Fit To Be Thai’d: Where to Go While LOTUS OF SIAM Repairs Itself

The hole in Lotus of Siam’s roof (see previous post), left a substantial hole in our Thai food scene for tourists and locals alike. We have spent the week fielding inquiries about where to go in place of our most iconic Asian restaurant, so, as a public service, our staff thought a quick round-up of the best Thai places in town was called for for those needing their pad ped moo or ka nom jean nam ya pla fix.

None of these can compete with Lotus’ national and international reputation. None have won a James Beard award or boast a world-class white wine list. But all of them deliver the goods — real Thai cooking without lines out the door at lunch or dinner, or a steady stream of cabs dropping off handfuls of tourists every five minutes during dinner hours. (Face it: there’s no substitute for being lauded in the L.A. Times, New York Times, and various national food publications and TV shows. Because of this publicity (most of it pre-social media, btw), LOS has a world-wide reputation that no place in Vegas can rival.

A few caveats. Although there are Thai restaurants all over this valley, most of them serve the sort of gloppy-sweet, dumbed-down Thai food that appeals to American tastes. They are as far from the real deal as Bud Lite is from a Belgian ale. We’ve tried them all over the years  — Prommares, King of Siam, Kung Fu, Thai Spice, Archie’s, Pin Kaow, just to name a few — and all are perfectly fine, in the same way a by-the-numbers Chinese restaurant satisfies the tastes of the sweet and sour pork crowd.

Those were the restaurants that sustained us through the first years of our Thai food cravings, but when Lotus opened nineteen years ago (more specifically, when the Chutima family took over LOS on Nov.1, 1999), we got our first taste of the strong, savory, funky-sour, salty-hot food of northern Thailand, and from that point on there was no looking back.

Even Lotus serves up gringo-friendly versions of certain Thai dishes, but it became popular by not bending its menu to the whims of its American customers, and staying true to authentic recipes. (Would that more restaurants would do so, instead of acting like scared rabbits whenever a customer complains about something.) These days, when we look for Thai food, we want strong, no-holds-barred street food, or the kind of country cooking (Isaan or northern Thai – they’re not the same thing) that brooks no compromise with American tastes.

Be forewarned, however, that in most of the places we recommend, you may have to politely protest to the staff when they try to talk you out of some of their specialties. But be firm and they’ll relent. Thai people are some of the friendliest on earth, and I’ve never had bad service in a Thai restaurant. If you don’t like it, eat it anyway; you might learn something. There are some Laotian salads at Weera Thai that leave me cold (and pushing ingredients around on the plate), but they’re a great window into a cuisine I barely know and am fascinated to discover. Plus, nothing is ever that expensive in these places (dishes in Thai restaurant rarely exceed $15-$20), so experimentation won’t break the bank. More timid sorts (of palate or wallet) should stick with the drunken noodles at Arawan Thai Bistro.

OUR BEST THAI RESTAURANTS (AFTER LOTUS OF SIAM):

Ocha Thai – Family run since 1989. The food is still cooked by a couple of ladies who together don’t weigh a hundred pounds. This is the perfect place to try traditional Thai dishes made in a less sweet, more authentic style.

Don’t miss: Dadd deaw (pork jerky), todd munn (fish cakes), E-sarn sausages, kra pow (mint chili chicken), poh tak (spicy seafood soup), warm bamboo shoot salad (the very definition of “acquired taste’), pad ped moo pa (wild hog with hot sauce).

Chada Thai – “Elevated Thai food” hits the nail on the head, with a killer wine list to match. Both here and at Chada Street give you the best window (and taste) of dishes you will only find in Thailand.

Don’t miss: oysters, kua kling (ground pork with house curry paste), pou nim pad prik thai (stir-fried soft-shell crab), sea bass tod krueng (glazed with chili paste), pla nua tod (crispy beef tossed with rice powder).

Chada Street – Like the name says, more casual than its older sibling down the street. Bring a crowd, point and pick and dive in. Just make sure you have lots of champagne, Riesling or beer on hand to wash it all down. As close to eating on a street in Phuket as you can get. 

