The grand poobah of the city’s ethnic restaurants, once named the “Single Best Thai Restaurant in North America” (by the late, great Gourmet magazine), and winner of the James Beard “Best Chef in the Southwest” award in 2011, the venerable Lotus of Siam remains one of the city’s best-reviewed and best-loved restaurants. It gets all its plaudits without all the extras that tend to dazzle diners at other restaurants. Its location is terrible, in a dingy strip mall; its decor ho-hum, most notable for the dozens of photos of beaming, full-looking celebrities; and if you come late at lunchtime you’ll likely be upset that the buffet is one of diminishing returns, as it doesn’t get refilled when the food runs out. But this is not a buffet-type place anyway, nor should you just expect upgrades of your same-old, same-old Pad Thai. To really get why foodies drive over from L.A. regularly just to dine here (and I know a couple who do), you have to put yourself in Bill’s hands. Bill is the husband of Chef Saipin Chutima, and he makes the reverse trip to L.A. once a week to buy fresh ingredients, jetting off to Thailand about once a month to get spices blended to his wife’s specifications. Bill will know what’s best that day (and if Bill’s not there, ask for Penny, their daughter) and he’ll steer you towards the Saipin (Northern) Thai specialties that really make this place unique. As an example: Nua Dad Deaw, a dry fried beef, almost like a lime-infused beef jerky, that’s so addictive, I save the leftovers to munch in my car the next day. Or the Nam Kao Tod ($7.95), a wonderfully tart sausage, dry in texture, nutty, minty, and sided by crispy deep-fried rice. Or the jackfruit curry with smoked fish, or a crispy mussel omelet served with a spicy red sauce that makes this dish so much more special than just eggs. I list all of these just to give you an idea of what your meal could be like, but really, ignore what I’m writing here, and go with what the family recommends, as they knows best. Just be sure to tell them how much spice you can take, and don’t overestimate your tolerance; the kitchen will sear your tongue off if you ask for it hot. Lotus is constantly adding to its stellar wine program, heavy on Rieslings and other vintages that pair well with spicy cuisine.
- Rick Garman