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story.lead_photo.caption Thai Taste’s Phat Thai Combo comes with pork, chicken, beef and shrimp tossed with thin rice noodles and bean sprouts. - Photo by Eric E. Harrison

That Jacksonville's Thai Taste was moving from its venerable little hole-in-the-wall spot just off the Main Street exit Main Street from U.S. 67/167 seemed at first, at least, like it might be good news.

The shabby little half of a brick building had character, but the dining areas were cramped and the customer traffic flow around the jammed-in-on-itself buffet was a bit complicated, considering also that it involved the main route to the restrooms.

The "new" location -- and we use the word advisedly, because the building, which once housed AQ's Seafood Cove (the original neon sign, no longer lit, is still atop the streetside marquee) and most recently a short-lived Vietnamese restaurant, must be of at least the same vintage as the one they moved from -- offers a lot more square footage. And though it doesn't look like there are many, if any more tables than there used to be, they're a lot better spaced. The ceilings seem higher and it's a lot brighter, and there's a lot bigger parking lot.

The most noticeable effect of having more room is that it makes it possible for the buffet to stretch out linearly to roughly two-thirds of the length of the building. That lets customers proceed from one end to the other without potential collisions either with other buffet-fressers or diners at tables.

If they're not the same tables from the old restaurant, they're very similar -- each seats four, with a sheet of glass protecting the gorgeous maroon-and-gold tablecloths with stylized processions of right-facing elephants. The chairs, however, are newer, most of them red-metal-backed with red-vinyl-padded seats, some in red wood.

The previous decor focused on medium-dark plywood paneling; now the paneling, at least behind the buffet, is a pale yellow. The framed portraits of Thai royals have made the trans-Jacksonville journey, but since there's a lot more wall space than there used to be, they're scattered about the premises instead of being concentrated in one spot. Cooling comes visibly (and audibly) from a pair of in-wall air conditioners. The sound system plays high-pitched Asian pop.

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Photos by Eric E. Harrison

The buffet ($8.99 lunch, $10.89 Monday-Thursday dinner, $14.99 Friday-Saturday dinner and Sunday afternoon, when it also includes all-you-can-eat crab legs, for which there used to be an extra charge) continues, as it always has, to feature a low-common-denominator set of choices. One investigatory journey along the new buffet convinced us, as it always has, that except for people completely unfamiliar with Thai food and who need a primer, the enormously hungry or fan of Asian buffets, it's best to order off the menu.

The menus, which used to be elaborate with price changes made in smeary marker, have been reprinted for the new location, but at a major new disadvantage to diners: No photos, and no dish descriptions. If you don't already know what "Yam Woonsen" is, and you're not up for surprises, there are few options, of which asking the waitress is not necessarily the best. (Thank goodness for Google, which told us that it's the traditional Thai glass noodle salad and is usually spelled out as Yum Woon Sen.)

Another option is to just stick with the familiar, which is exactly what we did on our first visit, also because it gave us a way to compare it with dishes we've tried on previous Thai Taste trips and at other Thai restaurants.

The best opener is still the Fresh Spring Rolls ($3.99, two on the plate), almost transparent-thin rice paper wrapping artistically arranged, firm, medium-size shrimp, dark greens and a now-surprisingly tangy shredded carrot salad. They're served cold, with a peanut-sprinkled sweet-and-vinegary dipping sauce that we could have just spooned into our mouths all by itself.

We had a hard time keeping the Fried Spring Rolls ($1.80 for two) at arm's length because they're almost arm's length -- about a foot long, crisp-shelled and tasty, with a dipping sauce.

The menu, alas, no longer offers the Pork Satay, which we'd enjoyed there on several occasions, so we opted instead for the Chicken Satay ($6.99), which was disappointing: four skewers stuck through huge, chewy, fatty pieces of dark-meat chicken that we had to scrape off the skewers and approach with a knife and fork because it was nearly impossible to orally savage them off the skewer. We did enjoy the less-than-sweet, slightly spicy, rather gelatinous peanut sauce with which they were thickly slathered, but that didn't quite save the dish.

We have held up Thai Taste's Phat Thai (more often transliterated as Pad Thai) as an exemplar of how the dish should be prepared, and that's still the case: Too many places make it with noodles that are too wide, but here the rice noodles are thin and firm, tossed with bean sprouts, green onions, shredded fried egg and crushed peanuts in a pleasant brown sauce and pork or chicken -- or, if you order the combo ($11.99), both, along with beef and shrimp.

The problem this time, however, was that it wasn't just not spicy enough, it wasn't spicy at all. Many Asian places help you gauge the spice level by the number of stars or stylized peppers; Thai Taste's menu used to "asterisk" spicier dishes, but it doesn't any more. And we'd always been specifically asked how spicy we liked it, on a 1-10 scale. (Medium is 5. Manager Jimmie Mead once archly put it, "I can do it mild or I can hurt you." His illustrative measuring stick for Westerners was Tabasco sauce as a little less hot than medium.)

So we've always had our Thai Taste Phat Thai at a level 3. But not this time. It came out pleasant and peanutty but bland.

We also got no spice guidance for Intrepid Companion's go-to dish, the Beef Noodle Soup ($7.99, $8.99 if you want it with meatballs). We liked the fairly intense flavor, but none of the spices in the four-jar caddy our waitress brought was enough to perk it up to the level of heat she prefers. (She took most of it home, where she could create her own kick.)

Our waitress, whom we recognized from the old place, was either less slammed or in a better, friendlier mood on our second visit, and she did ask how spicy we wanted our Chicken With Basil ($10.99), ground bits of chicken tossed with large onions, red bell peppers and shriveled Thai basil in a tasty, rich, brown sauce. We ordered a "4" and that turned out to be just right, enough to lightly tingle our tongues without causing third-degree palate burns, although it did gather more heat the longer it sat. The cheery but deadly little red Thai red chilies were easy to spot and move out of the way, but the smaller bits of green ones, at least as hot, weren't quite so visible -- and we encountered one the hard way.

Thank goodness for the sweet, milk-infused Thai iced tea ($2.50, no free refills), among the best spice anodynes, which we have always had the wisdom to order at Thai places. (Thai food, as with most southern Asian cuisines, goes excellently with beer, but you still can't get any here -- Jacksonville ceased to be local-option dry in November but Thai Taste hasn't yet gotten an alcoholic beverage license.)

The single waitress on the floor on our first visit was overworked -- we had trouble getting drinks refilled, extra napkins and other small-scale services throughout the meal -- and seemingly grumpy, though she warmed up as we were leaving. On our second visit she was friendly, quick, efficient and fulfilled most of our needs without our asking.

Weekend on 05/24/2018

Thai Taste

Address: 1400 John Harden Drive, Jacksonville

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4-9 p.m. Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Buffet closes at 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Cuisine: Thai (plus some Chinese, Japanese dishes)

Credit cards: V, M, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: No

Reservations: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 985-1854

Print Headline: Thai Taste's digs bigger, not better

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