Don’t miss: Northern Thai sausage, red pork and pineapple curry, crab fat fried rice, grilled prawns.

Weera Thai – The second Thai restaurant in town to boldly proclaim its northern Thai/Issan roots. More than a few Laotian dishes on the huge menu as well, but we always find ourselves returning for the roast duck curry.

Don’t miss: Roast duck curry, papaya salad Issan-style, tom zap (pork rib soup), spicy squid salad.

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Dessert – Our newest entrant in the “Thai One On” sweepstakes is only a few miles west of Lotus on west Sahara Avenue, and a block and a half west of Weera Thai on the same street. It’s spanking new, clean and comfortable, and boasts all of the usual Thai dishes on the menu. But look a little farther down and you’ll see what you came for: six southern Thai dishes that will light you up like no one’s business. They’ll tone things down for more timid palates, but this is the place to come to see how true Thais taste their incendiary food.

Don’t miss: Seafood cakes (pictured at top of page), pork jerky, potato and chicken stuffed samosa, crunchy tofu, pad ped moo (stir-fried minced pork), khua king (spicy ground pork), kang sam salmon curry with Thai omelette, ka nom jean nam ya pla (house made curry with fish balls) – so hot it should come with a disclaimer and a release.

 

The Roof Caves In (literally) at LOTUS OF SIAM

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LOTUS OF SIAM TO REMAIN CLOSED FOR MONTHS

A botched roof repair job, a negligent landlord, and a fairly typical late summer rain provided the perfect storm for a major roof collapse at Lotus of Siam last Friday night. Because of it, Las Vegas’s most venerable (and internationally famous) Thai restaurant will remain shuttered for a least the next three months.

When reached for comment, Penny Chutima, the general manager of Lotus, said that the landlord, Mark Kaufman, had begun repairs weeks before the fateful rainstorm, but that the roofing contractors were unlicensed, uncoordinated and unfit for the job. “They never coordinated with each other or the businesses in the (Commercial) Center about what they were doing,” Chutima said. “They tore up entire sections of the roof, leaving bare wood and the structure exposed. When I asked about it (because rain was in the forecast), they only tarped my hood ventilation system. “

Chutima then posted on Facebook: “I was forced to go up onto the roof to try to sweep the water away to protect my customers, but it wasn’t enough.”

According to Chutima, she became concerned about the pending rainstorms last week, but got no response from Kaufman, right up until the time “I (had) a legit waterfall in my restaurant.”

With severe damage to both the dining room and kitchen, the operation won’t be back on line “…at least for a few months,” says Chutima. Until then, she anticipates continuing issues with her landlord, but the business has taken steps to repair the roof and water damage itself, rather than continuing to fight with Kaufman about things that should’ve been repaired months ago.

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Interestingly, Chutima’s and Lotus’s Facebook pages were filled with loyal customers and fans expressing sympathy, but also more than a few comments decrying the location of the restaurant as a “dump,” and “borderline dangerous,” with entreaties to the Chutima family to find a new location for their iconic restaurant.

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The Chutima family (which won a James Beard award in 2011) expressed loyalty to both their employees and the neighborhood: “We’ve been here since November 1, 1999,” said Chutima. “I support this neighborhood because there are many working families who want a job than can get…a house (and) most of them live on this side of town.”

In the meantime, Chutima, her chef mother Saipin, and her wine-collecting dad Bill, are looking for a temporary location to continue serving what many believe is the best Thai food in America alongside one of the great wine lists of the world.

 

CHADA THAI or CHADA STREET? Both!

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One has a big sign, announcing its presence in a large, almost all-Asian strip mall, directly on Spring Mountain Road. It is located just a mile west of the Strip.

The other is tucked into a small, all-Asian strip mall, a couple of miles further west.

One you can’t miss; the other you can miss standing right in front of it.

Both are relatively small — with one having a bigger feel to it, thanks to some overstuffed furniture and a long bar. Neither is open for lunch, which is a tragedy.

Chada Thai is darker; Chada Street is more brightly lit and feels more casual.

Large groups will do better at Chada Street; first dates will be impressed by Chada Thai.

Oenophiles will be impressed by both of them.

The service at both is excellent.

