Rule No. 6
Siam Square reviewed
by Lee Lawrence
"Your mission," my editor intoned, "should you decide to accept it, is to see if the rule holds true." The rule is one of six laid down in May's issue of the Atlantic magazine. Writer Tyler Cowan, an economist and self-described foodie, writes that he developed them "by applying some basic economics to ... food choices."
Cowan's rules range from the predictable (No. 5: "Admit what you don't know") to the puzzling (No. 1: "In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetizing"). The one my editor had in mind was actually an exception to No. 6 ("Prefer Vietnamese to Thai"), the exception being to try Thai restaurants that are attached to motels.
"Think of Victory Suites and Siam Square on Washtenaw," my editor reminded me.
Cowan favors Vietnamese food over Thai because it's less popular and so, he says, less likely to be watered down to appeal to Western tastes. But he figures that the Thai restaurants linked to motels probably are owned by a single Thai family, who are using the restaurant as a secondary income stream--and a place to eat dinner. The owners are free, then, to cook authentic, perhaps challenging but more delicious, food. Why else, in the U.S., would there be a Thai restaurant hooked to a motel, when a tired but predictable diner would be a safer bet?
Well, here it turns out to be because a Thai couple rents space from Chaldean motel owners. Although we didn't solve the mystery of who stays at the funky Victory Suites, we did discover that Sinnasone Inhmathong and his wife, Vasanna Srisaengyos, the couple who originally opened Siam Square here twenty years ago, still own it. At the time, they also owned Thai and Lao, a market on Packard specializing in Southeast Asian groceries. They operated the two establishments for a couple of years but eventually closed the store--much to my chagrin, since no other local market has ever stocked its variety and breadth of Southeast
Asian ingredients--to concentrate on the restaurant.
When it first opened, I had occasionally visited Siam Square, but I hadn't been there--for no real reason--in years. So I welcomed the challenge.
You enter the restaurant directly from the motel parking lot off Yost. Penetrating those doors transports you to another world, one chock-a-block with religious and cultural artifacts: carved four-foot-tall wooden elephants, Thai Buddhas and apsaras,
and brightly detailed wall hangings, all centered around an intricately carved gazebo. Like the surroundings, the enormous menu is initially overwhelming, but with time and close examination you can settle comfortably into the environment and the food.
Each time we went we ordered from across the menu, including a choice from the Thai-language sheet, which we assumed would produce the uncompromised flavors Cowan seeks. Apparently no Thai speakers work the floor--service is not Siam Square's strong point, and asking the waitstaff to trouble the cooks for translations didn't seem an option--so we chose the way we do when we travel abroad, by idiosyncratic signs. One night we selected the option that preceded an "L" in parentheses and received a rather bland but comforting chicken and egg drop soup. Another night we pointed at the longest line of script in the right-hand column on the front page. Our gift was the evening's star dish--pieces of fried fish fillet in an earthy, smoky, spicy, oily curry rich with the flavor of kaffir lime leaves. It was fabulous.
In fact, though Cowan's exception turned out not to apply, we found the food delicious more often than not. Of the disappointments, many were appetizers. The satay gai
featured bland, dry chicken but a deliciously savory peanut sauce and cucumber salad. Fried fish cakes and fresh spring rolls evoked the same split decision, with good flavor but a spongy, dry texture in the first case and flavorless fillings but tasty sauces in the second. However, fried spring rolls and the karee puff
--a Thai samosa stuffed with curried potatoes and
peas--were delicate, crispy, and delicious. The fried soft-shell crab was a pleasant vehicle for its sauce, and the Siam Square dumpling proved a fine example of its genre.
The soups we tried--tom yum, Thailand's signature hot and sour soup, and tom kar
with coconut milk--needed more oomph, more lemongrass, more fish sauce, more zest. But the salads--salad kaak,
an interesting blend of vegetables and fried tofu with peanut dressing, and the refreshingly spicy som tum,
or green papaya salad--were delicious, particularly the papaya, which no one wanted to share.
We skipped pad thai to try the waiter's suggestion of pad ke maw,
or Drunkard Noodle, wide rice noodles stir-fried with broccoli and Thai basil in a spicy sauce--not sensational but tasty and satisfying. Sweet red and green peppers repeatedly dot Siam Square's menu listings--a discordant filler in many Asian restaurants--but in the entrees we tried, the Thai seasonings had tamed the peppers' flavor enough to make their inclusion inconsequential. Nonetheless, ordering two curries with the duck option, we found the panang,
heavy with peppers, less complex and interesting than the Indian-influenced masamon
stew, loaded with potatoes and onions. The crispy roast pork, stir-fried with peppers, eggplant, and Thai basil, disappointed--the meat was cooked to dry cubes--but we were intrigued by the spicing of the spicy vegetables and basil--maybe a hint of five-spice powder?
All the other entrees were delightful, and some were sensational. The whole fried tilapia sported crispy skin and moist flesh. Siam shrimp, wrapped in thin strands of potato and fried, surprised with both its presentation and its sweet-tart ginger sauce. The salt-and-pepper calamari, deep-fried and tossed with a peppery sauce, and the chili crab, two crispy soft-shell crabs glazed with a chili sauce dotted with cashews, had one friend ignoring polite inhibitions and licking the plates clean.
The dessert menu listed a slew of possibilities, but only three were available--green tea ice cream, tasting of musty, stale tea; deep-fried ice cream, a nod to middle America; and sticky rice drenched in coconut milk and served with fresh mango, a passable version of a Thai restaurant staple.
Service, while pleasant, ranged from mildly competent to completely untrained. Apparently no one outside the kitchen knows anything about the food or that service includes clearing empty dishes, although water glasses did get filled. Don't go to Siam Square, then, expecting to navigate all the mysteries of Thai cuisine. Go with a sense of adventure and an open mind, though, and you'll enjoy a delicious meal.
3750 Washtenaw Ave., inside the Victory Suites Hotel
Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Sun. noon-9 p.m. Closed Mon.
Lunch specials $7.95-$8.95.
Appetizers $3-$9.95, soups and salads $3.50-$14.95, entrees $9.95-$15.95.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]