Siamese Kitchen, 4352 West Olive, Glendale, 931-3229. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
If Las Vegas ever put up a betting line on life, it would be six-to-five--against. That's because everyone knows life is fundamentally and unalterably unfair. When the blues singer laments that if he didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all, we all know exactly what he's wailing about. So when things are going well, I press the worry button. Rationally, I know that it's possible that life is finally starting to even out a bit for me, making up, as it were, for past misfortune. But my "the glass is half empty" nature can't accept such a sunny view. Instead, I imagine all present good fortune can only be a harbinger of great future disappointments. If I'm right, the next few months are going to be pretty grim. That's because I haven't had such a pleasurable dining week in a long time, cavorting in my favorite kind of restaurant: the cheap, friendly, authentic ethnic joint. Both the Siamese Kitchen and Siam feature Thai food, without question one of the world's most seductive cuisines.
It's not surprising that Thai cooking would borrow heavily from China and India, the two neighboring gastronomic giants. So you'll see plenty of stir-fries, noodle platters and scented curries. But what is surprising is how Thai cooks have transformed these dishes into a unique national fare. They've done it through herbs, spices and condiments that pack an overpoweringly fragrant punch. There's galangal, a peppery Asian ginger that adds lots of bite. There's lemon grass, with its sharp, lemony tang. There's coriander--Thais use both leaf and seed. There's kaffir lime leaf, which delivers a pungent lime kick. There are fiery red and green chiles. There's coconut milk, smooth, rich and mild. And there's the indispensable fish sauce, nam pla, a salty concoction made from fermented fish that makes Thai food so distinctive. Step into a Thai restaurant and inhale, and you'll find your senses under assault.
That's certainly the case at the west-side Siamese Kitchen. Tucked in the rear of a typically unlovely corner shopping strip, the restaurant is furnished right out of the pages of the Ethnic Joints "R" Us catalogue. Look for the Thailand Tourist Board posters, a huge mural of a peaceful mountain glade, vinyl booths, a television, silk flowers on the table and a gilt-framed photo of Thai royalty. Servers from the home country contribute to the ethnic-joint effect. What would I recommend here? Just about everything except the appetizers. For some reason, the recipe for almost every predinner nibble seems to include a command to batter and deep-fry. Fried won tons are all crunch, no taste. The egg rolls are routine. Broccoli and shrimp tempura are mostly breading. Thai toast, ground pork smeared on bread, comes dipped in egg batter, like French toast. The skewered strips of chicken and beef satay somehow escape the fryer, but there's no reason to use up precious belly room over them. Anyway, you certainly don't want to lose your hunger edge before you get to the soup. Soups are one of the glories of Thai cooking, where exotic flavors get masterfully blended. My favorite is tom kha gai, which uses just about every weapon in the kitchen's arsenal. Thai ginger, lemon grass, lime leaf and coconut milk spice up an aromatic tomato chicken broth, well-stocked with fresh mushrooms and chunks of white-meat chicken. It comes in a Sterno-fired hot pot, and there's plenty for three or four. I know it's hard to think soup in 110-degree weather, but this is worth raising an indoor sweat over. A word of advice to novices: If you find something in a Thai soup that's hard to chew, you probably shouldn't. Watch out for stalks of lemon grass and the treacherous galangal, which looks temptingly like a piece of barbecued pork.
The main dishes are filling, tasty and cheap, a winning restaurant trifecta. Noodle lovers can satisfy their cravings with the first-rate pad see-iew, broad, flat rice noodles like those used for Chinese chow fun. Siamese Kitchen's version, tossed in soy and fish sauce, comes mixed with pork, egg and broccoli. The $4.95 price tag makes it go down even easier. Pad woon-sen is another intriguing noodle option. The dish employs very thin, wiry noodles fashioned from soya-bean flour, studded with pork, corn and scallions and seasoned with fish sauce. It's offbeat, but not frightening.