The wine list at Thai is shorter than the one at Street; the champagne list at Street is awesome; the markups at both are so mild you’ll wonder why you ever bother to drink wine (especially white wine) anywhere else in Vegas.

If I had to distinguish the food between them, I’d tell you that Street aims for rougher, urban, spicier fare — befitting its “Thai street food” moniker — while big brother Thai skews towards more traditional regional dishes, albeit with much nicer presentations, and in a more sophisticated setting than your usual neighborhood joint.

Look for dishes labeled “medium spicy” at both if you want to enjoy what you’re eating. “Medium spicy” enables you to enjoy both the food and those delicious white wines that compliment it. Anyone who doesn’t like the electric jolt of Thai chilies should book elsewhere. Anyone who asks for anything “Bangkok hot” has rocks in their head. (In this regard, the menu has a helpful chili pepper legend beside the hot dishes — dispensing with the old “pick a 1-10 level of spiciness” nonsense. Stick with 1-2 chili pepper symbols for the tastiest dishes….unless you’re a complete hothead, or a masochist.)

As for the food at both: it is flat out wonderful. At Thai, Bon Atcharawan (who recently took over from big brother Bank)  is as adept with crispy deep-fried oysters and larb, as he is with sea bass.

(Steamed sea bass with special plum sauce at Chada Thai)

They have tilapia on the menu in various guises, but the sea bass is the swimmer to get. Just as essential on this menu are the miang pou (crab-stuffed lettuce wraps), almost raw rib eye steak (yum nua) marinating in chili-lime dressing, green papaya salad (som thum), the house-made beef jerky (nua dad diew), and the rice powder-dusted crispy beef (pla nua tod):

…it being a study in crunchy/spicy/beefiness.

The thing about this food is that it never gets boring. You can have the same dish multiple times and be intrigued by the spices one time, or the balance between sweet and heat another. Or maybe it will be the fine interplay of proteins, textures and herbs that catches your attention. In no way do I profess to be an expert in Thai cuisine, but it doesn’t take a native to notice how these recipes have been honed over a millennia to orchestrate a controlled riot of flavors in the mouth. (Mediocre Thai restaurants always overplay the gloppy sweet-meets-heat paradigm, and miss the herbaceous, sour-bitter subtlety that characterizes a finer hand in the kitchen.)

From top to bottom, the kitchen at Chada Thai seems to ace dish after dish effortlessly. A small but mightier restaurant you will not find in Las Vegas.

http://www.epicurious.com/images/articlesguides/diningtravel/restaurants/las-vegas-hot-spot_612.jpg(Crispy chicken and larb at Chada Thai)

Chada Street, in its own way, is just as good.

Plating is not as refined (they use a lot of banana leaves here), and there’s a certain rustic simplicity to the recipes (lots of grilled and skewered items), but the food is no less tasty and the experience no less satisfying. Chili heads should plunge right into the goong share nam pla (raw shrimp bathed in incendiary spice);

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…and purists won’t want to miss the straight-from-the-Bangkok-streets calamari with salted duck egg (pla muk pad kaikem):

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…the sort of dishes that intrepid foodies dive right into when they’re deciphering the foodstuffs of an Asian capital.

Such is the menu at Chada Street: less refined, gutsier, and aimed more at the culinary adventurer in you. You can play it safe here with things like the crab fat fried rice (kao pad mun pu), or the crispy pork hock (ka moo tod), or the gorgeous shrimp pad thai.

For our money, though, it’s more fun to tuck into some koi nua (raw, diced, chili-dusted beef), and watch the sweat form on our foreheads.

No matter what your savory compulsions, you won’t want to miss the Thai toast at either location:

…it being the perfect shared dessert for a group of adventuresome foodies who need to quell the heat.

No matter how you slice your vertical bread, what Bon Atcharawan and Aime Wanmaneesiri are doing at these two restaurants is phenomenal. Having these two Thai siblings in town is one of the coolest things about eating (and drinking) in Las Vegas.

CHADA THAI & WINE

3400 S. Jones Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.641.1345

http://chadavegas.com/

CHADA STREET

3839 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.579.0207

http://chadastreet.com/