Small wonder, Thai style

Left, a bowl of spicy khao soi noodles in Siam I Am's dining room. Right, Chef Sirinapa Sirimongkhon. Photos by Richard Foss

Redondo's Siam I Am is tiny, but has full size hospitality, and excellent food

It’s hard to believe anyone ever looked at the space that is now Siam I Am and thought, “That’s a perfect space for a restaurant”. They may have the smallest dining room in the South Bay, though I’d have to take a tape measure both here and to the nearby Cozy Café to be sure. By one standard the winner is clear — the Cozy has a substantial outdoor patio, while Siam I Am has only a single table in a converted carport.

Siam I Am opened in 2008, an anomaly among Thai restaurants because the founder was a Japanese-American who loved Thai food, and Dr. Suess books. (Yes, the name is a pun on “Sam I Am.”) After six years in business, a Thai family took it over, led by cheerful chef Sirinapa Sirimongkhon, known as Siri for short. Siri grew up in the far South of Thailand near the island paradise of Phuket, but went to college in the northern city of Chiang Mai, which has a very different cuisine. Both of those experiences are reflected in the menu here, and also some of the Americanized fusion items that are popular everywhere.

I took friends to dine in, and we took the only table for four inside. It’s a bit cramped, and the couple sitting on the side away from the wall were partly blocking the door. Much of the business here is to go. Bags of food were delivered from the counter and the outside takeout window while we dined.

On two visits we tried starters of fried fish cakes and Thai homemade dumplings, a som tum green papaya salad, duck noodle soup, and a bowl of khao soi, the Chiangmai style noodle soup. For anyone who isn’t Thai, the default is to make the food rather mild, and if you ask for it to be made hot they’ll boost it a few notches to a seven or eight out of ten. To get your food Thai spicy you have to convince them that you really know what you are asking for, and I managed that with the khao soi. It was breathtakingly spicy, and also intensely flavorful, with coconut milk moderating the sharpness of the heat, and giving a silky quality to the pale orange broth. The zesty flavor is heavy on ginger, garlic, chillies of course, and coriander. Shrimp paste gives it a funky umami. A mix of pickled and fresh herbs, sliced red onion, and fried wontons add another dimension of texture and flavor to complete the dish. This is the best khao soi I can remember having in LA outside of Thai Town, and you should ask for it as spicy as you dare.

Not all Thai food is spicy, and the dumplings and fish cakes were both good antidotes to hotter items. The dumplings are about the same as you’d get at dim sum, a pork meatball with mild seasonings wrapped in dough, but unlike the Chinese version they arrive topped with crispy garlic, cilantro leaves, and green onions. A thick soy sauce with a little citrus and a little heat is on the side and gives a gentle tanginess to each bite. Those were good, but I liked the fish cakes better. These are made with ground fish, flour, and mild spices that are then battered and fried. By themselves, they have an agreeably mild flavor. Eat them with a forkful of the fish and pickle sauce, with a leaf or two of deep-fried basil on the side, and they’re excellent.

A green papaya salad topped with shrimp at Siam I Am.

The green papaya salad was unexpectedly mild, with both the sourness and pepper flavors present, but muted compared to many other renditions of this Northern Thai specialty. Green papaya is the same fruit as yellow papaya, but served at a different stage of ripeness. When served green it has a crunchy texture and slight astringency that pairs well with the vinegar, palm sugar, chillies, fish sauce, and garlic that are the base of this dish. It’s a marvelously complex flavor that is made even better with the tomatoes, shrimp, and carrot shavings that are tossed in at the last minute. I prefer a bit more lime juice for sourness and a dash more chili heat, but this one was quite decent.

The roasted duck soup was another mild dish that was nicely balanced, the vinegar in the broth counteracting the fattiness of the duck. We ordered it mild for the two people at our table who don’t enjoy fiery dishes, but would get it a little spicier next time.

For mains, we selected pad see ew noodles, fried pork with basil, pad Thai, and massaman curry, a specialty of the far south. Massaman is the Thai word for “Muslim,” and this curry does show the influence of Indian traders who have done business here for centuries. It’s usually a fairly thick curry, with an orange broth brimming with cumin, ginger, and coriander, but this was light on the ginger and more soupy. Massamun is relatively mild and has a bit of a Middle Eastern flavor to it, with potatoes and carrot and your meat of choice making it a hearty meal. If you have someone at the table who is spice-averse, this is one that they’ll probably appreciate, and you can get your heat fix elsewhere in the meal.

A good way to do that would be to order the pork and basil curry Thai hot, which we did. They served it American hot rather than Thai hot, and when they saw the spice hound at the table adding chili sauce promised they’d make it more zippy next time. The rest of the people at the table enjoyed the intense basil flavor and underlying chili heat just as it was. The mild pad see ew fried flat noodles, had plenty of flavor but little heat, to the delight of the non-spicers. The pad Thai, a modern noodle salad that has become an international staple, was the only item that I felt was missing something. It was short on ground peanuts and the fish sauce that gives this dish its appeal.

We tried two desserts, the mango with sticky coconut rice and deep-fried bananas in pastry. The bananas were a nice little novelty, bananas in a crisp package, but we found the ripe mango and sticky rice to be a perfect finish to a spicy meal. The rice has a rich flavor from being cooked in coconut milk with shredded coconut, and it’s perfect with the fruit. The tradition is to pick up a pinch of sticky rice and use that to pick up the mango, but forks are provided for those who want them. I fully expect this dessert to become popular outside Thai restaurants, because it would be a wonderful cooling finish to any spicy cuisine.

A meal at Siam I Am is not expensive – less than $120 for four people with two Thai iced teas, which is quite reasonable for personal service and plenty of food. This quirky, prettily decorated little spot on PCH is unlikely in several ways, but they deliver Thai tradition with a smile.

Siam I Am is at 215 S. PCH in Redondo. Open daily except Thu.,11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Street parking, no alcohol served. (310)374-7202. ER



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