Art of subtlety

Siam Pa House

Good for: subtle, herbaceous Thai food
Notable dishes: tom kha, larb duck, red curry

Siam Pa House

3010 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

Occasionally you eat somewhere that totally resets your expectations. Imagine if you had never eaten a gourmet burger, so In-N-Out was the place to beat. Then you experience a burger revelation at, say, Pangaea Bier Cafe, and the bar becomes much higher.

So it is that Siam Pa House, open since April on Florin Road in the former 9999 Thai-Laos Boat Noodle space, has affected my perception of Thai food. That’s especially impressive because the owners have never run a restaurant before.

The location amid strip malls and a busy highway in south Sacramento hardly impresses. The building even suffered leaks during the recent rains. Nevertheless, the interior welcomes you with abundant light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and warm wood accents.

There are fewer menu items than you find at most area Thai restaurants, though handwritten specials appear daily.

You might begin with the standard-sounding spring rolls ($5.95). The four vegetarian rolls arrive artfully arranged and show rich browning from expert frying. With cabbage, glass noodles and taro root, they’re mild in flavor but perked up by the homemade chili sauce, which notably lacks the syrupy quality found in many places.

You can find pork, beef or chicken larb salad ($7.95) along with a duck version ($12.95). Instead of the usual ground meat, this one uses chopped skin-on duck lightly seasoned with roasted ground rice. The abundance of ultra-fresh cilantro, mint and parsley as well as copious galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves first alerted us to Siam Pa’s quality.

There are several soups, including the usual tom kha ($8.95). Here is another example of the attention to detail that differentiates Siam Pa: The flavorful broth is so homogeneously smooth that you don’t find the floating oil or separation typical of some tom khas. It’s also packed with fragrant herbs, chunks of galangal and sliced red onion.

Similarly, the meatball noodle soup ($5.95 small, $7.95 large) seems layered with flavors. Choose flat, rice or glass noodles instead of the thin egg noodles, or add sliced beef. Finely textured pork and beef meatballs mingle with scads of bean sprouts and heady Thai basil. Crunchy fried cracklin’s grace the top.

All of the curries may be ordered with chicken, beef, pork, tofu, shrimp, seafood, duck or with vegetables only. Pairing the red curry with pork ($8.95) works especially well. At first we thought they forgot the advertised eggplant, but it is beautifully julienned, adding a soft texture to the mix.

Pad prik king ($10.95) often seems quite different restaurant to restaurant. At Siam Pa, the sauce appears more brothy, barely coating the meat that dots at least half a pound of green beans. Still, the flavors are subtle and clean.

In general, Siam Pa shows particular skill with sauces and broths, which exhibit a smoother, more delicate flavor profile than those at other restaurants. There is no graininess to them, as you sometimes find with places that use prepared spice pastes.

The garlic house sauce on the drunken noodles ($8.95) exemplifies this. With chewy, flat noodles and large chunks of al dente vegetables, it’s rather refined.

Siam Pa House has no liquor license yet, so drinks are limited to sodas, Thai tea, coffee and an excellent canned coconut juice with coconut meat ($2.50). As much as we wanted to try the mango with sweet sticky rice ($6.95), it was reassuring to hear that it’s not available out of season.

Despite the Thai martial arts movie on a big-screen TV and paper napkins on the tables, eating at Siam Pa House feels like a special experience. No longer will I be satisfied with heavy, oily curries or overly spiced soups. My palate has been recalibrated.