In the August, 2000 issue of Gourmet Magazine, multiple-time Pulitzer Prize award-winning writer Jonathan Gold called the Lotus of Siam restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada “the single best Thai restaurant in North America.” Not a disparaging word was heard or a dissenting opinion offered among the cognoscenti save for those who argued that the word “Thai” should be removed from from Gold’s audacious proclamation. Lotus of Siam is THAT good!
In the decade plus since Gold’s assertion, every reputable critic from every credible publication has jumped on the bandwagon, essentially echoing or adding to to the validation of the greatness that is the Lotus of Siam. The superlatives are similar on every review you’ll read of this vaunted restaurant; only the names of the scribes change. In a media culture which delights in the “time to tear down” portion of Ecclesiastes 3:3, the absence of true criticism for Lotus of Siam speaks volumes. Lotus of Siam is THAT good!
First-time visitors approach the Lotus of Siam with high expectations, return visitors with the type of reverence usually accorded only to shrines or holy places. A visit is akin to a religious pilgrimage, albeit not one of great distance or difficulty to reach (it’s only minutes away from the Las Vegas strip) though the restaurant is situated in a strip mall that’s probably 25 years beyond its time, a strip mall Zagat called “the ugliest strip mall in America.” Few ever give it a second thought that the peerless purveyor of the best Penang on the planet is located in one of the city’s most unsavory areas. Lotus of Siam is THAT good!
In recent years, Las Vegas has earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier dining destinations, much of that apotheosis attributable to many of the world’s culinary glitterati launching a satellite restaurant operation in Sin City. You no longer have to go to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City or even Paris to experience some of the best restaurants in the world; they’ve all come to Las Vegas. Lotus of Siam, on the other hand, was in such demand from New York City visitors to Las Vegas, that in 2010, a second instantiation of the Vegas institution was launched in Metropolis. Lotus of Siam is THAT good!
So, just what is it that makes Lotus of Siam THAT good? Most agree it’s all starts with incomparable chef-owner Saipin Chutima who in 2010 was finally accorded with “Best Chef: Southwest” honors by the James Beard Foundation after “Miss Congeniality” finishes in 2008 and 2010. Her specialty is Issan-style Thai food, its genesis being the northeastern region of the country where the chef was raised, a region in which cuisine is more highly spiced than those of the other regions of Thailand. The 150-item menu notes that some of the dishes are influenced by the cultures of Laos and Cambodia and while that menu is also replete with traditional Thai favorites common at other restaurants, they’re prepared better (and spicier) than anywhere else.
Despite being ensconced for most of its 25 years in an unassuming Lilliputian space, the universally beloved restaurant with huge flavors has earned Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” every year since 2005. In 2010, Lotus of Siam expanded, much to the delight of oenophiles and diners alike. The expansion makes it easier to obtain a reservation and showcases one of the most impressive wine caves in a city which prides itself on its wine lists.
The wait staff at Lotus of Siam is unfailingly attentive and polite. Even better, they’re on the spot to refill your empty glasses of ice water–and you will empty them if you endeavor to consume the lip-numbing, tongue-tingling “Thai hot” dishes. Even if weaned on New Mexico chile as I was, Lotus of Siam has several dishes that might make many blubber “no mas.” A degree of heat at level eight (out of ten) is piquant enough for most asbestos tongued New Mexicans. That’s not to say all the dishes are incendiary. There are many entrees who will captivate you with the subtle blending of pungently sweet spices.
The 150-item menu includes several “must try” appetizers including nam kao tod, a highly spicy stir fry of minced Issan-style sour sausage seasoned with ginger, fresh chilies and scallions and served with crispy rice. It’s one of the Las Vegas restaurant favorites listed on an unofficial “essential restaurant guide” published yearly. An appetizer popular in trendy Bangkok, tod mun plar is prepared exceptionally well at Lotus. This deep-fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste is served with a sweet-tangy-piquant cucumber salad with chopped peanuts. With a fragrant bouquet and light texture, these fish cakes will win over even the fish haters among you.
The appetizer roster also includes several items sure to please poultry lovers who can spice up the precursory part of their meal with garlic black pepper chicken wings. Several meaty chicken wings are deep-fried until crispy then sautéed with potent black pepper and a wealth of garlic. If you don’t want to wreck your breath (while loving every morsel in doing so), the stuffed chicken wings are a wonderful option. Two pterodactyl sized chicken wings are stuffed with ground pork then deep fried and served with a tangy sweet and sour sauce. Then there’s the fried chicken dumplings, deep-fried wontons skin stuffed with ground chicken and vegetables. Better dumplings cannot be found!
Lotus of Siam’s soup offerings are fabulous and offered in cup size as well as in a swimming pool sized bowl. At a level eight degree of heat, the Tom Yum Kai, a spicy and sour soup with chicken, lemon grass, lime juice and straw mushrooms, is as baby bear might say “just right.” It’s also one of the heartiest, most savory soups imaginable–a soup so good you’ll mourn the last spoonful.
Among the entrees, the roasted duck curry (replete with cherry tomatoes, small grapes, pineapple and coconut milk) is the very best curry dish I’ve ever had. It’s an entree I’ve had during three of my five visits to Lotus of Siam so if the restaurant has a better curry dish, I’ve yet to try it. The concordance of ingredients and the resultant melding of flavors will leave your taste buds delirious with joy. The first time you bite into a plump cherry tomato which has been swimming in curry is like your first kiss. The sensation of a curry saturated grape bursting in your mouth may make your eyes roll with carnal pleasure. If a food item can make love to your mouth, it would resemble feasting on this curry dish.
Duck is the showpiece ingredient in another favorite entree, one of four crispy duck entrees on the chef’s choice menu. The crispy duck on drunken noodle, pan-fried rice noodles topped with fresh, homemade chili and Thai basil. This is one of those rare dishes about which absolute perfection can be ascribed. Everything about it is perfectly prepared. The duck is mouth-watering–tender, succulent, eyes shut wide with pleasure delicious with a crispy fried skin that may leave you swooning. The pan-seared basil would have made a wonderful entree on its own while the drunken noodles inherited the saucy flavors of the other components of one of the two best duck dishes I’ve ever had (the other being the roasted duck curry, of course).
Despite sizable portions, you’ll want to end your meal with dessert. The menu lists only mangoes (in season) with sticky rice, coconut ice cream with sticky rice and fried bananas. These relatively simple desserts are common in street stalls throughout Thailand, but uncommonly good in America–just like this phenomenal restaurant.
We’ve been visiting Lotus of Siam since the millennium year–within weeks after Jonathan Gold’s anointing of this gem. It’s on my short list for the proverbial “last meal” and should be on everyone’s “bucket list” of restaurants to visit before all is said and done. Lotus of Siam is THAT good!
LOTUS OF SIAM
953 E. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV
LATEST VISIT: 10 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Fishcakes, Duck Curry, Thai b.b.q. chicken, Mangoes on Sticky Rice