I just visited Lotus of Siam last week for the second time. I was disappointed, as I was the first visit. I probably could have added to one of the many existing threads, but I wondered if I might be able to start a little conversation in a new direction. But first, the food:
We had four dishes: Pork Jerky, Nam Kao Tod, Beef Liver Salad, Khao Soi.
The first three were let down. The pork jerky was just boring. The Nam Kao Tod, although it had nice flavors, seemed like it was executed poorly. Either the rice was deep-fried way way too long or there's something about it I just don't get, because the dish was very dry. Maybe the rice wasn't fried to order and was just sitting in a pan for the day. I had this dish (or something very very similar) in Thailand a number of times, and it was always done better, even when I was buying it out of a wheelbarrow and the rice had been fried hours beforehand. The rice was pressed into balls and then fried so that only the outside layer was crispy and the inside remained moist. The balls would be mashed in a bowl with the other ingredients on the order. A much more succesful preparation.
My thoughts about Beef Liver Salad were similar. Nicely seasoned, but the significant element was bungled: the liver, which was grilled, was almost entirely overcooked. It may, in fact, have been grilled previously and then reheated. So it was a sort of chewy thing. This could have been a winner had the liver been prepared nicely.
The Khao Soi was a definite winner. An awesome dish.
But the larger question I have is with the common declaration that this is the best Thai restaurant in America. (Here I note that perhaps the kitchen was having a truly uncharacteristic off day and some of my complaints aren't ultimately relevant). But in both of my visits I noticed a number of red flags that made me think "How could this possibly be the BEST Thai in America?"
I ate lunch. The first thing you see when you walk in is the buffet set-up. The buffet, which btw 75% of the customers were eating, looked horrible. Half of the dishes were basically repeats from a typical suburban Chinese buffet. Would any restaurant that has any actual claim to being the best at anything really have fried chicken sitting on a steam table? Would any self-respecting Thai cook really prepare a single batch of Pad Thai that could serve 20 people and just let it sit out for 30 minutes? It I tell you that you're about to visit the best Italian restaurant in America and your first sight upon walking in is a large pan of Bucatini alla Carbonara sitting under a heat lamp, aren't you going to get suspicious?
And then, the food I actually ate. The dry and rubbery liver. The rice krispy salad. Were these things really cooked to order? I'm not surprised that the Khao Soi was the best dish, because its broth is the only part of my meal that takes to re-heating well. If you went to a French restaurant and you saw that, despite the fact that 75% of its business was for a buffet and only about a dozen people in the whole place were ordering off the a la carte menu, there were 100 available dishes, don't you start to wonder how they pull that off?
I anticipate an objection. "Only idiots get the buffet," or, "you have to know how to order." But I think the crapiness I saw and experienced isn't just something isolated that smart people will be able to avoid. It is an honest reflection of the abilities and standards of the kitchen.
The Khao Soi I had was great. So if someone asks me about Lotus of Siam, I'll tell them that it's a largely shoddy restaurant with a handful of great dishes. But the red flags on display made it impossible for me to imagine that they would ever surpass that, let alone ever contend to the the "Best."
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