The Setting: A comfortably shabby strip mall in the exotic locale of Monfort Heights, near the heart of Cincinnati's West Side.
The Cast: Michelle Yi, alumnus of CBS' Survivor: Fiji and UC's Design, Art, Architecture and Planning program; your intrepid dining writer, me; Tyler, a tech guru and fashion photographer from Hyde Park; and Derek, a native Westsider, who'll be our guide.
The Time: 7:45 p.m. on a Wednesday. This is late-night dining in Monfort Heights.
The Cuisine: Thai Namtip, a hidden gem recommended by Ron Wise, chef-owner of Rondo's and noted West Side foodie. I arrive on the scene a bit late, after repeated cellular conversations with my native West Side guide.
"Are you past the Kroger?"
"I'm way past it!"
"You've gone too far!"
You see, Survivor truly is a team effort at the early stage of the game. So I arrive, weary and thirsty, to find that there is no beer. No liquor license! Will I survive?
Michelle assures me that this is not as bad as the five days she spent without water while she was in Fiji. She saved her team by using an eyeglass lens to start a fire so they could boil water and make it safe to drink.
While we chatted away, admiring the portraits of the Thai King and Queen of Thailand on one wall and the large mural of Niagara Falls on the other, most of the crowd paid their checks and headed for home. Our server was hovering above the table. Our native guide was looking at his watch and elbowing me in the ribs. I can take a hint.
So, our second challenge: deciding what to order. We couldn't resist Chicken Satay ($5.95), as the menu commands: "YOU WILL LOVE IT!" Four skewers of tasty chicken -- what's not to love? Well, at least like, anyway.
We also liked the Thai roll (Po Pia Sod) ($3.75) -- soft rice paper rolls with tiny cubes of tofu and fresh vegetables and a delicious basil accent. My favorite was the Crispy Tofu ($4.95), stacked like Jenga tiles with a perky peanut sauce.
The Wonton Soup ($2.95) was good, but when Michelle's Chicken Coconut Soup ($3.50) arrived, it took center stage. It smelled enticing and tasted delicious, with pieces of fresh lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves floating on top of the chunks of chicken and rich broth. By the time the last person asked for a bite, Michelle quipped, "Sure, but I already ate the fun out of it."
Her entrée was also outstanding -- Shrimp Panang Curry ($10.95) served in a stone pot. We chowed down on Garlic Stir-Fry with Chicken ($8.95), and a big bowl of white rice served family style in the center of the table. Tyler, our non-spicy friend (when asked to order spiciness on a scale of 1 to 10, he asked, "Can I use negative numbers?"), liked his Pine Nut Stir-Fry ($10.95 with chicken, pork, beef, tofu or vegetables and $11.95 with shrimp) and the one noodle dish we tried, Pad See Ewe with wide rice noodles ($8.95 with chicken, pork, beef, tofu or vegetables and $9.95 with shrimp).
The best dish of the night, though, turned out to be the fish. I'd ordered salmon, which was listed on the nightly specials but sold out before our decadent late-night (it was nearly 9 p.m. by now!) order. So the owner suggested Thai Namtip Spicy Fish ($13.95) made with walleye pike, with "lots of green beans." When it arrived they told me they'd actually prepared red snapper instead, and I'm glad they did -- it was perfect. Everyone tasted and enjoyed it.
The staff was very gracious considering that we were the last guests on the premises, and they were helping their children finish up their homework as we approached the register to say goodnight. Outside, the streets of Monfort Heights were being rolled up and tucked away as we headed back toward I-74. We had been voted off the island, bellies full and happy. We had, indeed, eaten the fun out of it.
Go: 5461 North Bend Road, Monfort Heights
Hours: 11 a.m. 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. 10:30 p.m. Friday, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon9:30 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Cash, Visa, MasterCard
Red Meat Alternatives: Many