Cafe Reviews

Queen of Siam

As you may have gleaned from perusing this space previously, I take a dim view of conventional wisdom and the morons who spout it. Al Pacino's character Ricky Roma in the screen version of Glenglarry Glen Ross sums up my P.O.V. when he states that he subscribes to the law of "contrary public opinion," meaning, "If everyone thinks one thing, then I say -- bet the other way."

This maxim certainly holds true when assessing the culinary and cultural attributes of the West Valley. Some people have a tendency to describe anything beyond Black Canyon Freeway as a combination of the South Bronx and South Central L.A. combined. When Phoenix broadcasters report on a carjacking in Paradise Valley, the tone is always "The barbarians are at the gate!" But if a family of four gets whacked in The Avenues, these same newscompoops are all shrugs, like, "Well, what did you expect?"

My experience has been that the Westside actually looks, feels, and, yes, tastes the most like a big city. Scottsdale is a wanna-be San Diego without an ocean, and downtown Phoenix is a corpse waiting to be revived. Chandler has something interesting going on, but it's more suburban than urban, while Tempe has the wholecollege-town thingonlock. The Avenues, however, are gritty, full of unlikely juxtapositions and some of the best ethnic fare to be had in Maricopa County. Scottsdale may be full of cookie-cutter high-class grub shacks. But the vast area west of Central trounces them all, leaving their uppity chefs de cuisine in the dust, whining about their credentials.

For instance, Vanna Vorachitti, the soft spoken chef/owner of Glendale's Siamese Kitchen, has more cooking talent in her toenails than many a culinary institute grad has within his or her entire white chef's uniform. Vorachitti's mom back in Bangkok taught her how to cook, and it was perhaps fate that she would end up owning her own place after she and her husband relocated to Arizona for his work. She's at least the fifth owner of Siamese Kitchen, which has been open for more than a decade. And she's been its proprietor for going-on five years.

Her clientele ranges from businessmen and families to wealthy Thai students driving Mercedes-Benzes and Indian expats who come in for Vorachitti's curries. The food reigns supreme here, though I confess that I find SK's location and atmosphere both odd and endearing. See, Siamese Kitchen sits on a little row of white trash heaven, with a tattoo parlor to its left and a country-western bar to its right. On Friday and Saturday nights, the parking lot is filled with pickup trucks, and after 9 p.m., the house band starts a din so loud that the walls of SK thump to the beat of honky-tonk and Top 40. Nothing like enjoying a plate of pad Thai with Larry the Cable Guy, eh?

Then there's SK's peculiar decor, which aside from the smattering of Thai tchotchkes and posters, could pass for that of a mom and pop pancake house in Branson, Missouri, circa 1974. Worn wooden paneling covers most of the walls, and the booths to one side are of cracked black leather. The ceiling fans sport antique-like glass fixtures, and one entire wall is taken up by a framed photo of a plank mill-house and a gurgling stream, surrounded by an autumnal forest. In the midst of this Americana, you can almost hear George Jones and Tammy Wynette singing, "No we're not the jet set . . . We're the old Chevrolet set."

To me, this is the essence of urbanity, that two disjointed cultures rub up against each other and eventually mate to produce such bizarre curiosities. But I advise you to put Siamese Kitchen into your heavy rotation of dining spots not because it's an amusing anomaly, but because the food is tres cheap and terribly tasty. Indeed, when I put Siamese Kitchen side-by-side with my other favorite Thai place in town, Thai Rama, I don't know which one I'll end up visiting more often.

Appetizer-wise, Vorachitti, who does all the cooking no matter if there are five or 50 folks in her establishment, whips up adequate-enough chicken and pork satay, and her mee krob (sweet, chewy-crispy fried noodles with egg, chicken and shrimp) is above average. But Vorachitti's Thai toast makes its French cousin a piker by comparison. I've had it several times and have yet to grow tired of it. Here Vorachitti grinds chicken, soybean sauce and egg into a paste, which she spreads onto the toast and deep-fries. It's a gloriously decadent item that Vorachitti executes perfectly.

The menu is filled to bursting with delicacies worthy of prolonged mastication. Siamese Kitchen's beef panang is top notch, and even at "medium hot" could turn the buttons on your shirt into Silly Putty. I've always found the combination of curry paste and coconut milk irresistible, so I had a great deal of fun lapping Vorachitti's plates spotless when it came to her panang. Another item I enjoyed packing away was the tom kha gai, a soup brought to you in a flaming tin bowl, which you can slurp by its lonesome or over rice, as I like it. There's a bit of a delayed reaction here with this broth of coconut milk and lime juice, stocked with chicken, fat mushrooms, pieces of lemongrass, and kha root, otherwise known as Thai ginger. At first you get the sweet-and-sour taste of coconut and lime, and then the Thai ginger and Thai chiles blossom on your tonsils. Like the song says, it hurts so good.

The waitress (usually Vorachitti's sister-in-law Noy) will ask you if you want your order mild, medium or hot. And when they say hot, they ain't kiddin' around, folks! If Vorachitti made her entrees the way Thai people like them all the time, only the rare round-eye would be able to handle it.

Vorachitti's pad Thai almost tastes like candied noodles by comparison. Otherwise even the sweet-and-sour chicken with pineapples has a Thai bite to it. The pad kee mao is another dish that lights up your mouth like a roman candle, with its fat rice noodles, mixed veggies, hot chili sauce and basil. But the gang-pedyang, rich roast duck in red curry with coconut milk, tomatoes and pineapple caused the most lasting impression of all on me. A week or so after scarfing it down, I'm still jonesing for another round. Wasn't it Horace Greeley who wrote, "Go west, young fat man, and get your grub on"? Reckon I will.


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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons