A Tale of Two Thais

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Las Vegas has had a robust Thai restaurant scene for decades. Even before Saipin and Bill Chutima put us on the Siamese gastro-map with Lotus of Siam in 1999, there were dozens of family-run Thai joints serving crab sticks, papaya salads and tom kah kai to a fare-thee-well.

My introduction to this cuisine occurred in the early 1980s at a free-standing white building on Las Vegas Boulevard (across from where the Federal Courthouse now sits). I don’t think it even had a name, just the words “Thai Food” in big red letters on the side of the building. Even then, it was one of three Thai places downtown, and there were a couple more in Commercial Center off east Sahara.

You could get a decent larb or mint chicken in any of these, but they pretty much stuck to a greatest hits catechism of deep-fried wings, beef salad, pad Thai, and those hot pot soups that made Thai food famous. When anything had to be sauced, though, “sweet and gloppy” always took precedence over sour and pungent. This was also the era of “How hot do you want your food on a scale of 1-10?” — as if a heat level of “7” would be all that different from a “6.”

As similar as these menus may have been, they provided just the right introduction to this country’s food, and they paved the way for our Thai 2.0 revolution. These new players (including the small-but-mighty DE Thai downtown, and Chuchote Thai on west Sahara) are expanding our horizons, in nicer surroundings, and using better groceries to boot.

The first thing you’ll notice about Weera Thai Kitchen is the decor. Located in the spanking new Shanghai Plaza, it is quite the upgrade from its older sibling, Weera Thai on west Sahara. Cool, conical lamps descend from the open ceiling and illuminate a yet-to-open bar, while oversized flower murals dominate a brightly-lit room with well-spaced tables.

The eye-popping picture menu will next appear, and you’ll immediately wonder if everything tastes as good as it looks. It does. So much so, the only problem you’ll have is trying to reign in eyes growing bigger than your stomach with every luscious item. With the move to Chinatown, the Weera Thai clan (including the lovely Sasi, pictured above) is broadcasting its intent to compete with the big boys, and bask in the black belt foodie cred Spring Mountain Road now represents.

Image(Khao yum means yummy)

Every Thai meal starts with appetizers, but somewhat confusingly, these don’t appear until page four of the multi-paged menu. This is no doubt calculated, since the fish cakes, crab sticks and curry puffs are supporting players to the upscale’d street food — the real stars of the show.

Top billing on pages 1-2 is given such jaw-droppers as khao yum (above – blue-tinted butterfly pea rice with toasted coconut and all sorts of crunchy veggies), khoa kluk kapi (another rice dish given special pungency by fermented shrimp paste, and depth from chunks of pork belly, and giant river prawns (goong maenam pao (below) or goong pao cheese – with mozzarella cheese, which is apparently a thing in Thailand. Dipping sauces are to Thai cuisine what melted butter is to French, and these house-made beauties always seem to hit the right balance of tart to sweet to hot.

Image(Nuthin’ shrimpy ’bout these shrimp)

These river prawns (above) might be common in Bangkok, but they’re new to this part of the world. As big as small lobster tails, they are perfect as an appetizer for four, or a meal for two.

Before you get to them, a platter of ma haw or ma hor (literally: galloping horses, below) might catch your eye. These balls of caramelized minced pork are served up on pineapple slices and are best described as meat candy. They are very sweet, but somehow beckoning bite after each teeth-aching bite. If nothing else, the sweet meat sets up your palate for the barrage of penetrating flavors yet to come.

Image(Galloping horses? Or meat candy?)

If there’s one way WTK distinguishes itself from the original restaurant, it is with the emphasis on both things that swim and street food. Beautiful shrimp get wrapped in thin rice noodles and deep-fried in kung sarong, yum hi-so sees slightly slimy, raw blue crab get lit up with chili and lime. That crab and the tender spicy squid salad will give you all the heat you can handle. And then there is the garlic shrimp (below)  — so loaded with melted slices and crispy chips you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Allium heaven.

Image(Garlic, garlic, and more garlic)

One of the tamer dishes is ka pow gai-kai dao – four bowls containing minced basil chicken, rice, onion and peppers and a fried egg — all ready to mix into an amalgam of a one-dish meal, but we’d rather spend our time with their sai oua (“stuffed intestine”) northern Thai sour sausage, or the nam khao tod which is right up there with Lotus’s.

