I've grown accustomed to ignoring people's restaurant recommendations. So many times, I've visited a place recommended with great enthusiasm by an acquaintance, had a meal that was, well, all right, and gone home vaguely satisfied, but also content never to visit that particular place again.
So when a great clatter arose on Chowhound about a Thai place in Las Vegas called Lotus of Siam, I didn't give it much weight. I mean, Seattle has some very good Thai restaurants, really good by North American standards, which means you get a delicious meal and walk away happy. Many other cities in the country have fairly weak Thai restaurants. In no case has any meal at any Thai restaurant in North America come near reminding me of the incredible (and incredibly spicy) meals I ate during my foodquest to Bangkok.
There didn't seem to be much reason to get worked up about this Lotus of Siam thing. I figured that some Thai-deprived travelers had stumbled on a much-better-than-average Thai place in Las Vegas, and reported back. Ho hum. That accounts for the fact that it took me until the last evening of a weeklong trip to Las Vegas to visit Lotus of Siam, and I almost didn't go.
Warning: Wine Geekery ahead.
I walked into this unpromising-looking place in a mini-mall called, no kidding, "Commercial Center," was greeted with courtesy, and sat down to look at the menu. Whoa. Tripe soup? Sour Issan sausage? Oh, this looks good.
I was nicely on track for a very nice food surprise. Now, before I tell you my next thought, I need to give you some background, so you won't think I'm a wine snot. James Bond notwithstanding, I don't figure that knowing about wine makes you a superior human being, or a Renaissance man, or anything other than an obsessed hobbyist. Keep that in mind when reading about the thought I had next, which was: oh, how cute, they have a wine list. Patronizing? Maybe, but while I yield to none in my respect and regard for Asian food (specifically Chinese, Thai, and Japanese, with a nod to Vietnamese), I have yet to encounter a remotely interesting wine list in an Asian restaurant in North America (no, I haven't been to Slanted Door). On the rare occasions that there is a wine list at all, most of the wines on it don't even go with the food being served, and show signs of having been suggested by a distributor with unpopular inventory to unload. So I looked at the list, and saw what I expected to see -- a short list of mainstream California wines that would go better with surf 'n' turf than with anything on the menu.
Then I glanced left, to the inside leaf. My jaw dropped, literally, and stayed that way for a couple of minutes. A stunning list of Germans. Robert Weil QbA. von Buhl Forster Kirchenstueck?? Gunderloch Nachenheim Rothenberg Spaetlese and Auslese?? Reinhold Haart Kabinett?? Franz Kuenstler Gold-freaking-Kap Auslese? Just what was going on here?
Shaking my head, I turned my attention to the grub. I decided to order up a few appetizers and a soup, too much food, but a great chance to try several things. Issan sour sausage with crisp rice. Chicken wings stir-fried in chili sauce. Beef intestines soup (actually, it was mostly tripe). And their special beef jerky. Oh, yes, and a nice bottle of Gunderloch Spaetlese with that.
Bottom line: this was the best Thai food I've had since Bangkok, by a considerable margin. The Issan sour sausage was mixed in with tons of crunchy crisp rice, and plenty of seasoning (scallions, shallots, chilis). Now this was real Thai food -- using so much fresh seasoning that it threatened to dominate the dish by weight, lively in texture, astonishingly explosive in the mouth and full of flavor. The soup was heavily flavored by a heavenly lemongrass-chili-sour citrus tang, with a rich deep broth and perfectly textured innards, neither flaccid nor chewy. The chicken wings were loaded with flavor, crunchy yet moist. The beef jerky was very chewy, yet never hard, with plenty of flavor to last the full length of time that I was chewing it. It was served with a truly transcendental sauce, made, I'm told, from several kinds of chilis, pounded with shallots and a few other things. Wow. I'd forgotten just how good real Thai food can be. And with a German wine that perfectly complemented the food to accompany it, I was in heaven.
Service was excellent, and a Thai gentleman who stopped by my table to ask things like what my favorite dishes were, seemed to be the one responsible for the incredible list of German wines. For one thing, he mentioned the wine, correctly pronouncing Gunderloch. We got to talking. His name is Bill, and he's a for-real wine geek, albeit one whose knowledge is heavily German-centered at present. He nurtures a collection of rarities in the back, and seemed to relish the opportunity to talk wine as much as I did. It turns out that he has met Fritz Hasselbach and other German wine luminaries, and has carefully chosen the things on his list after lots of tasting. He was kind enough to share something I'd never seen before -- never even knew existed - a '98 Pfeffingen Scheurebe Eiswein Gold Kap. It was superb, the best Scheurebe I've ever tasted by far, easily surpassing my previous favorite, the '96 Pfeffingen TBA. The Eiswein acidity banished all of Scheurebe's heaviness and ponderousness, while preserving and extending the wine's incredible concentration. The finish seemed to linger on my entire inner mouth and lips.
It was great fun talking wine with Bill, and if you're a wine geek, don't pass up the opportunity. But even if you think wine is just grape juice with an attitude, do not fail to visit Lotus of Siam for some truly incredible, Bangkok-quality Thai food, that is, as far as I know, unobtainable in the U.S.
This is now a mandatory stop on future trips to Las Vegas. Next time, I'm bringing something special from the German section of my cellar to share with Bill.