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Muslims from nearby India and Malaysia are responsible for introducing curries to Thai cuisine. Musaman (Muslim") curry features tender chunks of beef in a mildly scented coconut sauce, thickened with potatoes and onions. Unlike most Indian curries, this one relies on chiles to provide a lot of the flavor kick. Sweet-and-sour catfish fillets furnish a Thai twist to a standard Chinese dish. The first happy element is the catfish, which looks and tastes like it has been freshly breaded and fried. The second is the pineapple chunks, tomato, green pepper, cucumber and slivered carrot, coated with a scrumptious sauce that's not nearly as cloyingly sweet as those I usually meet up with in Chinese restaurants. Even better is seafood panang, a savory fusion of shrimp, real crab, scallops and squid in a divine peanut-and-coconut-milk sauce, punched up with red chiles. This platter grabs you by the lapels.
Pad prig khing is much more straightforward. It's a combination of superb strips of chile-marinated pork and crunchy fresh green beans, doused in a mint-accented sauce. This is where the mildly adventurous Midwestern carnivore in your group should take refuge. Siamese Kitchen also offers a duck alternative. Half a duck is crisply roasted. Then, the breast meat is removed from the bone and fanned across the plate, next to a leg and wing. Everything sits on a pile of spinach, over a puddle of honey sauce that delightfully perks up the meaty duck. The kitchen doesn't put too much effort into dessert, but the one it does offer is right on target. It's a refreshing, homemade coconut ice cream that helps soften the Thai food sting. A word about spiciness. Thai fare can be notoriously hot. To test the kitchen, we ordered dishes throughout the heat range, from mild to incendiary. In each case, the cooks paid attention. Siamese Kitchen is the kind of ethnic restaurant that gives big-city living a dose of cosmopolitan charm. It's a winner.
Siam, 5008 West Northern, Glendale, 931-2102. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Also a winner is Siam, a 14-year-old west-side institution popular with locals. But newcomers have to gird themselves and look past its location, a dismal and moribund strip-mall location. Once they do, there are rewards inside. Like Siamese Kitchen, it's pure ethnic joint: posters, embroidered weavings, red vinyl booths, assorted greenery and photos of various Thai royal couples. Thai music is softly piped over the music system. With one exception, appetizers are pretty lackluster--just the usual fried won tons, egg rolls and pork toast. Not even Thailand's well-known sweet noodle dish, mee krob, could overcome the blahs. But the homemade fish cakes get the meal off to a good start. They're made from minced fish blended with chile paste, green beans and scallions, deep-fried and served with a wicked dipping sauce of rice vinegar, peanuts, cucumber and chile. Beginners may find the taste and texture package pretty weird, but I think it's mesmerizing. So is almost everything else here. The tom yum koong sports the full panoply of soup flavors. Scented with lemon grass, lime juice, mint, basil, chile, cilantro and ginger, it features six shrimp and fresh mushrooms. The Siam specials are aptly named. The hot and spicy combination brings together chicken, beef and pork, saut‚ed with green beans and bamboo shoots, in a snout-clearing green curry sauce. The smooth chicken panang platter combines rich coconut milk with fresh basil and more heat-provoking chiles. There aren't too many dishes in this town that provide such a heady flavor mix for $6.25. Most of the other platters offer the same kind of quality. Thai barbecue chicken brings half a hacked-up bird, marinated in garlic sauce and charbroiled. The bird is wonderfully meaty and moist, and comes with a vinegary sweet-and-sour sauce for dunking. Beef with mint leaves starts with good quality meat, freshened with lots of greenery and onions. It's not a taste American carnivores are used to, but it doesn't take long to get acclimated. And although almond chicken seems a lot closer to Hong Kong than Bangkok, it's still a top choice. That's because the chicken doesn't taste like it was just poured from a 25-pound bag. The veggies, slivered almonds and delicate sauce also do their part. Sweet-and-sour shrimp is also a familiar Asian restaurant standby, but Siam puts its own mark on the platter. It surrounds a generous portion of shrimp with squash, peppers and tomatoes, without drowning everything in an icky-sweet sauce. In comparison, the noodle dishes seem a bit tame. Pad Thai didn't have all the zesty sprightliness it could have. Neither did the pork with thin cellophane noodles. Desserts here are more energetic than Siamese Kitchen's. Along with a soothing, homemade coconut ice cream topped with chopped peanuts, there's various canned Asian fruit. But if you still have a few ounces of adventure left over, try the warm Thai custard. It's made from taro root, and resembles a cross between bread pudding and custard. The taste will certainly give you something to discuss in the car on your way home. Both Siamese Kitchen and Siam turn standard geography inside out. In this town, if you want to eat East, you're best off heading west.