They also do a nice dry version of yen ta fo, here called yen ta fo hang, which is much more palatable in the Vegas heat than the same ingredients served up in a giant steaming bowl of tomato-laced broth, and you shouldn’t miss their definitive pad see ewe pong (below) — broad flat noodles, with really tasty shrimp, in yellow curry.

Image(Pad see ewe = pad see perfect)

You won’t find any fault with the pinkish pad kee mow with chicken, either, but the whole pompano lard prik — deep fried topped with sweet-hot chili sauce — is a bit challenging for those used to eating fish in neat little fillet form.

Image(Deep-fried pompano makes you work for the tasty bits)

The crowds have taken to WTK from day one: it’s been open for barely a month and tables are already a precious commodity at peak hours. It’s as if they (the Thonguthaisiri family and its loyal customers) recognized a pent-up demand for a good Thai restaurant on Spring Mountain Road — one bringing forth the in-your-face flavors of the Thai street with better ingredients in a stylish atmosphere. As soon as they get their full liquor license, and start featuring cocktails and wines to go with all of this incredible food, it might become as hot as gaeng tai pla.

Image(Lamaii at twilight)

Lamaii is playing a different game — one rooted in the Thai street food vernacular but also seeking broader food/wine credibility. Chef/owner Bank Atcharawan has picked up where Chada Street (his previous Thai-meets-wine venue) left off. In this case, by taking an ice cream parlor at the far end of a strip mall (Sparrow + Wolf anchors the other end) and creating magical space of comfy booths and upscale furnishings that are as far a cry from a Bangkok street as a Thai fishing boat is from a cabin cruiser.

While you wouldn’t call Lamaii luxurious, it certainly wins the Chinatown design award for those booths, subdued colors, lots of wood, muted lighting, and huge, drop-down lamps. (Thai people apparently have a thing for light fixtures the size of hot tubs.)

As pretty as the decor is, it is also noisy — like gymnasium noisy — at peak hours. They also turn the lights too low at night, which is a problem since the joint is only open for dinner. Grab a table early (preferably in summer) if you want a good view of your food. What you’ll find on your plate (either by touch or flashlight) will blow your socks off, sometimes literally.

Image(I’ll take Zind-Humbrecht for 125, Alex)

Before you get to the food, you’ll have to negotiate the beverage selections. Atcharawan is an old F&B pro (he previously managed Lotus of Siam), so his lists are full of saison ales, obscure stouts, and (by now obligatory) creative cocktails — none of which go as well with this food as a Kabinett Riesling or cru Beaujolais. (In the interest of fairness, we will concede that certain chilled, malted beverages — pilsners, session beers and such — match this food just as well.)

Regardless of your preferences, there’s no ignoring the wine list here. It is short, wrinkled, and superb. (see above) Prices run from the low $30s to the low 100s, and to a bottle, selections are priced at at least half of what you would pay on the Strip. The Gravner Breg (at $110) is less than I paid for the same bottle in Italy a year ago. There is a grand cru Chablis for $65….which has to be close to the wholesale price of this bottle to the restaurant. (Personally, I consider myself fortunate whenever I can score any Chablisienne grand cru for under a hundy, retail.)

In other words, this list is insane. A treasure trove of interesting bottles at ridiculous prices.

Image(Shrimp cakes with plum-blueberry sauce)

The only down side is, it’s a small restaurant with limited storage space, so what you want may not always be available, but if you’re a white wine lover (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you owe it to yourself to dive in. Like almost every wine professional in town already has.

Atcharawan’s cuisine is designed to match with these top-shelf wines, and much of his menu dials back the heat in favor of more wine-friendly fare. Pork jowl gets grilled, belly gets deep-fried, chicken is satay’d, and fluffy shrimp cakes the size of ping pong balls float on a plum-blueberry sauce — all of them designed to be enhanced by a steely Riesling or herbaceous sauv blanc.

Image(Kua gling is not for the Thai timid)

Loui  suan wraps ground pork in lettuce and rice paper, and is designed to showcase the Thai herbs, not incendiary heat. When the staff does ask you how hot you want something, as in the kua gling ground pork with southern curry paste (above), or gang pu (spicy crab curry noodles) be forewarned, then strap in and hang on.

Image(What’s mu pu with you?)

