Siam Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico
It’s oft been said that “you taste first with your eyes.” Certainly sight figures in to the enjoyment of food and sets expectations, but the first sensory receptors to engage in taste is the sense of smell. If you’ve ever experienced a pleasant aroma wafting toward you as you approach a restaurant, you’ll agree. The Siam Cafe is quite possibly the most aromatically-enticing, olfactory-arousing restaurant in the Duke City. Its exotic spices and herbs waft like a gentle summer breeze over all diners entering what is conceivably Albuquerque’s best Thai restaurant. For years the marquee named its previous occupant, Pollo Loco, before the owners of the Siam Cafe finally changed the marquee in 2003. With its new signage, this gem declared “Siam, I am!.” The common denominator among all the dishes I’ve had here is consistent excellence, particularly among the curry dishes.
Curry is one of those dishes about which inexperienced diners tend to generalize, tending in many cases to believe, for example, that any experiences–good or bad–they may have had with Indian curry will be duplicated with Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or Malaysian curry. While all curry has an unmistakably pungent fragrance, there are more than subtle differences between the curries of Southeast Asia’s countries. Those differences extend beyond a degree of spiciness that may have you wanting to drink out of a fire hydrant to extinguish the tongue searing piquant onslaught of incendiary Thai chili peppers.
Thai dishes generally (and Thai curries specifically) feature fewer spices but more herbs than Indian dishes, the ultimate outcome being a harmony of sweet, sour, salty and hot flavors. What distinguishes the curry at Siam Thai is that it consistently manages to find that balance of flavors; other highly regarded Thai restaurants in the Duke City tend to over-emphasize sweetness. Most Thai curries start with a curry paste composed of an assortment of spice blends and herbs. The amount and combination of ingredients determine pastes for the five main Thai curries: red, yellow, green, massaman and Panang.
Among Americans, the most popular Thai curries appear to be coconut-based: red, yellow, green and massaman, for example. These curries are especially aroy-dee (delicious), warming you from the inside out with flavor explosions. Chile loving New Mexicans may find curry nearly as addicting as their beloved green chile. That’s because Thai chilies, a rich source of Vitamin C and capsaicin, are a key component of excellent curry dishes and provide that same endorphin generating “high” you get from New Mexican chile. In Albuquerque, no one does curry better than the Siam Cafe where curry dishes will take you from ecstasy to Nirvana with every bite.
It’s no surprise that the favorite among many New Mexicans is red curry which tends to be spicier than other curry dishes thanks to the influence of red Thai chilies and red bell peppers. At Siam Cafe, you can enjoy red curry with chicken, beef or shrimp. Spooning red curry (or any of Siam’s curries) over plain steamed Jasmine rice helps cut the heat and intensity of the flavors. For a less fiery experience, try the massuman curry, an Islamic influenced mild curry from Southern Thailand. This sweet curry dish includes more coconut milk than other Thai curries and is traditionally cooked with beef, potatoes, onions, carrots and peanuts.
Friends who want to curry my favor know they can do so with a bowl of red curry noodles. While rice absorbs the flavor of curry very well, its texture may become gummy as the dish cools down. Noodles absorb the flavor of curry just as well, but don’t have any texture issues. At Siam Cafe, the red curry noodles are laden with vegetables: cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onion, bell pepper and spinach. It’s also laden with explosive flavors–just enough incendiary curry to get your attention, coconut milk that’s sweet but not dessert sweet, and the fresh, crispy vegetables.
30 July 2021: It’s rare to survey Siam Cafe’s menu and discover a curry dish which hasn’t crossed my lips. That situation is quickly remedied. Such was the case when my friend Bill Resnik and I enjoyed our umpteenth visit to this San Mateo staple and espied spinach peanut red curry on the menu. Simmered with mixed vegetables (carrots, white onions, zucchini), the thick coconut milk (probably full-fat)-enriched curry is even more peanuty than massuman curry…and that’s a good thing. The red curry has a great depth of flavor and complexity inherent from aromatics, real differentiators. Then there’s the spinach with its leafy texture and robust, slightly acidic flavor provides a nice counterbalance to the sweet coconut milk. This is an excellent curry dish.
