Siam Garden Cafe is full of surprises


POSTED: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's another sign of the slow times that I've recently attempted to go to three restaurants that have closed at least a half hour before their posted hours. It's frustrating for diners who confirm the time in advance, only to get to the restaurant, find parking and learn they were already too late when they left home.




Siam Garden Cafe


        1130 N. Nimitz Highway » 523-9338

Food: ;*;*;*1/2


Service: ;*;*;*1/2


Ambience: ;*;*;*1/2


Value: ;*;*;*1/2


Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday, and 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday. Cost: Dinner for two about $30 to $35 without drinks


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.


It's just as frustrating for small-scale restaurateurs to keep their barely patronized dining rooms open on the slight chance that one more person may walk through the doors.

Because so many smaller restaurants close by about 8:30 or 9 p.m., I was anxious to get to Siam Garden Cafe by about 7:30 p.m. one night. I needn't have worried. The room was packed, and I learned the restaurant keeps late-night hours daily, until midnight Mondays and to 2 a.m. on other nights. In these times, that's good news for us and them. A full bar is no doubt one of the major attractions, featuring Singha, Chang and Tiger beer.

Most of us have a short list of standard Thai dishes that we compare to every other Thai restaurant in town. Those stock dishes tend to be the spring rolls ($6.99), a favorite curry ($8.99 to $11.99) and the pad Thai ($8.99, or $11.99 with shrimp or seafood). Those had to wait, though. This time I was immediately drawn to the Floating Market Noodles ($8.99) which might appear as Thai noodle soup, glass-noodle soup or Thai-style pho on other menus. I haven't seen any that look like this one, with a stewed pork broth darkened by a touch of soy and cinnamon. The description of the dish—conjuring visuals of this traditional dish, “;served from boats in Thailand's floating markets and canals”;—convinced me to order it.

The soup is similar to Vietnamese pho, made with flat cellophane noodles. You're given a platter of bean sprouts, basil and lime to add to the steaming broth. The thin beef in the dish was melt-in-your-mouth tender, although they could have done a better job trimming the fat from some pieces.

I tried not to be overly enthusiastic about the fried fish patties ($7.99). High expectations can lead to such a letdown. Too often they turn out soggy and spongy. Not this time. These were as buoyant as they should be with a crisp exterior when eaten at their hottest. The only time I've had fishcake this fresh is making it from scratch at my mother's side, starting with scraping the fish meat from its bones.

AT TWO FOR two, I was more open to trying some different dishes, such as a roasted eggplant salad ($8.99) with a strong smoky flavor. The eggplant is separated from the skin and tossed with ground pork, shrimp, onion, cilantro, lime and varying amounts of pepper, depending on how much heat you can take. If you are a fire eater, you're presented with an array of condiments, such as Thai red chili sauce, Thai chilies in soy sauce and Thai chilies in vinegar to add to taste.

Even the Thai tea here tastes stronger than at other restaurants. The orange color of the powdered green tea comes from a blend of yellow food coloring and spices that give it the perfume of incense.

Curries tend to be soupy, and the wok stir-fries also registered as saucy sautes. I prefer drier stir-fries just because sauces usually tend to drown the essence of ingredients, but it you like Chinese-style gravies, then entrees such as a garlic stir fry of vegetables and your choice of chicken, beef or pork ($8.99) or shrimp or seafood ($11.99) may be to your liking, as well as a cashew stir fry ($9.99/ $11.99 with meat or seafood, respectively).

There are several fish dishes on the menu as well, which you can have fried or steamed and topped with a choice of garlic, bean, chili or sweet-sour sauces. You can get a fish whole, at market price, or as non-fuss fillets ($10.99). If you fail to specify, you'll get the fillets.

Overall, I enjoyed the appetizers, salads, soups and noodle dishes more than the entree courses, but there is plenty to like about this menu. If I had known about the treasures hidden behind the restaurant's unassuming facade, I would have dropped in sooner.

Nadine Kam's restaurant review appears every Wednesday in the Star-Bulletin. Restaurants are reviewed anonymously. Meals are paid by the Star-Bulletin.