No one will ask you how spicy you want your mu pu (crab fat) fried rice, but the silky richness of rice shot through with crab tomalley doesn’t need a pepper kick. Neither does a grilled 12 oz. rib eye  (sua rong hai on the menu, below) that might be the best $24 steak in town. The pad Thai here comes festooned with huge crispy prawns, and the surprisingly fresh, non-muddy-tasting catfish comes dressed with just the right tart chili-lime-mango dressing.

Image(The best 24 buck steak in town)

Even the curries are toned down here, but are none the lesser for it. Gang rawaeng, described as an ancient turmeric curry, has the creamy depth to play off fork-tender chunks of braised beef, and that old reliable, panang curry gives new life to crackling slices of duck breast. Atcharawan has always done a tongue-searing steak tartare, and the one here is for brave souls only.

Everyone gets the honey toast for dessert here, but the mango sticky rice, fried bananas, and coconut ice cream are just as exemplary.

Lamaii isn’t a standard Thai restaurant, but it challenges all your preconceptions about Thai food. Weera Thai Kitchen is like a old friend who’s decided to shape up with a nicer wardrobe, upscale attitude, and fresh new ambitions after moving into new digs. Between them, they signal a quiet but significant change in the way Vegas now appreciates the food of this country. It is spicy and soul-warming, but it is also one of the world’s great cuisines. Las Vegas is finally starting to appreciate it as such.

Nothing on any of these menus is over $24, and most dishes are priced in the $10-$15 range, meaning: it’s hard for two people to spend more than $50-$70 on food. Lamaii offers half price portions of some of its noodle dishes. I’ve been comped once at Lamaii and a couple of times at WTK.

Get this (Weera Thai Kitchen): Yum hi-so – raw blue crab salad; Thai fried rice with shrimp paste; yen ta fo hang – “pink noodle dry version”; “Galloping Horses” – minced pork on pineapple; jumbo river prawns; khao yum – butterfly pea rice with vegetables; ka pow gai-kai dao – ground chicken stir-fry with basil and egg; sai oui sausage; kung sarong – noodle wrapped fried shrimp; beef salad; spicy squid salad; fish cake; papaya salad; garlic shrimp; pad see ewe.

Get this (Lamaii): Garlic green beans; loui suan – ground pork wrapped in rice/lettuce; shrimp cakes with blueberry sauce; steak tartare; moo ma now – grilled pork jowl; gang rawaeng – ancient curry with braised beef; panang duck curry; pla crispy beef; kua gling – ground pork with southern curry paste; sua rong hai – grilled rib eye steak; mu pu fried rice; pad Thai with shrimp; mango crispy catfish; honey toast; mango sticky rice.

WEERA THAI KITCHEN

4276 Spring Mountain Road #105-106

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.485.1688

LAMAII

4480 Spring Mountain Road #700

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.238.0567

The Ten Commandments of Chinatown

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1. Thou shalt not revolve thy sushi.*

2. Thou shalt not eat all-thy-can-eat anything.*

3. Thou shalt not bear false ramen/pho/noodle witness.*

4. Thou shalt not boba.*

5. Thou shalt not worship any other culinary gods before me.*

6. Thou shalt not take the name of Asian cuisines in vain.*

7. Honor thy father and mother, but do not trust their Korean steakhouse recommendations.*

8. Like all good Jews, honor thy Sabbath by eating Chinese.*

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s plate, nor his wife, nor his manservant unless they appear to be ordering better than you.*

10. Thou shalt not commit adultery…unless she is on really good terms with a great sushi chef.*

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* 1 – Revolving sushi restaurants have taken over Chinatown faster than the Japanese captured Singapore. They are “loads of fun for the whole family!” — in other words, exactly the opposite of what sushi is about. If you enjoy whooping it up while eating robotic, franchised fish off a conveyor belt, have at it. Sushi should be serious business. As eating any raw food should be.

* 2 – It’s simple economics, pilgrim. One price anything (AYCE, standardized sushi, Korean BBQ, etc.) is incentivized to provide you with the most food at the lowest cost to the restaurant. Translation: You’re getting the absolute bottom of the barrel of ingredients, artfully repackaged, to convince your gullible self that you’re getting something good, when you’re not. When you don’t pay by the piece (for a steak, salad or sashimi) you’re playing the restaurant’s game, not your own.

