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.
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.