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Mensday Wednesday: Lotus of Siam

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We may not have had the litany of goodies described in Hunter Thompson’s seminal book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but the spirit of utter and wild abandon–for a recent trip to the city of sin–was the same.

My dear friend Carl was getting married last November and since he was the first amongst my crew to tie the knot and we knew that a kick ass Vegas bachelor party was in order. With the help of the more logistical-minded amongst us, we organized a four-day trip (the longest four days of my life, in a good way) during the hottest month of the year. August was perhaps a good choice of time to go because, while our senses were dulled to the point of near-paralysis, we could always count on the furnace blast of hot desert air to keep us awake and (barely) cogent.

The sojourn was chock full of adventures and stories and depleted bank accounts, but in an effort to keep this post at a manageable, blog-appropriate length I would like to highlight our dinner at Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant located in an unassuming strip mall east of downtown.

After that lengthy preamble, let it suffice to say that this is the best Thai food I’ve had in this country, hands down (full disclosure: my experience is limited to NYC, but that hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from making sweeping New York-is-the-center-of-the-universe statements in the past and it wont stop me now). I have a friend who travels to Vegas two or three times a year for trade shows and has to do a lot of entertaining–on a three or four day visit he’ll eat at Lotus of Siam twice, anything to get away from the painfully overpriced restaurants in the hotels throughout the city. Incidentally his other favorite place to eat when in Vegas? In and Out Burger.

I am not the first person the write about this restaurant by a long shot. It is immensely popular and has been featured in a million publications. While it may literally be a hole-in-the-wall, any restaurant with 28/30 Zagat rating is well known. But in a city that boasts the highest grossing restaurant in America (Tao) and where a dinner–at a somewhat nice place–will run you about $150/person, it is nice to have a delicious third option (the second option being the buffet). Contrast these highly priced meals with Lotus of Siam where the typical dish, aside from the seafood (which is expensive, but that can be expected from a restaurant located a thousand miles east from the nearest ocean), is in the $8-$16 range.

It would be impossible for me to mention all the delicious things we ate here, so I am going to try to limit myself to the things that aren’t on the menu at my local run-of-the-mill Thai joint. In fact, one of the great things about this restaurant is that even though every day American-Thai favorites like pad thai and spring rolls are available (and excellent) there is a northern section on the menu as well, highlighting the specialties of the house. And this ‘northern section’ of the menu is where you find the dishes that will make your tastebuds hum.

Dishes like Nam Kao Tod, an appetizer of crispy rice (think gourmet rice crispies) tossed with minced sausage, fresh chilis, lime and a plethora of herbs and aromatics. This was my favorite dish of the night and exemplified what I love about Southeast Asian cooking: a commitment to texture contrasts and to the balancing of the four basic flavors hot, sour, salty, and sweet.

Of course to say there are only four basic flavors is inaccurate; I’m missing the mother flavor, umami. That ineffable, deep-bodied taste embodied by perfect chicken broth or high quality soy sauce–a flavor represented by another appetizer that had me swooning: Nua Dad Deaw. This dish is an Issan-style cured beef jerky which is marinated then deep fried and served with a spicy chili dipping sauce. Imagine if the beef jerky you grew up eating was tender to the bite, with subtle hints of sweet, spice, and smoke and you’ll get the idea.

I would be remiss not to mention the drunken noodles with soft shell crabs. It may be non-northern in style and only available during soft-shell crab season (May-September), but it is a special dish: wide rice noodles in a brown sauce sauteed with veggies and topped with a giant pile of flash-fried soft shell crabs. Delicious and another dish with a symphony of textures.

But what was the real guilty pleasure of the whole evening? How about chicken wings stuffed with pork and deep-fried?  Are you kidding me??? Seriously, I don’t think ambrosia concocted by Mount Olympus’s best chefs could taste that good.

To end I would like to point out something that made me giggle.  Their website’s tagline is  “Treat Yourself to Deliciousness: Daily.” It seems like something straight out of the Martha Stewart website, yet they are the self-chosen words of a Thai restaurant in the middle of the Nevada desert that just happens to be the best Thai restaurant in America.

953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite A5, Las Vegas, NV (702) 735-3033

Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of  Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”

Follow Mensday Wednesdays on Twitter @mensdae.

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