Pad Thai is a good example of how something that begins as an exotic exploration can shift to a specific craving. The classic noodle entrée with sprouts, lime, egg and peanuts has been the most common gateway dish for Americans interested in Thai cooking, and it's gained so many fans along the way that it now turns up at crowd-pleasing chain restaurants with no Thai connection at all.
That level of familiarity was a long way off in 1993, when Siamese Thai Cuisine opened at the back of a Metairie strip mall. Siamese wasn't the first Thai restaurant in the area, but it had precious few peers back then. Chef and co-owner Noppawan "Toom" Powribud even provided a thumbnail photo of nearly every dish on her menu as a visual aid, which she still does, even with a menu that includes more than 80 items.
Despite all the new competition that has come, and in some cases gone, over the past 15 years, that vast, varied and inexpensive menu still helps Siamese Thai Cuisine stand out. Other local Thai restaurants are better with certain dishes, but none have as broad a range when it comes to traditional Thai cooking.
This is a place to come with a group and fill the table with items to share. But unlike at some restaurants with big menus, it's best not to linger on the appetizer list. Most of the suggested first courses involve something wrapped in a wonton and fried, like the under-stuffed karee pup with too little ground chicken inside and eggrolls that have their equal or better at countless other restaurants.
Rather, start with soups and salads and get ready for a shell game of managing all the small and large bowls, plates, tureens and platters that soon cover the table. In them reside some of the restaurant's best bets, and a digest of the particular charms of traditional Thai cuisine and its blend of spicy, sweet, sour, sharp and smooth flavors, often all in one dish.
An indispensable example is the papaya salad. Shrimp is mentioned in the menu description, but don't look for a few jumbo tails sitting on top. Rather, dried bits of shrimp are ground up in the salad with garlic and hot chiles spiking a pungent, deceptively spicy dressing. The result can be gaspingly hot if eaten too quickly, but then the mild flavored papaya, crunchy and wet like jicama, is too refreshing not to slurp down. Whole peanuts add crunch and a welcome respite from the heat.
Squid salad has enough intense lime flavor to rival a Latin American ceviche, and a similar dressing cut the fattiness of roasted duck salad, which was also sprinkled with fresh mint. An overcooked beef salad was plain by comparison, but there's no lack of flavor or texture in the larb gai, a mix of ground chicken, herbs and atomized rice that at once moistens, stretches and adds warm, toasty notes to the meat, which is cradled in cups of fresh lettuce.
Bigger is better with Siamese Thai Cuisine's soups, which can be meal-sized individual servings or family-style portions delivered with their own heating instruments to warm them throughout service. The 'spicy and sour seafood soup" is an example of the latter, and it comes brimming with shrimp, crab claws, green-shell mussels and chewy, scored scrolls of squid in a foggy, aromatic broth dappled with fresh green herbs. One little cup of such an intricate brew doesn't seem like enough, but with the communal serving pot, there is always a bit left to chase after with the ladle.
Noodles don't fare well. The pad Thai was fine but unremarkable while the 'drunken" noodles turned out to be a pathetically small portion of pasty, broken strands that seemed like the scrapings from the previous day's pan. An exception were the thin, clear silver noodles which arrived steaming in the metal pot in which they were cooked, scented with both the sweet crab claws and musky black mushrooms embedded in their coils.
The kitchen is much better with curries, and the menu teems with a variety of these silken, buttery stews. Green curry is a standby and it sings with the peppery ginger galangal, crunchy slivers of bamboo shoot and lime. Most exotic of all is the red bean curry, with its individual cracked red beans bobbing on the surface and the mashed essence of countless more thickening the whole thing. The red bean taste is so familiar it may play tricks on the New Orleans palate, as it did with mine. There it was, the unmistakable, creamy, thick substance of so many Monday night meals, but imbued with the immediate pungency of Thai fire, the sweetness of coconut milk, the briny flavor of whole, peeled shrimp and invisible fish sauce cooked into it.
Save room for dessert, since it would be a shame to miss the sliced mango coated in toasted sesame seeds, mounded with jasmine rice, fragrant with sweet coconut milk and cooked just a few degrees short of pudding. It's a fitting finale for a meal with seemingly discordant flavors, textures and intensities that somehow resolve themselves into beguiling harmony.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Proprietor Noppawan "Toom" Powribud and chef Dumrong Patiphatrongrong serve a great variety of dishes at Siamese Thai Cuisine