* 3 – Asian noodles are cheap eats, and starchy shops are propagating faster than lamian strands. Every strip mall in Chinatown now has at least a couple.  The new Shanghai Plaza (top of the page) is going to end up with, like, six of them. Most are adequate, some are terrible. (Think of them like street tacos, if street tacos came with a half-gallon of steaming broth.)

If you see a noodle shop that’s taken over a noodle shop that replaced another noodle shop, chances are you’re getting a pre-packaged product being sold by some Asian restaurant gypsy who’s buying everything in a box.

* 4 – Boba is a bad joke — high-fructose corn syrup candy slushes masquerading as “tea.” All of it comes in powdered form, and now has as much to do with real tea as a double soy caramel whipped latte has to do with Colombian coffee.

Whatever its origins, boba now serves as a pacifier for out-of-control kids and surly Taiwanese teenagers. A grownup drinking boba looks as ridiculous as an adult licking a ginormous pinwheel lollipop at a county fair. Yes, you should be ashamed of yourself.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

* 5 – No other gwailo, gaijin or gringo covers Chinatown like I do. No one else is even close. I wrote the very first article about it for Las Vegas Life magazine back in 1997 (below), and I’ve been going there weekly since 1995. (My office used to be at Desert Inn and Jones, on the cusp of Chinatown, so I used to lunch there almost daily.)

If you have a Chinese friend who knows the cuisine backwards, then by all means, trust them. If you’re a sushi hound who’s sampled the real deal from Tokyo to Manhattan, then go with your gut. But if you’re a novice looking for guidance, climb aboard! Better yet, buy this book. It won’t steer you wrong. If you trust your Asian eats to Eater, or Thrillist, I feel sorry for you. At least Yelpers actually eat at the places they discuss.

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* 6 – Asian cuisines are some of the most sophisticated in the world. Chinese technique is revered by even the French; Japan’s ingredients rival Italy’s for their exquisiteness. No food culture on earth can match Thailand for its combination of sweet, sour, spicy and savory flavors. What Korean food lacks in subtlety it makes up for in fermented deliciousness.

Anyone who thinks eating Asian is “slumming it” has rocks in their head…and driftwood for a palate. Tell that friend of yours who wants to “eat cheap” in Chinatown to shut the fuck up…or get thyself to a conveyor belt.

* 7 – A corollary to my AYCE rant is not to trust anyone who recommends any place that’s a “good deal.” There are a dozen Korean BBQ/steakhouses around town that are “good deals.”  Hot and Juicy Crawfish is a “good deal”…because it fills you up with farm-raised, shit-fed Frankenfish bred in the bubbling warmth of brackish, southeast Asian sewage ponds. Yummmm.

Asian food is like anything else: you get what you pay for. 8 Oz Korean Steakhouse and Hobak have the best meat, not the most cheap meat you can eat. The proliferation of one-price Asian restaurants (mainly Korean and sushi) stands as an insult to the food cultures that popularized them. If you want the “best deals” in Chinatown, go to Yelp…and be sure to keep checking for tapeworms.

* 8 – Jews figured this out around the time they were wandering in the Sinai Desert: Sunday is the best day for Chinese food. The food is just as good as Saturday night and the atmosphere always seems more relaxed.

The two places we like best are China Mama and New Asian BBQ, but Mian, and Shang Artisan Noodle are close behind. That old reliable Orchids Garden has also made a comeback and is great for dim sum.

* 9 – There are only two ways to become an expert in Asian food: go to Asia and pay attention, or eat it all the time and ask questions. (Getting answers to your questions is actually easier over here than it is over there.) Don’t be shy. Asians certainly aren’t. If you see a plate pass by and it looks interesting, ask your server what it is. If the server’s English is marginal, ask the person who sat you (they’re usually the most multi-lingual person on the staff).

The language barrier has fallen considerably since I started covering Chinatown in the 90s. Picture menus are also much more common, making ordering a breeze. Covet those plates you see passing by, I say! Ask your neighbors what they’re having. You’ll be in for a world of pleasant surprises.

* 10 – Asian food is not for the timid. As with adultery, there are risks involved, the most common being: you might discover something you actually like better than what you’re used to. There is a world of textures and tastes from Asia springing from a refinement of raw materials (rice, salt, wheat, soybeans, poultry, fish, etc.) that took place a millennia before Europeans discovered the plow. So take the plunge…because as with a passionate mistress, you might find you can’t stay away.

