Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thai Times Three

The biggest hurdle with recapping our 2014 Vegas trip is that we haven't really made any progress (yet) with writing about our 2012 Vegas trip. That doesn't sound like it should be a problem, but we visited some of the same places (like Thai superstar Lotus of Siam) on both trips. It's a little difficult to write about our second visit when we never discussed the first. Complicating that matter even further in this case is that in 2014, we also visited Chada Thai & Wine for dinner. Some of the folks from Chada used to be at Lotus, and we got some dishes at Chada that we had previously gotten at Lotus, and it's tough to compare if we never talked about Lotus in the first place.

So what's the solution? What seemed to make the most sense was to go back a little bit, tell you about our very first visit to Lotus of Siam back in 2012, and then jump back to our 2014 recaps and talk about our visits to Chada for dinner and Lotus for lunch the very next day. Just didn't really make sense to break up all the posts at this point. It's confusing enough as it is. So without further ado, first up, our very first visit to Lotus of Siam!

Lotus of Siam, Part I

On our 2012 trip to Vegas, we stayed at the MGM Grand on the Strip. Although we mostly stuck to restaurants we could walk to, we definitely wanted to check out Lotus of Siam since it was considered one of the best Thai restaurants in the country. We called up for a reservation, knowing how busy they get, and even though it was last minute, we were lucky enough to get one. On the night we went up for dinner, we encountered a super long taxi line at the hotel which caused a bit of stress (we were there during both the rodeo and a Pacquiao fight), but we were lucky and got there just in time.

Once we got there, we were confronted with a gigantic menu. There were so many things that sounded good, but we had done some research in advance and were able to narrow our choices down to 4. One thing on our list that Lotus of Siam was famous for was the nam kao tod, described on the menu as a salad of crispy rice mixed with minced sour pork sausage, green onion (although from the pictures and our memories, it also seems like there was red onion), fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, and lime juice. We liked this a lot, and it ended up on my favorites list for 2012 because it was just so different from anything we had had before and incredibly delicious. I mentioned back then that when I heard rice salad, the first thing I thought of was Jitlada's khao yam, but while this wasn't that, it was still really good. That combination of flavors, full of sour and spice, was just so good.

One thing that wasn't on our researched list, but which sounded interesting on the menu, was kang ka noon (spicy young jackfruit curry). This was a Northern style curry dish and it sounded so different from the Thai curries we had had before, so we wanted to try it. This spicy curry was full of young jackfruit, spices, and catfish (the other choices were pork and chicken). I had never really had much, if any, jackfruit before, and I was curious to see if I would like it. A had eaten it before, just not in curry. They described the texture of the jackfruit on the menu as similar to artichoke hearts, but if I remember correctly, they seemed a little firmer than that. I also don't remember for sure but I think the fish pieces in the curry had bones in them, which made it a little harder to eat (for me). Although this wasn't bad, it was definitely our least favorite dish of the night because everything else was so good.

Another dish we had heard Lotus did well was nam prik ong, a red chili dip. This was a Northern Thai dip that combined ground pork, tomato, and dried spices, and tasted to us like a Thai version of bolognese. The flavors were remarkably similar to spaghetti sauce, and it was utterly bizarre (in a good way) for us to be eating that as a dip with raw vegetables and sticky rice. The small bowl of dip came with raw carrots, green beans, cauliflower, cucumber, and lettuce, as well as some pork rinds, making it very light and healthy overall. This dip made A's favorites list for 2014 when we got it for the second time and it was a strong contender for both of us back in 2012 (but 2012 had all that competition from Barcelona).

The last entree we got for our Thai dinner feast at Lotus was sea bass on drunken noodle which we had heard a lot about. This was deep fried sea bass topped with homemade fresh chili and Thai basil served on top of pan-fried rice noodle. As A put it in his favorites list for 2012, it was like the best drunken noodle we had ever had, multiplied in greatness by 10, with some perfectly fried, lightly battered, flaky sea bass on top. It was really, really good, and at the time, we weren't sure how we'd go back to "regular" drunken noodle at home. (Clearly we managed, as we have had much pad kee mao in the past few years, but we do still think about this dish.) We haven't really found anywhere in New York that makes drunken noodle this way (although there are still many Thai places we have yet to try), and we wish they would. It's such a great combination.

We were so incredibly happy with our dinner at Lotus of Siam, and we decided to cap off the night with some sticky rice with mango for dessert. This was sticky rice marinated in coconut cream topped with toasted mung bean (according to the menu, even though we always just thought they were sesame seeds) served with fresh mango slices. This is a dessert we have gotten plenty of times at home, and probably our favorite Thai dessert, so it was the perfect end to a good meal.

Chada Thai & Wine

When we returned to Vegas in 2014 for another long weekend trip, we knew we wanted to return to Lotus of Siam since our first dinner there was so good. We didn't want to deal with the hassle of making a reservation so we figured we would just go for an early lunch. Instead, we planned to grab our Thai dinner at Chada Thai and Wine, a spot that some Lotus alums had opened in late 2012, and which had become very popular and garnered lots of raves during the period between our Vegas visits. (There's now a sister restaurant to Chada called Chada Street that we've bookmarked because it sounds fantastic.)

