Finger-lickin’ good

Siam Restaurant

3672 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 452-7949

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken, possibly because I once found a crisp $20 bill in one when I was a kid. Still, I’ve resisted the lure of a bucket of extra-crispy for about 15 years now, and I wasn’t sorry when the KFC nearest to my house closed a while ago. (Another one opened even closer, which I was a little sorry about.)

I was downright glad, in fact, when it turned out that the new tenant was Siam Restaurant, a Thai place I first sampled with takeout the day after Christmas, when I couldn’t face leftovers and all the other nearby Thai places we called (and there are several) were closed.

My Boxing Day pad see ew was delicious, with chewy noodles, succulent sauce and crisp broccoli, and I determined to go back and see how the proprietors of Siam Restaurant had made over an old fast-food joint. Pretty nicely is the answer. They couldn’t do much about the terra-cotta tile floors or the tiled roof (though it’s now painted white), but there are some nice wall decorations and a friendly and reasonably gracious air about the place. The menu includes all the usual Thai-food suspects, with an emphasis on grilled plates and sautés more than on curries.

From the appetizer list, we started with miang kum, a plate of fresh, perfect spinach leaves and tiny bowls of dried shrimp; bits of lime; toasty coconut; chunks of ginger; red onions; peanuts; and a sweetly spiced, glossy tamarind sauce to pull it all together. You roll up your own chunky little packets for an aromatic, mouthwatering starter. These might have been easier to roll and eat if the peanuts had been chopped or the ginger more finely diced, but I particularly loved the brittle texture and nutty flavor of the well-toasted coconut. It all reminded me, not unpleasantly, of the time I tried a sweet paan, an Indian breath freshener that you chew and chew to extract flavorful juices. We’d tried chicken satay as part of our takeout previously; it was very tender and juicy, with an excellent pervasive flavor from its marinade.

Our dishes followed in short order after the miang kum. The next was a crunchy green-papaya salad. We asked for it medium-hot, and the heat level was spot-on, not too timid but not overwhelming. I would have liked a little more sourness to balance the intensity of the fish sauce, however. On our previous takeout order, a mixed seafood salad had the balanced tartness I was craving in this dish. I was looking for a refreshing starter in the salad, but the fishiness rather canceled out that quality. My husband’s lightly sweet young-coconut drink was more of a palate cleanser, especially the bits of fresh, tender coconut flesh one could pry off the hollowed-out shell.

A plate of meaty marinated pork ribs arrived next. It’s hard to go wrong with baby back ribs in any culinary idiom, but I haven’t seen them very often in Thai restaurants. They were sweet and yummy, excellent for gnawing and not at all fatty, with a gently piquant sweet chili sauce alongside, as well as a rather negligible bit of salad. As usual with ribs, I needed a wet-nap for wiping afterward, but I recalled the motto of the space’s former occupant and simply licked the meaty residue off my fingers.

An entree, tofu pic khing, was excellent, with bright and crisp-tender green beans, a zippy chili-garlic sauce, basil leaves and needle-thin slivers of bright-tasting wild-lime leaves. The fried tofu soaked up the sauce nicely but wasn’t too oily.

The rice alongside was a little mushy, as is sadly often the case when rice has been sitting around in a steamer. In a way, though, that wasn’t a bad thing for us. Our daughter, 7 months old, was with us for one of her first dinners out (one of the first she didn’t sleep through, that is). I fed her some grains of rice on my finger, though she wasn’t quite sure what to make of this sticky new texture. (We tried to keep her turned away from the other diners, to avoid grossing anyone out.)

She was a much bigger fan of our dessert: fried bananas with coconut ice cream. Of course, all she got was the banana itself, scooped out from its deeply crunchy yet doughy shell of batter, but she eagerly wiggled her little hands to express approval of its sweet warmth. Even her father, a confirmed banana hater, liked the dessert. The ice cream was thick with coconut, and though the batter-fried part was as thick, heavy and greasy as anything KFC might serve up, somehow it all worked, like a doughnut you know you shouldn’t eat but enjoy anyway. I’d take this sweet treat rather than fried chicken almost any day—especially if I can get saucy rice noodles or a tofu stir-fry for dinner as well.