As I entered the near-subterranean murk of Surin of Thailand—escaping the glare of a global-warming-hot midday sun—my first thought had little to do with food: Knoxville has no shortage of wealthy, middle-aged white people who often wear fluorescent orange, but do we really need five+ glossy magazines to celebrate them?
After being dazzled by the glittery-gold window panel at Surin’s entrance, and the ensuing darkness inside, my readjusting gaze immediately locked onto a tall stack of magazines atop the bar: VIP Knoxville. Thick, perfectly bound, and printed on expensive glossy paper, the magazine’s primary editorial mission is to print hundreds of tiny photos of rich people attending charity and social functions. I suppose it’s not their fault that 95 percent of the individuals attending these parties appear insufferably smug, but why must we have a historical record of them drinking wine?
I’m easily irked by extravagant superfluousness, I admit, but when you consider the volume of monochromatic fluff being produced by Knoxville’s media mavens, you can’t help but wish for more substantive coverage of our fair city’s culture. VIP Knoxville joins the slick ranks of Knoxville Style (ladies of affluence looking fancy), CityView (stuff about their advertisers plus half-assed attempts at relevancy), West Knoxville Lifestyle (random articles about things to do and places to visit—that are usually downtown), and the especially cringey Hushh (spotlights on “hidden gems” that we all knew about six years ago). Might as well throw in Everything Knoxville and The Pink Bride while we’re at it. An out-of-town reader of these publications would no doubt get the impression that Knoxville is populated entirely by well-off Caucasians in ill-fitting Sunday outfits who love the Vols.
Isn’t there more to this town?
Well, I don’t know much, but I do like a good lunch special. And Surin of Thailand (6213 Kingston Pike, near Northshore Drive) has a couple of nice options.
I must confess that I had put off visiting this Bearden establishment for a couple of years even though I had had a pleasant dining experience at Surin’s Birmingham, Ala. location at the turn of the century. And that procrastination was purely because of the building’s previous occupant, Tao. (If I have the name wrong, please correct me.) Its owners had also run the terrible Cocoa Moon/Koi on Market Square, and imbued both restaurants with a personality of inept douchiness—always struggling so hard to be hip while forgetting to consistently prepare good food. Much of the decor at Surin remains unchanged since those dark days—dim lighting, a huge bar at the entrance, random liquor bottles placed in wall sconces, and a giant buddha—but at least the music is no longer Euro electronica. Now it’s lite jazz. And the food is much better.
The lunch menu has several choices starting around $8, but the two I recommend are the lemon curry rice noodles (I get them with tofu) and the catfish. Each lunch special comes with a bowl of coconut-milk soup, and it’s one of my occasional favorites; it may lack the addictive fruity tang of Chaiyo’s, but it also has a richer coconut flavor than Taste of Thai’s. No free egg rolls here, so I ordered them as an appetizer ($4.50) because I am on a never-ending quest to find a really good egg roll in Knoxville. I’ve been on patrol since my first underwhelming meal at a Chinese restaurant here—the Happy Palace on Chapman Highway, mid-’80s.
The search will continue. These spring rolls were certainly crunchy (and predictably greasy) and the vegetables inside still fairly crisp. Fresh or frozen? My theory is that most Asian restaurants in town buy pre-made egg rolls from Sysco or some other arcane supplier. Couldn’t quite tell in this case—there’s not much to distinguish these specimens. But they were certainly not bad, if not a necessity, and the accompanying sauce wasn’t overly sweet. So, good enough.
It’s pretty difficult to screw up fried fish—though most purveyors of fried catfish in Knoxville have done exactly that, especially those all-you-can-eat emporiums that somehow escaped from Pigeon Forge for a brief time. Their big idea is to slice catfish fillets as thinly as possible, coat them in a thick breading, and then fry the fuck out of them. The final effect is akin to eating especially crunchy cardboard. Despite my assumption that Knoxvillians would indeed eat all they could of this particular dish, they apparently didn’t as those restaurants are no longer here. But that also means there aren’t many choices for catfish in Knoxville beyond Cracker Barrel. Thank Buddha, Surin gets the job done.
The catfish lunch is pretty straightforward: two fillets (not too thin), deep fried in a straightforward batter, equipped with a gingery dipping sauce and a tiny side salad. Catfish is somewhat bland yet succulent, and the key is to retain its juiciness (which the all-you-can-eat places do not accomplish by frying them into ash). Once it’s cooled off a bit, the catfish at Surin is pleasingly delectable, especially when anointed with with some sauce—sweet, savory, crunchy, soft.
Is it revelatory? No. Is it even Thai? Probably not. But if you’re in the mood for fried catfish at an equitable price, then by all means head to Surin of Thailand for lunch.
Worth a return visit?
It really depends on whether you’re yearning for some fried catfish.
This is a maybe-once-a-quarter option for me.