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Desert Companion

The Dish: The Thais that bind

The heat is on: spicy-sweet  basil chicken at Weera Thai
 

Here's a spicy secret: Las Vegas has some of the best Thai restaurants anywhere

Google “Thai food Las Vegas” and — boom — Lotus of Siam comes up on top. If you performed a sort of verbal Google search within your real-life social network, among the foodie friends whose recommendations you trust, you’d likely get the same result. It’s always Lotus, on Sahara off the Strip, best Thai food ever. With the possible exception of the Japanese eatery Raku, there isn’t another Vegas restaurant that so singularly defines the awareness of its entire cuisine.

Here’s the thing: Along with deep-fried fish cakes, green papaya salad and creamy curries, unfairness is being served. It’s not that Lotus isn’t a terrific restaurant; award-winning, always busy, perpetually mentioned as one of our city’s best — it’s a success by every possible measure. Most importantly, the food is fantastic. But can it really be “the single best Thai restaurant in North America,” as Jonathan Gold so famously wrote in Gourmet Magazine more than 10 years ago? Hyperbole runs rampant in the food writing world, where critics often build reputations upon “discovering” great and hidden restaurants.

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Your opinion is most important, and the eaters of Las Vegas are clearly in love with this cuisine. You crave its intense, euphoria-inducing flavors. Once you get a taste for Thai, boldly balanced between hot, sour, sweet and salty, the quietly refined cuisine of Japan and oily-savory eats of China seem boring. It’s just good stuff, and often lighter and healthier, which helps explain its growing popularity across the country and the prevalence of restaurants in Las Vegas, even without a large Thai population. And no matter how delicious, one restaurant cannot be the end-all of Vegas Thai food.

The (martial) art of flavor

The first Thai restaurant in Vegas wasn’t a Thai restaurant. “In 1974, no one knew what Thai food was. There were probably only one or two restaurants in the United States, in Southern California. So we think we were probably the third Thai restaurant in the country,” says Allen Wong, general manager at Kung Fu Thai & Chinese Restaurant (3505 S. Valley View Blvd., 247-4120).

His is a Chinese family born in Thailand, and he’s a Vegas native. The family helped open a restaurant in 1973, at the downtown spot that is now Ocha Thai (2211 Las Vegas Blvd., 386-8631). It didn’t work out, so they moved on and opened Kung Fu in 1974 at Third and Fremont streets.

“Bruce Lee was popular then, so everyone knew what kung fu was, but in Chinese it actually means ‘to work harder at something,’ not martial arts,” Wong said. “There were probably four or five Thai dishes on the menu. But over the years, Thai food became more popular and we gradually added more. Now it’s about

 

60 percent of the menu.” The most popular dishes there are Bangkok-style pad Thai, chicken curry, and chopped chicken with chilies and mint.
 

The largest Thai population in the world outside of Thailand resides in Los Angeles, and when that population comes to Vegas — all Californians do — this is their place. “Almost all Thai people that frequent Vegas, they don’t know Lotus. They know Kung Fu,” says Jet Tila. “My father was a gambler and we were probably out there 20 times a year. There were only a few founding Thai families in America. Mine was one of them and Kung Fu is one of them.”

Other than his appearance on “Iron Chef America” last year, Vegas knows Jet Tila for his Panang curry and drunken noodles; he created some of the best Thai food ever to touch the Strip at Wazuzu (Encore, 248-3463). He’s back in L.A. now, where in the ’70s his parents opened the country’s first Thai restaurant and first Thai market. Just as Vegas is often called the “Ninth Island” for its large Hawaiian population, Hollywood’s Thai Town is considered the “77th Province” of Thailand, and Tila is one of its most recognizable culinary figures.

“Thai people don’t go to a restaurant just to eat Thai food,” Tila said. “They go out to eat based on the dish they’re craving, and they’ll go to the place that does that meal the best. That kind of restaurant, one that specializes in noodles only or a place like Ganda (in Hollywood) that does already-prepared dishes in steam tables, that doesn’t exist in Vegas. And it’s okay because there aren’t enough Thai people to support that yet.”

Bird is the word: chopped chicken with  chilies and mint from Kung Fu Thai

The spawn of spice

Tourists help make up the difference. Kung Fu, which moved into the Plaza downtown during the 1980s, now resides at the gateway to the city’s Chinatown, and much of its business comes from delivery or takeout orders to the nearby Strip. A few real Thai restaurants have opened in Strip casinos in recent years, first Lemongrass (Aria, 877-230-2742) and then Sea (Bally’s, 967-3888). “But the front desk at Bally’s still orders from us. They like our soups,” Wong says with a smile.

