Bangkok’s best in Burque
One of my favorite ways to eat fish is fried with Thai curry on top. It’s the best of two worlds—fried fish being a favorite dish of mine and Thai curry being another. The crispy coating provides a barrier between fragrantly rich sauce and soft flesh, and when that barrier is broken all heaven breaks loose.
As a restaurant critic, I’m not allowed to order things that aren’t on the menu or ask that dishes be modified. I can’t ask the server, “Well, I see you have fried fish, and I see you have curry, so can I have some fried fish with curry on top?” (A stare-down usually ensues, but trust me: I can hold my ground and get my fish).
At Siam Café, I’m happy to report, when you order curry fish, that fish comes fried and drenched in the tastiest curry I’ve yet sampled in Albuquerque.
The red curry, with yellow following close behind in competition, is intoxicatingly aromatic with a pile of lime leaves. The catfish is flaky and moist on the inside, with a crisp skin that stands its ground even when the fish is swimming in curry.
Siam Café is longer than it is wide, capping the street edge of a strip mall on San Mateo near Osuna. Booths are upholstered in green vinyl with gold accent buttons, and reddish faux bois tables are topped off with napkins folded into flowers. There are Thailand-themed prints and the obligatory picture of the king on the walls, unobtrusive and unmemorable background music, and low-hanging lamps that cast a soft glow. In the front waiting area, a counter is flanked by a few bar stools and plenty of reading material for folks waiting on takeout, and a case displays hair management devices, like headbands and scrunchies, which don’t appear to be for sale.
In general, the food at Siam walks a fine line between authenticity and catering to a non-Thai audience. The flavors and ingredients are true, but the levels are tweaked. This is perhaps most apparent in the green papaya salad. I’ll be the first to admit I can’t handle green papaya salad on the street in Bangkok, which contains enough nam pla (fish sauce) to drown a fish, levels of chile so torturous they exceed limits allowed by the Geneva Conventions, and sometimes mashed whole crabs—shell and all. There’s no shame in telling those guys to turn it down a notch. But if and when I return to Siam Café as a civilian, I will definitely ask for more heat. I thought it odd that I was never, in two visits, asked how hot I wanted something.
The crispy coating provides a barrier between fragrantly rich sauce and soft flesh, and when that barrier is broken all heaven breaks loose.
The green papaya salad was satisfying, but yum pak, a mixed vegetable salad, was more interesting. A large and diverse mixture of onion, snow peas, carrot, tomato, celery and two kinds of cabbage—plus a preponderance of herbs, mushrooms and sprouts—came dressed in fish-sauce-and-lime dressing. The recipe’s combination of flavors and textures was clearly developed by someone who respects vegetables.
Next to the curries, the soups are another highlight. The tom yum soup nailed a balance of hot and sour, and it was so thick with vegetables I found myself short on broth as I neared the end of my bowl. The tom ka kai, a coconut and chicken soup, was just as good. It had those same hot-and-sour elements but in a richer broth, with coconut milk tempered by tart lemongrass.
A selection of stir-fries was tasty, and there were plenty of veggie and sauce combinations to choose from—peas heavy on ginger in an earthy sauce, for example, or broccoli with a sweet hint of oyster sauce. Whenever carrots were in the mix, they appeared as coins cut into star shapes.
The dry-erase board near the register advertised a dessert of mango and sticky rice. Strangely, when we tried to order it we were told it wasn’t in season. But we did get sent home with some yummy almond cookies, free of charge.
• Fish curry, red or yellow
• Tom yum (sweet-and-sour soup)
• Tom ka kai (coconut chicken soup)
• Yum pak (mixed vegetable salad)
5500 San Mateo NE
Hours: Monday thorugh Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Price range: $6 (green papaya salad) to $11 (seafood curry)
Vibe: Cozy strip-mall gourmet
Credit cards: Yes