The evolution of Thai food in Nashville can be directly traced to two families. Nearly 23 years ago, Win and Patty Myint opened the International Market on the north end of Belmont Boulevard, which was then consideredin spite of the proximity of Belmont Universityan iffy neighborhood for both residential and retail venues.
International Market served cheap, Asian-inspired food cafeteria-style. Besides well-known staples like pepper steak, stir-fried veggies, and chicken with broccoli, the Myints also offered pad Thai, the national food of Thailand, and a few other native dishes. In 1996, the Myints opened International House across the street, a full-service restaurant with a more exotic menu of Thai specialtiesand the price tag to match. Struggling songwriters who counted on the Market for several meals a week could graduate to the International House once they got their first cut.
Twenty years ago, Pete Silpacharn opened Siam Cafe on McCall Street, one block off Nolensville Road, the ethnic food capital of Nashville. One room of the little restaurant was dedicated to the steam table/buffet method of cheap eats; the other was a full-service restaurant entirely devoted to Thai specialties like pla lard prig and massaman curry. Assisting Pete in the kitchen and dining room was his son-in-law Bobby Kornsuwan, whose effervescent personality earned him a legion of fans. Many followed him when he opened The King and I on Terrace Place in 1990 (which closed two years later in a lease dispute), then Orchid on White Bridge Road in 1994. Almost from the moment it opened, Orchid was a hit; though its menu was fairly limited, it was acclaimed for its quality food and soothing ambiance.
Several other Thai restaurants have opened since, notably Royal Thai downtown and in Brentwood. Still, Orchid has pretty much remained the yardstick by which other Thai restaurants are measured.
So I was puzzled by at least three recent reports of disappointing or downright bad meals at Orchid. My curiosity was further piqued when I heard that Bobby’s father-in-law was opening a second Siam not even one mile down the road from Orchid, installing his son Nopadol Silpacharn in the kitchen. Why in the world, I wondered, would Pete choose to compete with his son-in-law’s livelihood? Bad blood? Family feud?
All was revealed the afternoon I dropped by Siam to pick up a menu. As I approached the storefront restaurant in a brand-new strip center, the door swung open to reveal the smiling countenance of none other than Bobby Kornsuwan, now running the front of Siam II. It seems that creative and managerial differences led to a parting of the ways with his partners at Orchid. Because of some sticky legal issues, for the time being, Bobby is barred from the kitchen. Yet, as two visits proved, his slot at the stove is being more than adequately filled by his wife Preya, his mother-in-law Lamyai Silpacharn, and his brother-in-law Nopadal.
The decor at Siam is minimalist: brown, beige, and ivory hues; small-shaded lamps; mostly unadorned walls. There are tables and banquettes with big padded cushions to provide a line of demarcation between your party and the next.
The menu is longer than the one at Orchid, with the introduction of several new dishes. We sampled a few of our longtime favorites, but our focus was on trying something different. Additionally, these days I prefer something a little lighter than heavily-sauced curry specialties and fried foods; thus we plunged instead into several yum-yum (salads), fish dishes, and noodles.
If that appeals to you, then I suggest starting with the steamed mussels, the rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls, or the tod mon pla, which is marinated fresh fish served with cucumbers and mint. If you’d prefer something a little weightier, try the excellent steamed dumplings filled with ground chicken and shrimp.
No matter how many times you’ve had it, it’s hard to resist tom ka kai soup, so we didn’t, ordering a large bowl of the chicken poached in coconut broth and zipped up with peppers, lime, and lemongrass. We also sampled the tom yum kuong, which is a hot-and-sour broth with shrimp.
I could make a meal of the Thai salads, which bear little resemblance to All-American versions of greens and raw veggies. In Thailand, salads are light entrees, with diced or chopped fish, shellfish, or meat tossed with onion, chili peppers, cilantro, mint, and sometimes noodles. Most people are familiar with tiger tear, which is beef salad on crispy noodles. It’s good, but far happier marriages of flavor are achieved in the squid salad (this one served warm), the larb gai (minced chicken), and particularly the spicy roasted duck salad, where the heat was nicely offset by fresh pineapple and orange.
Instead of the undeniably delicious deep-fried whole snapper that we all know and love (pla lard prig), we instead opted for the steamed pla jian, which compensated for its lack of fat with a pleasantly salty black bean sauce. Another subtle delight was the steamed seafood curry: The mussels, squid, shrimp, and scallops were enclosed in a paper pouch that, when pierced, released the intoxicating scent of fresh kaffir leaf and basil. A mound of fried soft-shell crabs in a ginger-infused red curry sauce was scrumptious.
We bypassed the traditional pad Thai to try the kao soi, a wide-noodle dish from northern Thailand with chicken, sprouts, scallions, cilantro, and pickled green mustard and a curry sauce; it turned out to be the hottest plate we sampled. More conservative tastes would be happy with one of the á la carte entreesyour choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu, shrimp, or scallops in peanut, garlic, sweet and sour, or oyster sauce, among others. The Thai broccoli was still crunchy and awash in garlic and fish sauce, two of Thailand’s most prevalent flavors.
It’s always nice to have a bite of something cold and/or sweet after such a spicy meal, and the little morsels of fried banana with coconut ice cream or the pumpkin custard served in a hollowed-out gourd will both do the trick.
Wine is available, as is the delicious Thai beer Singha. Be aware that Thai coffee is a sweet and thick concoction served with condensed evaporated milk.
It’s easy to fall into a food rut, ordering the same thing time and again because you love it or because you don’t want to take any chances. At Siam, you’ll find both something old and something new, an opportunity to sample unexplored territory with the security of familiar companions.