Like a lot of kids who came of age in the ’90s, I passed through a shallow Buddhist phase. I was listening to Beastie Boys records (rapper Adam Yauch was a practicing Buddhist who organized a series of high-profile Tibetan Freedom Concerts) and I was reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Beat writers who extolled the virtues of Buddhist wisdom. I dug the religion’s emphasis on nonviolence and shedding attachments, and man, that Scorsese flick Kundun was cool.
I also loved Thai food. One of my best friends at the time, E.K., was born in Thailand and moved to Sarasota as a teenager. His parents used to dole out huge quantities of homemade leftovers whenever I’d come around. I had no clue what I was eating, but I loved it. When E.K. suggested he and I drive up to Tampa to visit Wat Mongkolratanaram, a Buddhist temple on the banks of the Palm River, where we could stuff ourselves silly at the temple’s Sunday morning outdoor food market, it took no convincing.
That was 20 years ago, and the weekly market is still going strong, but things have changed. A lot. While I remember the temple as a sleepy, meditative spot, on a recent Sunday morning, my wife and I encounter a madhouse.
A beautiful, glittering temple sits at the center of the property. A cavernous wooden building next door is flanked by wide, covered decks where hundreds of hungry diners are congregating around stalls hawking a sprawling collection of Thai dishes. Another section serves as a miniature farmers’ market, where you can pick up fruits, vegetables and spices that can be difficult to track down elsewhere.
Half the fun is marveling at the intermingling of languages and traditions, as beardos and Instagrammers jostle for space with teenagers and tourists, all tapping their feet as they wait in line for sublime delicacies. Expect a good amount of mansplaining; it’s difficult not to overhear white guys lecturing their suffering loved ones about how well they know the ins and outs of Thai cuisine, but the condescension is worth enduring.
My wife and I divide and conquer. She waits for 28 minutes in the soup line, while I collect fresh spring rolls and fried rolls, curries, rice, pork dumplings, pork buns, pork sausages, fried bananas and sweet potatoes and sweetened iced teas. We reconvene at one of the dozens of bright-red picnic tables near the water and dig in. When the weather is right, the scene is like none other—a beautiful congregation of folks from all over coming together to share a meal at communal tables. And it helps that the food is fantastic. The soup, flavored with either beef or pork and stocked with either wide or skinny noodles, is sweet-salty-spicy, while homemade sauces and condiments punch up the flavors of the other items in our giant grab bag of goodies.
The Sunday morning gathering is also an effective marketing tool. My Buddhist phase passed decades ago, but as I crunch into a battered wedge of fried banana, lean back and exhale, I’m reconsidering. If I could be reborn to experience this again, I’m in.
Wat Mongkolratanaram is located at 5306 Palm River Road, Tampa. The food market is open 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. every Sunday and is cash-only.