After several weeks of training at Renu Nakorn, giving my taste buds a hearty workout on dishes like koong char num plar, lin rong hai, and tom kreong nai, I was ready for the main event - Renu Nakorn vs. Lotus of Siam. Making one final visit to Renu Nakorn the night before the showdown to keep my tastebuds sharpened, and fasting the entire next morning and afternoon until my arrival in Las Vegas, I felt ready to take whatever Lotus of Siam would dish out at me. My heart beating faster but steadily as I approached the shining neon lights of Lotus of Siam, I opened the door and was greeted with a hearty roar - from my stomach. Let's get ready to rumble!
Looking over the menu I was quickly dealt two hearty blows: 1) while the menu was almost identical to Renu Nakorn's, there were no pages of Issan specialties like kang hoh or kang hung lay, and 2) the prices for every item were several dollars more. I felt slightly dizzy, but maintained my focus, determining which items I would devour. I went over my strategy with my "coach" (girlfriend) and reached an agreement on the best way to proceed - a combination of simple and more complex dishes, consisting primarily of Renu Nakorn's "signature" dishes.
I placed the order: larb koong (minced shrimp), sua rong hai (bbq beef with spicy sauce), kang renu nakorn (red curry), salmon in panang curry with cognac, sticky rice, and lime drink. I stared down the waiter as I ordered, using the best Thai pronunciations I could muster to let him know I was no lightweight and could "take it." The waiter asked how hot I wanted my larb koong on a scale of 1-10 - good sign. Normally I would have gone for 10 but my coach advised an 8. The dinner bell had rung, and now it was time to get to business.
Round one was the larb koong, but it wasn't larb koong - it was pla koong (shrimp salad). Normally I would have sent this back, but I was starving so I just went for it. The dish consisted of eight large butterflied shrimp on top of a bed of iceberg lettuce mixed with slivers of red onion, cilantro, sliced chunks of Thai red pepper, curls of fresh lemongrass, celery and carrot topped with a brown (?) colored sauce. This wasn't exactly the clear lime- and fish sauce-based dressing flecked with bits of chilis I was accustomed to. And I wouldn't rate the heat anywhere near an 8 (it was more like a 3 or 4). The presence of celery and carrot didn't rate too high on the authenticity scale for me and seemed like a "round eye" concession. The salad was good, but a distant third in comparison to the versions I've had a Renu Nakorn and Thai Nakorn. Judges decision: Renu Nakorn.
After a rather lengthy "break," a trio of hits and blows were delivered: sua rong hai, kang renu nakorn, and salmon panang. Round two: the sua rong hai. This was quite a large portion of beef - larger than the portion at Renu Nakorn - so the extra two dollars in the price was somewhat justified. The beef itself tasted similar, apparently featuring the same marinade. However, the cut of beef was not quite as lean or tender as what I've consistently had at Renu Nakorn - there were large chunks of fat and a few gristly pieces. The real letdown was the sauce, which is crucial for sua rong hai. Whereas Renu Nakorn's is a heady and hot blend of chilis, spices, lime juice and who knows what else, Lotus of Siam's tasted like watered-down Worcestershire sauce. Judges decision: Renu Nakorn
Next up, Kang Renu Nakorn (with chicken, other option being catfish). The red curry sauce in this was more watery than what I've had at RN, and the dish was lacking the "indigenous" vegetables like round Thai eggplant. It was good, but a pale imitation of what I've had recently at RN. Judges decision: Renu Nakorn.
Fourth round, the salmon panang. This dish looked gorgeous: a big, generous slab of salmon with a nice criss-cross grill pattern decorated with a zig-zag of white-colored cognac reduction sauce. The fish sat in a pool or orange-brown panang sauce with red and green bell pepper slices providing colorful contrast. The salmon was cooked medium rare and tasted very fresh - none of the fishiness I've sometimes encountered at Renu Nakorn. We heartily devoured this dish, soaking up every drop of the sauce with balls of sticky rice. While this dish cost $14.95 (it's $10.95 at Renu Nakorn), it was worth it. This tasted and looked like the kind of dish you'd pay $20 to $25 in a more upscale restaurant. Renu Nakorn's version seemed amateurish in comparison. Judges decision: Lotus of Siam.
A couple other notes: while I specified sticky rice, we were brought only one single-serving basket along with a big bowl of steamed rice (which I didn't request, but also wasn't charged for). The lime drink was excellent and a perfect complement to the food - I don't recall seeing this on the menu at Renu Nakorn. The portions at Lotus of Siam are very large and generous. Whereas my girlfriend and I can easily finish four dishes at Renu Nakorn, we had a good amount of sua rong hai and Kang Renu Nakorn left over (sorry Russ, no room for coconut ice cream). Our total bill was just over $50, whereas at Renu Nakorn it would be about $35.
The final decision: Renu Nakorn. Like Spago Las Vegas is to Spago Beverly Hills; like the Paris hotel is to Paris, France; Lotus of Siam seems to be a shallow facsimilie of Renu Nakorn. Perhaps you could blame it on the difficulty of getting the proper ingredients in Las Vegas. The departure of Bill and Saipin Chutima to Las Vegas apparently hasn't affected Renu Nakorn in the least (either that or maybe one of the cooks they hired here in Cali was the secret to their success). The Thai and Issan food at Lotus of Siam is excellent by Las Vegas standards, and I'd still recommend it you if want good food near the strip. But by Los Angeles standards, Lotus of Siam falls beneath the examples of excellence for Issan dishes set by both Renu Nakorn and Thai Nakorn.