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Ice cream, fish sauce, and sarongs 

There's nothing particularly odd about opening an ice cream parlor across from an amusement park, as Churi Csaicai has across from Sea Breeze. The crazy part is that Churi's is also a Thai restaurant and clothing store. So, if you want to wear a sarong while eating pad thai before having an ice cream cone, well, now you can.

            Though Thai food is popular here, few Rochester Thai restaurants are run by Thai people. Csaisai, who emigrated from her native Thailand in 1972, provides an exception. "Authentic" is a dubious term; recipes vary within cultures and change for the better and worse as they move around the world. But many have told me that Churi's is the most "authentic" Thai food in town (I have no personal experience from which to judge).

            That aside, Churi's food is certainly different from what you'd get at other Thai restaurants in town. The pad thai, for example, is strong and not particularly sweet, with more citrus, garlic, and fish sauce than you might be used to. Like most entrées, pad thai is $6.99 with chicken, $8.49 with beef or pork, and $9.49 with shrimp. The servings are sharing-size, and vegetarian dishes are available on request.

            You could start with fresh spring rolls (two for $3), but the Thai don't eat these, and Churi's crispy egg rolls are much better (two for $2). Stuffed with clear rice noodles, bean sprouts, and chicken, they're fried in a rice paper and served with Churi's own sweet and slightly sassy sauce. Chicken satay is another fun starter: barbecued, marinated chicken on skewers served with peanut sauce (five for $4.99, also available with pork).

            You'll find all the standard Thai dishes at Churi's. There's gang phet, red curry with coconut, basil, and bamboo shoots; masamaun, with potatoes and onions in yellow curry and coconut; and much more. Churi is fond of coconut, so you'll see a lot of it. For the noodle fan, there are yellow noodles with broccoli and oyster sauce, and two ways to have wide, flat, rice noodles: pad se eeu, with a soy sauce, or lad nar, with a traditional gravy.

            If you like seafood, try the chef's special fish ($8.49). Churi lightly fries two filets of whiting, then tops them with sweet and hot peppers, garlic, green onion, and spices in a light but potent sauce. It's a textural bonanza, with the light coating of the fish crisp against the sauce, and the crisp-tender peppers. Give her some notice, and she'll prepare more unusual Thai dishes for you.

            Churi's is a family outfit. Churi is likely to take your order, then dash off to cook. Her son might bring out your food, and her husband, Richard Struck, is probably fixing, moving, or improving something. With three adult children, Churi can't be as young as she seems; she has an energy about her that is welcoming and downright fun.

            I love noodle soups, and dug the Thai noodle soup ($7.49 with beef or pork, $5.99 with chicken). With beef, it's like a quick version of Vietnamese pho, though not as subtle (it was chock full of garlic). I recommend a two-fisted approach: chop sticks for noodles and a spoon for broth.

            By all means, save room for some ice cream. Though Churi doesn't make her own, she has high standards, getting ice creams she likes from a variety of sources. The coconut almond fudge is fabulous, and the soft serve is some of the best I've tasted, rich and enormously creamy (not sticky like custard). A "small" cone or dish is just $1.60 ($2.60 for "large").

            Churi's soft serve machine also does a "flavor burst," injecting a colorful flavor syrup into the ice cream. It looks cool, and would appeal to kids (20 cents extra). Of course, you can get sundaes ($2.45 to $3.35), floats, and shakes ($2.35 to $3.35, powder malt for a quarter).

            The word hasn't gotten out about Churi's food. She has a great ice cream parlor location, but not the best for ethnic food. Actually, she might have a hard time handling much more business. Churi's is tiny, with small tables and ice cream parlor chairs, and she cooks everything to order herself. If you go and find a crowd, your patience will be rewarded. Churi's puts a big smile on my face, and my kids love it. It might be a crazy business idea, but I'm all for it.

Churi's Ice Cream Parlor & Authentic Thai Cuisine, 4615 Culver Road (across from the Seabreeze main ticket office), 339-9250. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; ice cream only on Sunday; open until 11 p.m. in the summer.

Food tip

Juan & Maria Contreras of The Empanada Stop at the Public Market just purchased El Conquistador (1939 Clifford Avenue, just west of Donuts Delight & Savoia Pastry Shoppe). They've retained the staff, and will keep the Puerto Rican menu, but plan to add empanadas and their wonderful green and red sauces. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and might add breakfast in the future. Take-out is also available. Market-goers needn't worry: The Empanada Stop isn't going anywhere.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon); and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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