Rumor has it that folks come to Las Vegas from all over the world to throw dice, stare in amazement at the neon lights, drink too many free cocktails, play golf, gorge at buffets, tackle one-armed bandits, marvel at Cirque
du Soleil, watch exploding volcanoes, stay up altogether too late, and wake up altogether too late. All of these people have their priorities badly misplaced. The most compelling reason to visit Las Vegas is to eat as often as possible at Lotus of Siam, an unprepossessing-looking Thai restaurant in a strip mall,
one mile away from the glitter of the Strip.
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Saipin was trained in the art of Thai cooking by the mother of her husband Bill Chutima, who was in turn, trained by her mother. Bill's father, an influential businessman, hosted industrialists and government officials from
all over the world in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. Bill claims that his grandmother could cook virtually any cuisine with finesse, but Saipin focuses on Thai cooking. Although all of the standard Thai
favorites are offered at Lotus of Siam, such as mee krob, satays, and pad Thai, the excitement is in the dishes offered from the north and northeast (Issan region) of Thailand, that combine Chinese and Burmese influences.
If the finished product reflects the personality and soul of a chef, then Saipin is a paragon of virtue with a devilish side. Her food is lively, sprightly, direct, balanced, and above all, sincere. There are no gimmicks
at Lotus of Siam, no impediments to enjoying the unbridled deliciousness set in front of you. The surroundings are simple and uncluttered; the service gracious and friendly. The food sometimes appears slowly -- this
is not fast food.
Beware of spicy Your waiter will ask you how hot you want your food on a scale of 1-10. Be forewarned that a 5 at Lotus of Siam is likely to be hotter than a 7 at your local Thai restaurant.
We've ordered a 9 often, though, and are still alive to tell the tale.
You are likely to fall in love with Lotus of Siam no matter how you proceed, but here are my suggestions to speed along the process:
Best Dishes to Order from the Menu
#13 Nam Kao Tod, minced sour sausage mixed with green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanut, crispy rice, tons of fresh herbs, and lime juice. If you can order only one appetizer, this is the one to have --
an absolutely addictive delight. The crispy rice is a Platonic ideal of texture.
#12 Nua Dad Draw, beef jerky Issan style. Fried marinated beef. Don't be misled by the name -- you won't be chewing these savory slices for too long. Particularly recommended for relatively unadventurous eaters.
#11 Garlic Black Pepper Chicken Wings, chicken wings deep fried until crispy, then sauteed with chili, garlic, and topped with crispy mint leaves. Perhaps not the most "authentic" Thai dish on the menu, but who cares?
All the soups I've sampled have been superb, including the usual coconut-based standards. But I love the soothing non-spicy broths made with seasonal greens and usually served with minced chicken or pork. If you are in the mood for a more aggressive soup, try:
#16 Tom Klong Pla Krob - If Thais cooked gumbo, this soup might be what it would taste like. The smokiness comes from smoked sheet fish, a thin fish that when dried is more skin than meat. Combined with tamarind sauce, fresh herbs, spices, and chili, and vegetables, this spicy soup will wake up slumbering taste buds.
#40 Som Thum, Thai green papaya salad, with chili, dry shrimp, tomato, crushed peanuts mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Refreshing and light, particularly recommended during the brutally hot Las Vegas summer.
Northern Style Larb (from the special northern menu). You might have tried larb in other restaurants, minced meat - pork, beef, or chicken - with chopped onion, green chili, and lime juice, meant to be eaten with assorted greens (cabbage is my favorite). Larb served in most Thai restaurants is usually dry, but Saipin's northern-style larb is moist and bursting with flavor.
The Tofu Salad, not on the menu but always available, will turn carnivores into furtive, nascent vegetarians.
Nam Prik Noom, green chili dip. From the northern menu, this paste of freshly roasted chilies is scooped up with raw vegetables and fried pork rinds. Incendiary and addictive.
#49 Pla Dook Yang, charbroiled whole catfish. Perhaps Lotus's most celebrated dish, the catfish is always cooked perfectly, the skin delicately crisp, the flesh tender and moist. The sauce, a consummate complement, bursts with the flavors of lime and chilies. Occasionally, a wonderful, not-too-sweet tamarind sauce is also available.
#62, Hoh Mok Plor, Issan style fish with curry paste, egg, and sliced cabbage in a bowl with catfish or red snapper (choose the catfish). It's a prime example of how Saipin transforms a humble peasant dish into something impossible to leave unfinished.
#97 Salmon Panang, a charbroiled salmon fillet topped with spicy fresh chili paste, creamy curry sauce finished with cognac. Particularly recommended for skittish diners. After you've tasted it you'll want the recipe. So, we've supplied it.
Drunken Noodles with Minced Chicken. This noodle dish is usually served with seafood, but ask for it with chicken instead. Wide noodles are topped fresh and dry chilies, Thai basil, and other herbs. Another bracing, beautifully balanced peasant dish.
Northern Thai Pork Stew - a meditation on pork and garlic. Earthy and bold, this northern dish tastes as elementally satisfying as a satisfying hamburger or beef stew. A knockout.
