in 1981. Running alongside peaceful Palm River and blanketed by a canopy of grand oaks, the land has since become home to a Sunday market that is really a food excursion. Temple volunteers create traditional Thai dishes, which are the focus. But you can also buy produce, prepared foods, plants and flowers, with all proceeds supporting the temple.
While the temple and market are unequivocally Thai, visitors transcend cultures and ages. It’s not uncommon to see families gathering for a shared meal across the wooden picnic benches, or twenty-somethings sharing stories from the night before while waiting for noodle soup.
The market isn’t as much of a secret as it has been in years past – it’s always busy. But the influx of visitors has helped the temple build a dock to improve the condition of the previously crumbling sea wall and add wrought iron benches lining a broad sidewalk along the river.
Introduced to me years ago by a friend whose mom is a volunteer, I’ve always felt lucky to be able to experience the market from an insider’s perspective. My first tip: Plan to get there by 10:30 a.m. at the latest to avoid long lines and ensure a seat along the water to call your own. As for the food, you can expect to find the usual suspects: Pad Thai (it’s ridiculously fresh), curry dishes, egg rolls. But, it’s the specialties here that make the trip an exotic taste adventure.
Som Tum: Better known as papaya salad, this pre-made item is available up the first set of stairs on your left past the temple. Shredded, cool papaya ribbons soak in a mixture of lime juice blended with crushed peanuts, tomatoes, and dried shrimp. Customize your salad by specifying your spice level and whether you want anchovies included. Whatever your preference, this is a refreshing bite.
Guiteow: For some reason, a steaming bowl of noodle soup sounds just as good on a hot morning in August as it does during cooler weather. In a Chipotle-like fashion, be prepared to first choose a noodle size, or a mix of large, medium and small. Next, decide on meat – ground pork or sliced beef plus meatballs – or vegetarian. It all rests in a flavorful broth with fresh bean sprouts and cilantro. Once you’re handed the bowl, you can add extra fish sauce, sriracha or peppers before balancing the hot noodle soup on a tray and walking downstairs to slurp it all up.
The earlier you arrive, the less you have to wait in the weaving, makeshift Disney line to goodness. It usually takes 15 minutes or so even at peak times, and you’ll want the time to get your order straight anyway, but trust me, the wait is worth it.
Gai and Mu: If you’re looking for something simple, you’ll find grilled chicken and pork at the far end of the market near the flowers and plants for sale. With a salty taste and texture, both are reminiscent of jerky and pair well with perfectly sticky white rice.
Khanom Krok: These hot half-domes are the best of a hotcake and pudding in one… crispy and golden on the outside, with a creamy, white, coconut custard middle that melts in your mouth.
You want them, don’t you? Well, inside intel is necessary to make sure you don’t miss this treat: Upon arrival, march directly past the prepared foods, then around the corner between the frying bananas and noodle soup to a small station with large circular pans with divets in them. Grab a styrofoam box ($3 for small and $5 for large) and a black Sharpie to write your name on the outside. The volunteers will let you know when to come back (usually around 45 minutes).
Banana “Coins:” A coveted treat, these browned, crispy desserts are similar in taste and texture to fried plaintains, but sweeter. In addition to the bananas frying in a large vat, you can find taro root and sweet potatoes also made on the spot just around the corner from the prepared food section.
Thai Tea: Blending black tea with spices including cardamom and anise, it’s poured on ice and sweetened with condensed milk for a rich, addicting taste. Fresh coconut water is also available for $1, as is soda and bottled water.
Know Before You Go
Cash only with recommended donation amounts.
Most food items range from $5 - $8. Bring $15 to $20 for food, but extra to purchase flowers, plants, produce or prepared foods to take home.
Wear comfortable shoes (to help with the noodle soup balancing and stairs).
Drive slowly through the unpaved lot and roads; there are usually parking attendants to guide you during peak times.
You’re welcome to enter the temple, though you should remove your shoes; check online for other etiquette tips.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, 5306 Palm River Road, Tampa, 813-621-1669, Wattampainenglish.com, market open Sundays, 10:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.