The question has always fascinated me. One of my friends is a fitness club manager who dreams of going into interior design. Another is an IT whiz who'd love to start a beauty product empire. Still another is a publicist who wants to open a nightclub. And I can think of several pals who've already reinvented themselves, including a writer-turned-helicopter-pilot and academic-turned-forest-firefighter.
Among the possible fields that people fantasize about entering, the culinary world seems to have the strongest allure. From the freedom of being a restaurateur to the creative possibilities of working as a chef, the industry has an aura of glamour. Hey, even scandal-plagued former Arizona governor Fife Symington went to cooking school — and started his own culinary institute — after resigning from office.
David Fliger, owner of the charming new Latitude Eight Thai Grill in Chandler, had an 18-year career in the advertising biz, working as an advertising and marketing director, before opening his own restaurant.
He says he'd always had the idea, especially since his mother, Nicha Jithchamnonk, already had a Thai place in L.A. So when a space came up for lease in historic downtown Chandler — a highly desirable area with lots of independently owned restaurants within a few bustling blocks — Fliger, a native of Thailand who was raised in the States, finally fled the corporate world, moved his mom to town and opened a restaurant.
Ironically, Fliger chose not to advertise or promote Latitude Eight's mid-May opening. Instead, he'd hoped a soft opening would give him all summer to ride out any potential growing pains.
"In all honesty, I thought we would be absolutely dead until October," Fliger says.
Well, that hasn't been the case at all. Business has been "surprisingly very good" since the beginning, he says, and in recent weeks, the place has been packed, even on weeknights.
The only downside, Fliger adds, is that he simply wasn't staffed for it, so service was slow. However, he acted quickly to accommodate the sudden deluge of hungry customers.
I think he's doing a fine job at adjusting. To be sure, the servers seemed really busy on my visits, but I didn't encounter any problems.
Besides the Buddha statue resting on a shelf, there's nothing to give away that Latitude Eight is a Thai restaurant, although the 40-odd-seat place looks inviting. From outside, you can see a row of unusual modern lampshades above the tables at the front, and the whole place has a warm glow, thanks to pristine white banquettes, strategic lighting, and deep orange ceilings. (For some reason, the address is Boston Street, even though the entrance is on Arizona Avenue.) A huge illuminated wall panel, covered in layered waves of white, is reminiscent of the ocean.
Another place reference is the restaurant's name, a geographical coordinate for southern Thailand, where culinary traditions make use of the abundant seafood along the coasts. Not surprisingly, seafood dishes make up more than half of the menu's dozen entrees.
That's right, it's a very compact menu, quite a change from the quintessential Thai place with scores of dishes, numbered one to a hundred. The selection here is a well-edited list of greatest hits with an upscale twist and a lovely presentation. There's also a variety of wines, several Asian beers, and some microbrews from neighboring San Tan Brewing Company.
Appetizers were pretty traditional — nicely prepared, but nothing unusual. Spring rolls turned out to be what some restaurants call summer rolls: vermicelli noodles and crisp strips of cucumber and bell pepper wrapped in soft rice paper, with tamarind sauce on the side. (I think of spring rolls as fried, kind of like egg rolls, but still, I wasn't disappointed by these refreshing snacks.) Shrimp satay featured four fat grilled shrimp on skewers, with tangy dipping sauce. And batter-fried stuffed chicken wings, plump with minced chicken and glass noodles, were topped with a tasty sriracha aioli.
Tom kha was a delicious rendition of a classic soup, with exceptionally tender chicken meat. When the server brought it to the table, she ceremoniously poured the creamy coconut milk and galangal broth over a bowl full of meat and fresh cilantro — a nice touch.
Meanwhile, mixed fruit salad was completely puzzling, nothing like the exotic jumble of fruits, lime, and chile described on the menu. What we got was a salad of greens, tomato, pineapple, and lychee. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I expected. And yet my server (and my bill) confirmed it was the fruit salad. I'm still scratching my head.
On another visit, Thai beef salad more than made up for it. This was a scrumptious piece of seared flank steak, juicy and medium rare, with fresh greens, cucumber, cilantro, and red onion tossed in tangy-sweet dressing. It was almost enough food to eat as a main dish.
And speaking of entrees, I'm torn as to which I liked best: garlic prawns or the musaman short rib. Both dishes were notable for wonderfully tender meat. The prawns, slathered in an aromatic sauce of mild chile and roasted garlic, were paired with moist, saffron-scented rice, and bok choy. And the short rib was fork-tender, like pot roast, braised in savory musaman curry filled with peanuts, carrots, and potatoes.
Panang curry definitely did not win my heart, although the flavor was good. The beef was overdone and tough. And the seafood green curry — a mix of shrimp, whitefish, mussels, scallops, and squid mixed with green peas, bell pepper, and fresh Thai basil in a potent curry sauce — was generally tasty, although the shrimp were too chewy. Also, as much as I like spiciness, this dish was so hot that I could see some people being unhappy about it. Latitude Eight should either ask how hot we like it or at least give a heat warning on the menu.
Besides those dishes, everything else I tried was cooked just right. A fresh piece of seared ahi tuna, coated in sesame seeds, was drizzled with lip-smacking black bean chile sauce. A veggie stir-fry — with fried tofu triangles, eggplant, Thai basil, pumpkin, red pepper, and carrots — also contained some tiny, salty beans that my server couldn't identify, even after she'd asked the kitchen. I'm guessing they were fermented soybeans, but no matter what they were, they added a great flavor.
Fried rice can be a bore, but here, it was jazzed up with chicken, sliced sweet sausage, a few grilled shrimp, pineapple, raisins, and cashews — a nice mix of textures with an addicting savory-sweet dynamic. It was seasoned with curry, but just barely. And I was even impressed with the pad Thai, a dish I've eaten too many times to count. Tossed with chicken, shrimp, sprouts, peanuts, and cilantro, the noodles were tender but not too soft, while a generous dose of tangy sauce made every bite juicy.
Latitude Eight returned to tradition come dessert time, offering two popular standards: coconut sticky rice and fried plantains. The former was teamed with lots of ripe mango, while the latter got the deluxe treatment, with golden fried coconut batter, kaffir lime syrup, and a dusting of powdered sugar. Both tasted as good as they looked.
I know that David Fliger wasn't expecting all this attention so soon, that he'd planned on quietly perfecting his new place — not to mention easing into his career in the restaurant industry. But Latitude Eight's already showing early signs of success, and before long, Fliger will be an old pro. He's clearly a natural.