TO SEAR, WITH LOVE
The question I'm most frequently asked--after "What's your favorite restaurant?"--is "Where's the best place to eat Thai food in Phoenix?" Until recently, my answer was "Nowhere." After a couple of visits to Siamese Kitchen, however, I have a new, more positive response.
Two of my biggest complaints about Thai food in greater Phoenix are: 1) It's not spicy enough; and 2) ingredients are nonauthentic and flavorings indistinguishable.
I do not have to worry about either of these concerns at Siamese Kitchen. Without a doubt, this tiny restaurant serves the most spicy Thai food I have ever consumed in Arizona. You ask for spicy here, they give it to you nose-running, tongue-scalding hot--that no-fooling-around level of spiciness that nothing dulls except the passage of time.
Ah, it hurts so good.
Still, making food spicy is easy. Add enough chiles or chile seeds or red chili paste and anything can be cranked up to an incendiary level. What's difficult is making it hot without masking the other flavors in the dish. Siamese Kitchen meets this challenge in exemplary fashion. Even when the food here is at its most fiery, you can still taste the delicate contributions of the other ingredients.
For instance, our order of laab, a cold ground-beef salad served with wedges of cabbage, is painfully spicy--at first, anyway. Yet, I can distinguish the mint, lime and onion used in its preparation. Similarly, in my favorite Thai soup, tom kha gai, the spiciness does nothing to diminish the pleasurable presence of its aromatic ingredients. I can taste the sweet coconut milk, the citrusy lemon grass, the fragrant kaffir lime leaf and the astringent (for lack of a better word) galangal root.
Now, a word to you tender-palate types out there. Don't let all this talk of spiciness daunt you. Siamese Kitchen understands the language of "spicy," but "mild" is also spoken here. Each time I visit, our waitress returns after we have tasted our first dish to ascertain its effect. One time, we start with laab. "How is it?" she queries, studying us with the concern of a trained nurse. "Too spicy?"
I consider requesting a fire extinguisher. Instead, I tell her that the dish in question is very spicy, but good. "We like it," I insist. She nods and returns to the kitchen, where, it turns out, she has updated the chef on our condition. The rest of the meal is adjusted accordingly. Our pork with green beans is downgraded to medium; the wide-rice-noodle dish (pad see-iew) is served mild. "We always make noodles mild," our waitress informs us.
Thanks to this kind of ongoing tinkering, our meal attains a perfect level of spiciness. Taken together, our three fine-tuned dishes balance each other out without descending into blandness. It is a wonderful achievement, borne of attentive and caring service.
In terms of looks, Siamese Kitchen is far from fancy--"funky" would probably be the more fitting adjective. Orange, vintage-vinyl booths indented with white diamonds line one wood-panelled wall. Sporting slightly tattered seats, these Creamsicle-color beauties probably looked their best back when automobile tail fins were in vogue. Since they're too low for me to sit at and eat comfortably, I occupy one of the half-dozen lace-covered tables, where I have ample opportunity to gaze at them.
On the wall opposite the "Cadillac" booths, a green photo/mural of a brook surrounded by lush foliage provides a soothing contrast. It also disguises what was probably once an entrance into the neighboring bar. It doesn't block out the sound.
After 9 p.m. on Saturday night, there's a strong possibility of live music next door. On one of our visits, bass and drums thunder through the image of the trickling brook, providing nonstop entertainment for me and my dining accomplice. We are playing "name that tune," and I am winning. After just one or two measures of each song, I can identify "Tequila Sunrise," "Rock This Town" and "Proud Mary," while my accomplice, the ex-bass player, quibbles over the band's musicianship.
One thing we don't quibble over is the quality of the food. With the exception of the house-assortment appetizers--which are deep-fried and quickly forgettable--everything I sample at Siamese Kitchen is exceptional. I love the spicy, ground-beef laab; the delicately curried pork satay; the fragrant tom kha gai; the fresh and crunchy green beans with tender white pork in red chili paste; the fat rice noodles gently tossed with broccoli, egg, bean sprouts and pork. Even something as "minor" as rice isn't taken for granted. Here it is of high quality and served steaming hot. I even uncover a culinary mystery of sorts, which I urge you to help me solve. In both the tom kha gai soup and the pork with green beans (pad prig khing) there is a most distinctive herb with an expansive, pleasant flavor. It looks like dill weed or a slender grass, is dark green in color, and is supple and edible. (In other words, it is not lemon grass or kaffir lime leaf.) I ask our waitress what it is, and she tells me it's--this is my phonetic spelling--pa ka tin and that it comes from a tree. I cannot find any reference to it in any of my Thai or Southeast Asian cookbooks. If you know the answer to this Thai puzzle, please give me a call.
Based on my sampling thus far, there isn't anything on this menu I wouldn't try and probably love. And in contrast to so many Thai restaurants in the Valley and elsewhere, portions are not petite. I like that.
Siamese Kitchen has been under new ownership for about a year. From what I've observed, new owners Scale and Wannaporn Lawan know what they're doing. May they prosper, grow rich and continue cooking Thai food in this same manner for many years to come.
Spicy Thai Restaurant is the opposite of Siamese Kitchen. If the latter signifies superior food and so-so decor, the former stands for mediocre food and exceptional decor. Once upon a time, Spicy Thai was the Gentry, and, before that, the Keynote. The ambiance is still that of a nightclub. Comfortable teal and red circular booths occupy two sides of the restaurant. A bar and a stage face each other from the other two ends of the room. Black-enamel chairs are alternately upholstered in teal or red, picking up the booth's color scheme. Purple-silk irises stand on each table. Unfortunately, in these above-average surroundings, the food, for the most part, is below average. The appetizer combination plate consists of unidentified fried objects. Chicken satay on the stick is moist, but underdone. Plah goong, intended as a shrimp salad, is more accurately an onion salad with a few tasteless shrimp thrown in for bulk. Green curry is flavorless, and stir-fried beef with mint is laughably mild, the meat gray and stringy. The only decent thing I consume here is the rice. As at Siamese Kitchen, it is served sticky and hot.
Spicy Thai's service can be irritatingly slow. On one occasion, we wait more than 35 minutes from order to receipt of our food. This is simply unacceptable.
There's a lot of talk about Spicy Thai, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. Yes, it's an attractive restaurant, but until ambiance is edible, I will assiduously avoid this Thai restaurant.
Siamese Kitchen, 4352 West Olive, Glendale, 931-3229. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon to 3 p.m., Saturday; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
Spicy Thai Restaurant, 4523 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 265-7799. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
"How is it?" she queries, studying us with the concern of a trained nurse. "Too spicy?"
Based on my sampling at Siamese Kitchen thus far, there isn't anything on this menu I wouldn't try and probably love.
There's a lot of talk about Spicy Thai, and for the life of me I can't figure out why.
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