Revisiting the Lotus

Ten years after making a national splash, this Thai restaurant is still the best

Ever since Gourmet magazine’s Jonathan Gold singled out Lotus of Siam as “the best Thai restaurant in America” in August 2000, locals and tourists have been lining up in the drab Commercial Center parking lot for Saipin Chutima’s chicken wings, crispy rice salad and homemade Thai sausage.

During this time, her husband, Bill, has been amassing a German and Austrian wine list said to rival any in the country. The acidity and sweetness of the riesling and gewürztraminer grapes match perfectly with Thai cooking.

This combination explains why the walls at Lotus are lined with head shots of celebrity chefs and journos like me, posing with the chef.

The restaurant recently expanded into an adjacent space that was home to a Korean gift store. This tripled the dining capacity, to about 150, but the new space feels boxy and neutral, in spite of nice chairs and tables. Thankfully, Lotus retained the more comfortable original section, and that’s where I prefer to sit. Besides, it’s closer to the newly expanded kitchen, which now has about 15 bustling chefs.

Even with more seats, you still have to line up to get in. When I visited on a recent Saturday evening, hosts couldn’t seat the parties fast enough.

The reason behind the continued enthusiasm is Chef Chutima’s menu and her cooking style, neither of which has changed one iota. She has remained true to the traditional, authentic dishes of her native country.

She is from Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and the food there is as different from the Chinese-influenced stir-fries eaten in Bangkok as Spanish food is from Swedish. So, instead of the pad Thai, mint and green chili chicken, or garlic squid, you might order from the front of the menu, where there is unusual fare from the north, such as nam prik noom, an incendiary green chili purée used as a dip for pork rinds and vegetables.

I love the khao soi, a Burmese-influenced dish consisting of egg noodles in a coconut cream curry. It’s amazing a la carte but even better with the addition of meltingly tender beef short ribs ($10 extra). Another compelling choice is thum ka noon, pounded young jackfruit mixed with ground pork, tomato and spices.

Don’t even think about eating here without an order of that crispy rice salad, a.k.a. nam kao tod. It resembles Rice Krispies mixed with bits of Thai sausage, green onion, peanuts, green chili and long shreds of fresh ginger. It’s the ultimo beer dish.

Don’t miss the specials, including a charbroiled beef dish called nua man tok; tub wharn, charbroiled beef liver; and Issan sausage, which you eat taco-style in the hollow of a cabbage leaf.

Service here, ministered to by a manager named Bang, has never been bang-up, but the staff is knowledgeable and friendly. When you ask for a dish to be five on a scale of one to 10 in hotness, the kitchen knows exactly what you want, like a great steak-house broiler man.

At lunchtime, the restaurant also offers a bountiful buffet. I’m sure they are going to hate me for telling you this, but whenever I eat the buffet here, I head straight for the garlic black-pepper chicken wings and ignore everything else.

That makes me just like the tourists who line up outside. But they are the best chicken wings of all time.

953 E. Sahara Ave. in Commercial Center, 735-3033. Dinner for two is $40-$75. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 5:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.