While there were some similarities between the menus at Chada and Lotus, there were also so many unique things that we had never tried before and we were so excited to explore. One of these was called miang pou, which was a lettuce wrap with crab meat, ginger, roasted coconut, peanut, chili, lime, onion and sweet tamarind sauce. We love lettuce wrap in all forms (and we make it at home), but we had never had lettuce wrap with these ingredients before. It was a little bit spicy from the small piece of bird's eye chili in each cup, but otherwise it wasn't really spicy. All the ingredients, all the flavors, and that slightly sweet sauce all worked so well when combined, and the sauce helped bring it all together. The crab tasted so fresh and sweet, and the overall flavors of the lettuce wrap were so clean.

Without a doubt, our favorite thing at Chada that night was the spicy herbs spring roll, a soft rice paper wrapper lined with lettuce leaves and filled with ground pork, ginger, onion, lemongrass, wild cilantro, mint, kaffir lime leaf, and basil vinaigrette. This was so good that it made both A's favorites list and my favorites list for 2014. While many of the dishes from these 3 Thai meals were in contention for our favorites lists during both years, this was the only one that actually made both of our lists, which should tell you something about how good it was.

This spring roll was the best thing we had eaten on our trip by that point. Unlike a lot of summer rolls, the filling inside was warm. The flavors were floral and herbal and refreshing and bright. The flavor seemed so familiar, even though we had never really had anything quite like it, but we still haven't been able to figure out why or what dish it reminded us of.  It was somehow simultaneously delicate and intense, light and fresh and comforting. This was just really, really good, and every ingredient worked perfectly together.

By now, you probably know that larb is one of our favorite Thai dishes to eat. This version was ground pork (the options were ground pork, salmon, or king trumpet mushrooms) with rice powder, onion, mint, fish sauce, lime juice, and chili powder, and sides of cucumber and lettuce wedges. We had ordered everything medium spicy that night, and this was definitely the spiciest thing we got at dinner. It was a really tasty version of larb with a sauce that was a little thicker and more fragrant than a lot of other places. We were very happy with this.

Next up was sen mee kang pou, a homemade crab curry served with thin rice noodles. When the dish arrived, the little bundles of rice noodles reminded us of Sri Lankan string hoppers, and they were topped with fried garlic. The crab curry itself was quite good. There was a lot of crab in it, and the crab was so sweet inside the fresh and creamy curry. We had never had crab curry before, and we would definitely get more if it tasted this good.

The last dish we got from Chada was their drunken noodle / pad kee mao (flat rice noodles, bird's eye chili, garlic and basil) with sea bass, which was the same thing we had gotten at our Lotus dinner. We were curious to see how they would compare and which version we would like better. Overall, the noodles and basil were good at both places, but when it came to the fish, we gave the edge to Lotus. The fish at Lotus was deep fried in strips, whereas the Chada version was a whole filet of fish that was broiled, which made the edges a little bit on the drier side. It was still a really good drunken noodle.

Overall, we really liked our meal at Chada and would definitely go back on a future visit to Vegas. It's going to be tough trying to figure out how to eat anything other than Thai food in Vegas at this rate.

Lotus of Siam, Part II

Lotus of Siam had 2 options for lunch when we went back in early 2014. You could either order off the menu, just like you would at dinner, or you could go to their lunch buffet. From what we had heard, the lunch buffet was good, but it wasn't as good as ordering a la carte, where you could really focus in on their specialties instead of the more common stuff at the buffet. Since we already knew we wanted a couple of repeat dishes from our first dinner, we definitely were picking the a la carte option. (Just FYI, according to the Lotus website, they stopped serving the lunch buffet during summer of 2014.)

One easy choice was to get the nam kao tod again. We hadn't been able to find this sour sausage and crispy rice salad anywhere between our 2 Vegas visits, and it was still as good as we remembered.

Another repeat dish was the nam prik ong, which made A's favorites list for 2014. This was also pretty much the same as the first time we got it, or possibly even a little bit better. We still thought it tasted like bolognese the second time around.

We don't remember if sticky rice came with the nam prik ong or if we just got it on the side because we wanted it, but here's a picture of it.

We got 2 new dishes at our Lotus lunch, and one of them was the much talked about garlic prawns. This was described on the menu as "deep fried prawns with shells (almost like potato chips) sauteed with our special garlic sauce topped with ground black pepper." So many people had mentioned these garlic prawns, and they were so good that they made my favorites list for 2014. As I said there, we were expecting some deep fried shrimp, like salt and pepper shrimp, but what we got was so much better. Not only was there a bunch of fried shrimp, but also fried shells, and it was all nice and garlicky. We've had fried shrimp at Chinese restaurants where they are so deep fried that you can eat the entire shrimp - head, tails, everything - but this was different since the shells were off the shrimp but also fried. The thin crispy shells tasted like eating shrimp chips, and the flavor and texture of good, crispy shrimp chips has always made me happy. We would definitely get these again.

The last thing we got at lunch was Thai style spaghetti, described as non-spicy pan fried egg noodles in special sauce with egg, chicken, shrimp and tomatoes. While this was good and we liked it, we found it hard to describe the exact flavoring the day we got it and still can't really pinpoint the specific flavor.

Lotus of Siam and Chada Thai had some of our favorite dishes on both of our Vegas trips, and we definitely want to return whenever we make it back out there. The only problem is that we now have so many "favorite" dishes that we want to get again, which means a limited amount of stomach space to try new things. Maybe we'll just have to go more than once to each.

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