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To Thai For

[whitespace] Dee Dejsri and Sutat Hong
Robert Scheer

Culinary Galaxy: Dee Dejsri (left) and chef Sutat Hong show off plates of chicken sa-tay and Siamese seafood dinner at Star of Siam.

A fixture in the ethnic-food constellation of Soquel, Star of Siam provides a gathering spot for friends and foodies

By Christina Waters

ALWAYS AN INVITING place to gather with friends over dinner, Star of Siam does a good job providing interactive visuals along with an enormous menu of Asian specialties. Meeting a group of my best friends for dinner last week offered an occasion to check out the latest artwork by sushi chef Ken Hitoshi Utsugi--an artist with New Age/Native American interests.

As always, the resident population of tropical fish cruised around its miniature coral beds--forming terrifically diverting room dividers--and every inch of the restaurant seemed to glow with colorful Thai handicrafts.

Starting off with a round of Thailand's mighty Singha beer ($3), one of the fine, chewy malts of the global brewers' art, we agreed to start with sushi to get our palates revved up. Served without garnish and only modest amounts of wasabi and ginger, the sushi rolls arrived on large, fish-shaped platters.

Rosemary missed the tobiko on her unagi roll, while Hiro enjoyed his maki sushi slices of avocado and asparagus. Yolanda and I liked the salmon roll, studded with avocado and macadamia nuts (all $5.95), yet we all agreed that each roll was very like the other.

"Not dramatically different," observed Hiro, who likes to know that he's eating fish rather than vegetable.

A pretty plate of yellowtail nigiri, thick alabaster slabs frosting a lozenge of sticky (well, actually, not sticky enough) rice, satisfied all of our raw-seafood cravings.

Somehow Star of Siam has always managed to maintain a dual identity. It's a Thai restaurant; it's a sushi bar. But I would love to see this place really lean into one or the other of these specialties and make a bolder statement all the way around.

There was nothing timid about our dramatically flaming tureen of the classic soup, Tom Yum Goong ($10.95). Brimming with plump prawns, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and lemon grass, the hot and sour soup was accentuated with the exotic bottom notes of nam pla and kaffir lime. All four of us loved its complexity, especially the hint of a spicy kick that finished each spoonful.

We also shared a huge plate of transparent bean-thread noodle salad ($7.95), one of my favorite Thai dishes, that comes punctuated with shrimp, chicken, onions and a mild chili and lime dressing. At Star of Siam, this salad arrives warm rather than cool, and we all loved its playful, slippery texture, strewn with plenty of the metallic edge of fresh cilantro.

Our final course consisted of two curries--a green bean curry ($7.95) with shrimp and an order of Panang tofu filled with sweet basil in coconut milk ($6.95).

The dish of bright, perfectly steamed green beans was lovely to look at, and my companions all commented on the sauce that hinted at ginger and galangal. The tofu dish, filled with the crunch of shredded napa cabbage and topped with plenty of chopped cilantro, was rewardingly spicy. Ironically, the sauce itself--laced with red bell peppers and luxuriously loaded with coconut milk--cried out for a better execution of the tofu, which remained resolutely tough and chewy.

All in all, we'd had fun at our meal--though I made a mental note that next time I would ask for my spicy foods on the spicy side. We weren't offered a choice when our orders were taken. And while we noticed that our hard-working servers didn't exactly hover over our tables, they responded to our needs when asked. The place was packed when we left--several long tables were hosting parties, and everybody was having a great time.

As Hiro noted, Star of Siam is a nice, neighborhood place that offers generous portions. Even though many of the dishes offered "soft focus" flavors, the spirit of the place is engaging. And besides, what other restaurant offers aquariums filled with colorful fish, white Christmas lights strung along the windows, Native American art painted by a Japanese sushi chef and authentic Thai decor?

Star of Siam
Address: 3005 Porter St., Soquel
Phone: 479-0366
Cuisine: Thai & sushi bar
Hours: Open daily--weekdays 11am until 10pm (until 11pm on Fri.-Sat.); Sat.-Sun. from 5pm.
Entrees: Moderate
Ambiance: ** Lots of visuals, from an artistically decorated sushi bar, to huge umbrellas draping the ceiling.
Service: * During busy lunch and dinner hours, service can be a proactive enterprise for diners.
Cuisine: *1/2 Some well-made specialties.
Overall: A pleasant neighborhood dining room that offers fair fare for the money--good place to linger and relax over a meal.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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