The Golden Rule is: Order sticky rice! Lotus will serve the sticky rice with fresh mango only if Bill is satisfied with the quality of the fruit. But fret not if the available mangos don't make the grade - try the sticky rice with coconut "ice cream." Actually, this "ice cream" is not a dairy product at all, but condensed coconut milk. More refreshing than ice cream, more luxurious than sorbet, you must try this (a full stomach is not an acceptable excuse for refusing - at least order one for "the table").
Lotus offers the usual soft drinks and beer, but my favorite thirst quenchers are water or the "Thai Lime Drink," which tastes suspiciously like what Americans call limeade. Made with fresh lime juice and sugar, the lime drink offers a nostalgic comfort to an otherwise exotic meal.
Oh yes: and then there's wine. Although Lotus offers some red wines, the real excitement on the wine list is the amazing collection of German Rieslings. Bill Chutima has amassed a collection of hard to find Rieslings that go perfectly with the spicy food. Although the wines are priced at a very low markup, if you dive into the Rieslings, your wine bill is likely to exceed your food tariff. If you are unfamiliar with Rieslings, or assume that they would be too sweet to enhance a Thai meal, ask Bill for advice.
Recipe for Salmon Panang
You're certainly going to want to make one of their dishes at home. When Bill and Saipin are asked for a recipe, they usually offer this delicious dish, as very few fresh ingredients are required.
Most of the prepared ingredients are available at Chinese or Thai markets, or even online. The preparation time for this dish is very short, since you won't be mincing spices or making sauces from scratch.
8-10 oz. salmon fillet (do not season the fish)
1 19-oz. can of good quality coconut milk, unshaken (1)
1 tbsp. Thai red curry paste (2)
1-1/2 tbsp. fish sauce
2 kaffir-lime leaves, cut into thin strands (3)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. cognac (optional)
1 basil top for garnishing
4 strips of green bell pepper for garnishing (4)
4 strips of red bell pepper for garnishing
1. Preheat the grill. Grill unseasoned salmon to your liking (6-8 minutes on skin side first and 4-6 minutes on the other side is a good estimate). If a grill is not available, use a skillet to sear both sides and put in preheated 375-degree oven for about 5-8 minutes to your liking.
2. Open the unshaken coconut milk can. Reserve the cream that has risen to the top.
3. Add oil to skillet and turn heat to medium-high.
4. Add Thai red curry paste and stir about two minutes, or until fragrant.
5. Add 1/2-cup liquid part of coconut milk into skillet and stir until well mixed, about 2-3 minutes. For creamier texture, add more coconut milk and 1-2 tsp. of reserved coconut cream.
6. Add fish sauce, sugar, and then cognac. Stir for 30 seconds and then coarse strain the sauce.
7. Place sauce on bottom of serving plate.
8. Place cooked salmon in the middle of serving plate, above the sauce.
9. Garnish with basil around the rim of the plate with red and green pepper strips alternately placed around the plate rim.
10. Put reserved coconut cream on top of salmon and sauce to your liking. Sprinkle with kaffir-lime.
This recipe is very forgiving. If the sauce is not as creamy as you'd like, you can add more coconut milk; if you need more heat, add more curry paste. Lotus of Siam presents a skinless fillet, but it works as well with the skin on. If you want more of the kaffir lime taste, you can cook the leaves in the sauce.
(1) Smaller cans are available, and can be used instead, but larger cans of coconut milk separate successfully more often. If you buy a 19-oz. can, you will have most of it left over.
(2) Many types of Thai red curry paste are available - some are specified as "Panang sauce," and are preferable. If you prefer spicy food, definitely add more than one tbsp. to this sauce.
(3) Kaffir lime leaves and all the other ingredients in this recipe are widely available in Asian markets. They are also sold (fresh and dried) at many online stores, including www.importfood.com. Many other ingredients can be found at that site or at www.penzeys.com, a great source for spices online.
(4) Garnishing is not essential of course, although the peppers are delicious in the Panang sauce.
Count me in as one of those romantics who does believe that a restaurant can reflect the most profound emotions and intellect of its owners. Because I usually eat at Lotus of Siam every day when I'm in Las Vegas, and because I sometimes visit Las Vegas mainly to eat at their restaurant, I've gotten to know Bill and Saipin a little bit. It may be "offbeat" to become obsessed with a restaurant, but the rewards of seeing the range and beauty of one person's cooking is as rewarding and soul-satisfying as spending a week at the Louvre or camping in the Everglades.
Saipin and Bill express their love by providing customers with extraordinary food. They receive love from the customers who appreciate their work. This makes them work harder to live up to the devotion of their acolytes. The renewed effort of the Chutimas reinforce the devotion of their fans.
But this isn't a cult. Anyone can join.
If You Go
Reservations suggested for dinner.
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David Feldman is the author of eleven books, including nine books in
the Imponderables (R) series, co-creator of the board game, Malarky. All of these activities are merely a
method to finance his unfortunate eating habits. Email him at Feldman@imponderables.com
Photo courtesy of Lotus of Siam