I’m back in Las Vegas, one of my favourite eating destinations, for the Christmas holidays. One of the restaurants I’d been very excited about visiting for the first time was Lotus of Siam, a tiny Thai place in a mall about a mile away from the north (grotty) end of the Strip.
Strip malls aren’t the kind of place I spend a lot of time in when I’m in Vegas. This particular mall sports Serge’s Wigs (a shop for showgirls looking to buy luxuriant hair), and a pole-dancing club. But Gourmet Magazine announced a few years ago that Lotus of Siam is the best Thai restaurant in North America, so there wasn’t any question about it – we were going. Saipin Chutima, the lady in charge of the kitchen here, learned to cook from her grandmother, and as a result you’ll find some fascinating family recipes from northern Thailand on the extensive menu.
Don’t visit Lotus of Siam at lunchtime, when the rather undistinguished Chinese buffet is on offer; instead, go in the evening and ask for some of the more unusual offerings on the menu, like the Issan dishes which come on a separate menu. We heard other tables being asked what sort of chilli spicing they preferred on a scale from one to ten, but unfortunately we weren’t offered the choice and ended up with some less tongue-numbing food than we’d have preferred. This isn’t the place to ask for a green curry, a Pad Thai or whatever else you usually order in your local Thai – these dishes will be excellent, but why would you order something you recognise when you can ask for something like the exceptional sour Issan sausage (a little like a Thai cross between mortadella and salami), a dish you won’t find anywhere else?
We asked for Nam Kao Tod – that sausage in a crispy rice salad (see left) as one of our starters. There were tastes here I’ve never experienced before; darkly crisp, deep-fried rice grains marinaded before cooking in something deeply savoury, mixed with the slightly sour sausage cubes and aromatic herbs. Issan pork jerky was less thin, dry and chewy than I’d anticipated – it was juicy and caramelised, served with a little tamarind sauce to drizzle over. Dr W, gargling with porky joy, attempted to annex the whole dish for himself.
A crispy catfish salad (see the picture at the top of this post) was my favourite part of the whole meal. It’s seldom you find catfish that doesn’t taste slightly muddy, but this was fabulously fresh and delicate. The tiny pieces of catfish were fried to a crisp, and heaped on top of a sweet lime-drenched salad made from more handfuls of fresh herbs, roasted cashews, thin strips of carrot, apple, ginger, onion, cabbage and other vegetables. These lively and fresh-tasting salads provide a brilliant foil to some of the darker and more syrupy flavours in the main courses we selected: Kra Phao Moo Krob, a crispy preparation of belly pork with a deeply savoury sauce and lots of Thai holy basil; and Nua Sao Renu, strips of charcoal-grilled steak, still pink in the middle, anointed with another tamarind sauce. (This needed lots of rice to mop up the sauce, which was so packed with flavour my tastebuds could barely cope with it.)
We were too full to manage dessert – a shame, because the coconut rice in particular sounded glorious. Is Gourmet Magazine right in calling this the best Thai restaurant in North America? I’m not sure – these flavours are so different from the Thai meals I’ve had before I find it hard to contextualise, and I’ve been to very few American Thai restaurants. But I am certain of one thing – it was so good that we’ll be eating there at least once more before we go home after Christmas.