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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Cuisinartistry: Owner Tom Vongampai samples the attractive fare produced in Siam's kitchen.

Twice as Spice

Siam continues to bowl over its patrons with hot and minty flavor blends

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

It all started with mai tais at a friend's. The rum, the sweet juices and the pineapple opened the floodgates to our palates, awakening an irreversible craving for something spicy. Just the thought was all we needed, so we left home and walked down the street to Siam.

The original opened years ago in the Futurama Bowl out near Lawrence in Cupertino. I remember it well. My love of Thai food was born there, amid the hustling thud of bowling balls and crashing pins. All of it was cooked by experienced ladies whose dishes made such a stir with their aromas that some bowlers actually lodged complaints with the management.

But for a restaurant critic, this was bliss. The bowling alley just made it more appealing, more interesting, and a little funky too. It got so popular at one point you had to wait in lines on Fridays and Saturdays. The food took us by surprise, hot and minty all at once, full of coconut and lime juice, garlic and sweet red onions--what a treat.

The first owner ran the place with his wife, and together they made a good name for themselves. But he went back to Thailand and left Siam in the hands of his niece and her husband. They continued to do a fine job with the place and several years ago moved the location to a fondly remembered Foster's Freeze across the street from Los Gatos High School, where it remains. (For the time being, anyway--in February, Siam moves back to Cupertino, to a site on S. De Anza Boulevard.)

The current digs have been spruced into a tidy vision of Asian simplicity and cleanliness. It is a small space, rather sparely decorated but comfortable and warm. There were five of us at a roomy table positioned under the ceremonial gaze of the current president and first lady of Thailand. Though this photograph did lend some authenticity to the environs, the walls were better served by the fans and other minimal Thai decorations. Lacy white window coverings tied back in perfect symmetry betrayed the delicate eye of the management.

And from what we tasted, it's obvious that the kitchen is still intact. Just about everything we sampled was hot and spicy and full of commitment. The current chef captures all the traditional flavors, using plenty of peppers in the process. It's fiery fare, painful to the neophyte, but (in my estimation) more tolerable than some I've had. In addition, the chef is eager to please. A woman at the next table remarked that the cook adjusts recipes to meet certain dietary demands--in her case, strict vegetarianism.

We opened with satay of chicken and pork, lightly seasoned, charbroiled and served (as expected) on skewers. Bowls of peanut curry sauce plus cucumber and hot peppers in a sweet citrus dressing made perfect condiments.

Tom Yum Kung ($3.76 bowl; $12.60 pot) followed. Though a little sweeter than I like, it was still full of those savory medicinal properties that I've come to love so much. The mushrooms, the peppers, the shrimp were all simmered in a broth laced heavily with lime juice. It came to the table in a hot pot with a flaming center to keep things warm.

From salads, we sampled the Nur Nam Tok ($6.26), thin slices of beef dressed with lime juice, chile pepper and red onions served over lettuce. Alternately hot and refreshing best describes this Thai perennial; like so many other dishes, it mixes and matches mint and pepper to create fire and ice simultaneously.

Kung Chu Chee ($8.95) raised eyebrows among the aviators at our table. "U-16 shrimp? Sounds like something you fly," commented the senior pilot of our group. Thank God, it didn't come to the table on wings. Instead, this yellow curry arrived on a china platter loaded with succulent shrimp in a silky gravy full of coconut and coriander. I didn't tell anybody, but I obsessed over the perfect texture of this sauce and spooned it on the sly as though it were a lobster bisque.

Whether you have this dish with beef, chicken or calamari, anything listed as Thai Basil should be included in your meal. This time, we opted for Chicken with Thai Basil ($6.50), a pungent yet balanced rendition that achieves--once again--that improbable marriage of opposing flavors: hot and cool, all at once.

Popeye Vegetables ($5.95) was the choice of our youngest member, who comes here quite often. It combines a healthy melange of vegetables, including spinach (hence the name Popeye), sauteed and then finished with peanut curry.

 

IF YOU HAVE NOTHING ELSE and you want something wholesome and substantial, have a plate of Pad Thai noodles. You can have it in many different ways, with meats and/or vegetables, with eggs or without. We had ours vegetarian style, for $6.50.

All of our dishes were delivered hot and fresh from the pans. No complaint here. But our waitress never smiled, at least not until a member of our party came right out and asked her to. Only then did the flag lift, once, then drop almost immediately. Call my dinner guest old-fashioned (or sexist--would he have asked a man to grin?), but he's big on friendly service and that rarely comes without a smile. Many diners come to expect such things when going out to dinner and knowing the price tag at the end of it.

But it's the food that makes the place so special. Siam has endured a long and healthy existence in the South Bay; it's one of the best in its category, certainly among the most reliable purveyors of hot and spicy. Pay a visit now or when the restaurant moves back to Cupertino.


Siam
Cuisine: Hot and spicy Thai
Address: 220 E. Main St., Los Gatos
Phone: 408.354.1019
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner daily 5-9:30pm (until 10pm Fri.-Sat.)
Prices: Moderate

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From the January 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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