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My Lotus of Siam Disappointment

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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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  1. I think you may be being a bit unfair. I ate at LoS for the first time last weekend, and while i dont think it is far and away the best thai food ive ever had in the US, it was, on the whole, certainly right up there with some of the best - and im willing to spot them some extra points for having probably the most impressive range of choices on a single menu.

    to start with, i was, also, somewhat disappointed by our visit. Mostly to blame for this disappointment, i would say, was my inflated expecations based on the sheer volume of people singing LoS's praises. That and the fact that they were out of the smoked sheet fish that is available in a couple of the items on the northern menu. And maybe that i thought the portions were on the smaller side, but certainly acceptable.

    Those minor quibbles aside, there is no question LoS served some damn tasty food and you must have just managed to order pretty poorly. The Khao Soi was, as you pointed out, really really good, the Som Tam was great (and im super picky about my papaya salad). The Tom Yum was among the best ive had anywhere, and the shrimp that came in it were cooked perfectly (not like the rubber erasers some places serve). i was with a pretty big group, and we ordered around a dozen dishes, none of which really clanged - i will say the Larb Plah (it may actually be called something else on the LoS menu) wasnt as good as i've had at Thai House Express in the tenderloin in sf, but if it had it would probably go on my top three dishes of all time.

    I, too, thought the presence of the buffet was odd, but it was dinner and not being used. I can only imagine the lunch crowd must be looking for different things, but to answer your question as to how they can offer all those dishes, we had an early reservation and the place was packed with at least 10 people waiting the whole time while we ate. was your other mediocre experience at lunch? perhaps dinner is a better time to go, but from my one-time visit i certainly understand where the accolades come from.

    2 Replies
    1. re: tex.s.toast

      A simple search of posts here would reveal what you suspect: that the lunch buffet is NOT the way to go there. Yes, the people who go for lunch ARE looking for different things....you're not too far from the Convention Center, and a LOT of people work there, and there aren't many quick and relatively inexpensive places for lunch in that neighborhood......

      1. re: janetofreno

        "the lunch buffet is NOT the way to go there."

        Understood. That was immediately obvious.

        But the point is: would the "best _____" restaurant of any type really serve such lazy, bad food to so many customers? It seems incompatible.

    2. I had a similar experience back in December. I left feeling like: THIS is the best thai in the US? Although not horrible, nothing to write home about. The nam kao tod was indeed poorly executed and very uninteresting. I regret not having gotten the Khao Soi and I will consider returning just for that. Also, I think the portions are on the small side considering the prices but this wouldn't be an issue if the food was outstanding. Overall, a ho-hum experience for me as well.

      1 Reply
      1. re: hungryann

        Yes, agreed. I talked my Thai wife into a Vegas trip by telling her about this place. We ordered enough food to cover the table, and nothing impressed us much. It was fine, but nothing to go out of the way for. The bland Gaeng Keow Wan (Green Curry) was typical of what's served in any ordinary Thai restaurant in the US, nothing like the vibrant green curries of Thailand.

      2. totally agree, i have eaten there a few times(as a few friends love it) and every time i am left wondering, if this is the best in america, i sure dont want to eat at an average place. the first time i was there, at lunch, i could not believe the buffet that was set up(which was nice by panda express standards). some great dishes but overrated, as you stated.