Many of Vegas’ most popular Thai restaurants, such as the multiple locations of Archi’s (archithai.com) and Pin Kaow (pinkaowthai.com), offer a catch-all approach to Thailand’s regional cuisine. Different dishes come from different areas of the country, such as larb (ground meat) salads from the north, or rich, fragrant, non-coconut curries from the south. But no matter the geography, the balance of the four key flavors is always present. Many American diners only identify the spicy side of Thai food, but equilibrium is the essential element. It’s common for local restaurants to sweeten things up a bit to offset the heat — just as it’s still common to see quite a few Chinese dishes on the menu — as the kitchen is aiming to please the American palate.

Another decades-old local spot is King & I (2904 Lake East Drive, 256-1568), which has literally spawned something new.

“My mom is more traditional, and she found a formula that works for her,” said Daniel Coughlin. His mom owns King & I. He owns Le Thai (523 Fremont St., 778-0888), the buzzy downtown joint that opened Nov. 1. “I’m more about Thai street food. It’s basically my grandma’s recipes with my style of cooking.”

His style is working well. Le Thai’s menu is small but powerfully flavorful, and Coughlin is obsessed with making the best pad Thai possible. Good luck finding a better version in Vegas.

“It’s the taco of Thai food,” he says. “When I went to Thailand, people were eating it on the street everywhere. I took a lot of notes to see how different it could get. It’s one of my favorites, but I feel like the dish has gone south lately.” Not at Le Thai.

For every creative new eatery putting a special twist on things — Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen (2110 N. Rampart Blvd., 360-8885) is creatively tweaking traditional dishes into a tapas-like experience — there’s another serving a more traditional menu with dynamic results. If you really want to gauge whether Lotus of Siam’s northeastern Thai (Issan) cuisine lives up to the hype, compare it with the mind-blowing fare at Weera Thai (3839 W. Sahara Ave., 873-8749). After a recent feast of crab stick, duck curry, crispy catfish salad and spicy-sweet basil chicken, I was ready to declare it the single best Thai restaurant in the universe.


Thai-ing it up

Flavor punch: Angus beef  salad at Kung Fu Thai

My Thai The first time I ate in a Thai restaurant, it was at Lotus of Siam. It was a transcendent meal, a blur of complex curries, spicy noodles and crisp white wines. But my real introduction to what is now one of my favorite cuisines came courtesy of my wife, who could and has eaten Thai food every day. We have an agreement: I am free to explore all the decadent dining Las Vegas has to offer as long as she rides shotgun on Thai night. She opened my eyes to a neighborhood treasure I had passed over for years: Pin Kaow. I am stuck on one dish here, just as I am stuck on the restaurant itself. I cannot stop myself from ordering a simple, sublimely spicy dish of Chinese broccoli with crispy pork in a light, garlic-and-chili brown sauce. Each bite of this Thai-Chinese fusion plate falls somewhere between sauce-absorbing meatiness and a full-blown cracklin’, and it always comes out with the perfect amount of forehead sweat-inducing power. Though I mix it up with a softshell crab salad, Masaman curry with potatoes and crushed peanuts, or duck fried rice, crispy pork and broccoli must be on the table. This is my food, at my Thai restaurant. (Pin Kaow, 1974 N. Rainbow Blvd., 638-2746, pinkaowthai.com) Tiny Thai Much of the best Thai food in Vegas can be found in the most unassuming restaurants, little hole-in-the-wall eateries hiding in plain sight. Seek them out and reap the bounty. Weera Thai (3839 W. Sahara Ave., 873-8749) Must-eats: Tom Kha Kai soup (coconut, lemongrass, mushroom), roast duck curry, crispy catfish salad. Thai House (9850 S. Maryland Parkway #17, 361-5233) Must-eats: Pad Kee Mao (flat rice noodles with chicken, basil, bell pepper and chilies), spicy catfish with herbs. Penn’s Thai House (724 W. Sunset Road, 564-0162) Must-eats: Thai beef jerky with spicy dipping sauce, chicken larb, Thai-style Som Yum (papaya salad) with shrimp. Prommares Thai Food (6362 W. Sahara, 221-9644) Must-eats: Pad See Ew (rice noodles with pork and broccoli in garlic sauce), chicken Panang (peanut) curry. Thai one on in your kitchen It may be perceived as an exotic cuisine laden with hard-to-find ingredients, but it’s not tough to cook Thai in your home. Don’t worry about authenticity; focus on the flavors you love and experiment with combinations of key ingredients like fish sauce, fresh lime juice, palm sugar (or brown sugar) and Thai chilies. To get started, soak some sliced beef in this marinade from Chef Jet Tila (chefjet.com), grill it up, and serve over a salad of mixed greens, cucumber and mint leaves. Your cookout guests will be impressed. Thai Beef Salad Marinade (For 2 lbs. sliced beef flank steak) \\ 2 oz. minced garlic \\ 2 oz. minced cilantro stems \\ 1 tsp. white pepper \\ 2 tbsp. fish sauce \\ 1-1/2 oz. light soy sauce \\ 2 tbsp. sugar \\ Combine all ingredients and cover beef with marinade for about two hours. — Brock Radke

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