Curry even finds its way onto one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, chicken satay. Siam Cafe used to serve pork satay but surprisingly it didn’t move very well. No matter. The chicken satay is the very best in town. Traditional satay is marinated strips of chicken, pork or beef skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over an open flame or broiled in the oven. Somewhat reminiscent of thinner and much smaller Kebabs, satay is distinctly fragrant and delicious. The marinade, as at Siam Cafe, includes yellow curry which accounts to a large extent for the satay’s golden hue.
Satay is served with a homemade peanut sauce as well as a cucumber salad. The peanut sauce is imbued with coconut milk for sweetness and crushed red pepper for piquancy. Sweetness along with the pronounced–maybe even intense-flavor of peanut butter, are the prevalent flavor sensations. The cucumber salad is made with thick cut cucumbers and carrots, but the prevalent flavor here is an almost cloying sweetness.
30 July 2021: Siam Cafe’s diverse menu also celebrates the sheer complexity and art of noodle based dishes, featuring noodles of various width crafted from different traditional ingredients. You can enjoy stir fried noodle dishes, noodle entrees eaten with gravy or curry and even noodles served dry. A popular favorite is Pad Thai (Thai fry), the national dish in which noodles are parboiled and doused in a secret recipe of spices and oil then stir-fried quickly with peanuts, spring onions and other ingredients.
Pad Thai, the the ubiquitous Thai menu item of noodles, vegetables, meat and peanuts has never been one of my favorite dishes and that’s an understatement. My Kim, however, loves it. It takes Herculean restraint on my part not to refer to it as Pad Boring or worse so I’m far from impartial when reviewing any Pad Thai dish my Kim can’t even get me to try. She tells me Siam Thai’s Pad Thai is some of the very best in Albuquerque. So there. She’s more trustworthy than her husband when it comes to Pad Boring…er, Pad Thai.
Among other fantastic Siam Cafe’s appetizers, the Siam rolls and accompanying sweet and sour plum sauce are also among the city’s best. The egg rolls are luscious, golden hued meal starters–so good it always prompts me to ponder that conundrum as to how the Chinese were able to wield such strong influence on Thai cuisine yet you rarely find good egg rolls in Chinese restaurants. Siam Cafe’s rolls, for example, are better than any you’ll find in any of the Duke City’s Chinese restaurant.
30 July 2021: Fresh spring rolls are more commonly associated with Vietnamese cuisine, but restaurants like the Siam Cafe have mastered the art of packing ingredients ((rice noodles, shrimp, carrot and lettuce) into translucent rice wrappes. Spring rolls are the antithesis of their fried counterparts–at last in terms of preparation. Determining which are better is a matter of taste. The spring rolls at Siam Cafe are served with a peanut sauce.
30 July 2021:Larb–often spelled laab, laap or any number of phoenetically similar spellings–a refreshing Thai salad is tangy, bright and refreshing, yet spicy and full-flavored. It’s perfect for hot summer days! Or any day if you’re my friend Bill Resnik. Usually made with ground chicken, beef, lamb or pork;, lots of fresh herbs (mint, Thai basil or cilantro); lemongrass; garlic; fresh chilies; red onions; lime juice; and green onions, it’s Southeast Asia’s answer to calorific American salads. Siam Cafe’s version is one of the very best in Albuquerque, made especially well if it’s prepared at the “hot” or “Thai hot” level of piquancy.
30 July 2021: Dessert is often referred to as the conundrum of Asian meals. In many cases, especially after ingesting coconut infused curries and cloying sauces, the last thing you need is something exceedingly sweet or rich. Fortunately the answer to the conundrum is the Thai standard, mangoes with sticky rice. The sticky rice is enriched with coconut milk, but the mangoes in season provide such a complementary yet contrasting taste sensation that deliciousness abounds. There are few desserts quite as refreshing.
The service at Siam Cafe is generally first-rate. Arrive at the start of lunch time and you’ll often find the entire staff dining together in relative quiet. They seem more attuned to culinary enjoyment than the American practice of talking all the way through a meal. Only the arrival of a new customer stirs immediate response, a courteous and hearty welcome to the very best Thai restaurant in the Duke City.
5500 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2021
# OF VISITS: 22
BEST BET: Seafood curry, Masuman curry, Satay, Egg rolls, Spicy Chicken Lemongrass, Larb, Spinach in Peanut Red Curry, Fresh Spring Rolls