And if you’re lucky enough to find someone who can say omakase and mean it, please let your spouse down gently.

 

CHINA MAMA is Back, Baby!

CHINA MAMA has returned from the dead. If you’re wondering where it went, well, that’s a story as inscrutable as a Mandarin soothsayer.

Those of you who remember our burgeoning food scene of a decade ago may recall China Mama as the first progenitor of authentic Shanghainese dumplings — xiao long bao — those soup-filled pillows of ethereal porcine bliss.

In much the same way as Lotus of Siam was the first authentic Thai restaurant in Vegas, CM brought a taste of real China to our doorstep — things like sliced-fish with pickled mustard and dry-fried pepper chicken — cooking well beyond cornstarched glop of its Chinese-American predecessors.

And then there were those pastries and dumplings. Steamed or fried, or filled with pork or cucumber and shrimp, they were all the rage among intrepid foodies for a good five years.

Then something happened.

Chefs moved on (the siren song of the Strip claimed the first one), ownership changed (more than once), and the food started a slow, steady decline.

Of course, if you asked management if/why things were different, they would look at you with a straight face and say, “Everything same,” but you knew it wasn’t.

Things got so bad that we wrote the place off altogether about four years ago and vowed never to return.

Then, something happened.

A woman named Ivy Ma took the place over recently, closed it down, spruced it up, and decided to restore China Mama to its former glory. And restore it she has.

Taking a page from place like Din Tai Fung in SoCal, Ma  opened up the kitchen and placed it behind a giant glass wall that proudly advertises the fresh-made pastries that made this place famous in the first place.

Those dumplings may bring you the first time, but a menu full of fabulousness will have you returning time and again.

Like the old days, you should head straight to the “Pastry” section of the menu. There you’ll find the Steamed Juicy Pork Buns ($13, above) and Mama’s Special Pan Fried Pork Buns ($12) — as essential to a meal here as chopsticks and hot tea. From there you won’t want to miss either the green onion pancake ($8) or the “Beef Roll” ($13):

The potstickers ($10) are killer too, but be careful lest you reach gluten-overload and lose your ability to dive into a resuscitated menu that’s better than ever.

Ma has done wise by keeping many of CM’s greatest hits. Crispy duck ($22), Jumbo Shrimp in Special Sauce ($24), and Dry Pepper Chicken $16) hold forth with those pastries and hold their own. There are two sides to the menu, and the one with pictures on it is where gringos will want to go. It lists all of CM’s signature dishes, and even has pictures to entice the bold and assuage the timid.

Not pictured but still magnificent are items ranging from the simple (Cucumber Salad with Mashed Garlic $6) to the sublime (Awesome Meatball in Clay Pot $19). In between you have plenty of standard issue stuff that still manages to sing (Szechuan TanTan Noodle, $10, and Twice-Cooked Pork with Spicy Sauce, $13). Also highly recommended is the Sliced Fish in Hot Chili Sauce ($24) — a dish that will never be accused of false advertising — it being for serious chiliheads only.

All of these dishes are meant to be shared, and in keeping with Chinese tradition (at least as it was explained to me), the number of items ordered should roughly equate to the number of diners at table (2 people, 2 plates; 4 people, 4 things, etc.) although The Food Gal® and I usually honor this custom in the breach — it being almost impossible for two hungry gwailo to resist some form of dumpling, and at least two other plates.

Irresistibly, you will be drawn to  the don tot (Portuguese egg tarts, $5, above) for dessert. Resistance is futile so order them as soon as you sit down so you won’t have to wait while they’re freshly made. Order two orders or more. However many you get, it won’t be enough.

All of these things taste as good as China Mama used to taste, maybe even better (those tarts are definitely better)….and all of it making for some mighty tasty leftovers.

As for service, it’s been spot-on, top-notch, and on-it-like-a-bonnet for all three of our return visits. (And they had no idea I write about restaurants.) Whatever Ms. Ma has inculcated into her servers is obviously working, as they are bi-lingual, informed about the menu, and very attentive.

As for liquids, they bring you hot tea, but you have to ask for water.

Just like in China.

CHINA MAMA

3420 South Jones Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89146

http://www.chinamamavegas.com/