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Siam Rice Thai & Tapas: Asian Fusion, Minus the Pretense

A short waitress with a high-pitched voice and a thick, almost indecipherable accent set a golden, grapefruit-sized orb — topped with a dollop of whipped cream, surrounded by strawberries, blueberries, and their sweet sauces — on the table. Inside of a thin, deep-fried crust of panko bread crumbs lay a mantle of sweet, pillowy dough almost like a spongecake. Even deeper was a still-frozen core of vanilla ice cream. It was the kind of dessert that we, a bunch of admitted food snobs, didn't want to enjoy but totally did.

That Katsu ice cream ($4.95) was kind of an Asian version of fried ice cream — not authentic but totally and unabashedly Americanized. Katsu refers to a type of Japanese preparation — usually, it's lean pork that's fried with a coating of egg, flour, and panko bread crumbs (then served atop a bowl of rice or in a curry or sandwich).

In today's foodcentric culture, eating obscure ingredients and dishes is almost like racking up Boy Scout merit badges. It's how those of us with unholy food obsessions keep score.

But there's a paradox at work. As we judge one another according to the levels of exotic foods we've tried, we're not like those other food snobs who can't just enjoy a fried dessert for its own sake every once in a while. This irony is the foodie version of the trucker hat or geek chic: We're absolutely self-aware but pretending not to be. To say we don't care about food trends is the biggest brag of all.

Earlier that same night, we got another dish that had Asian elements but was clearly American. It looked like nigiri: half a dozen ovals of rice with a protein on top. But instead of raw tuna, it was strips of marinated skirt steak atop the rice. Accompanying these steak bites ($5.95) were small bits of spicy, lemony Thai basil.

The cultural mash-up continued in the pad Thai ($11.95), which was a devourable bowl of rice noodles, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, and chicken, but was light on the salty punch typically provided by fish sauce. Siam rice chicken wings ($5.95) promised a special sauce that turned out to be a run-of-the-mill sweet chili sauce. Yet the wings themselves were plump, juicy, and crispy. There was even a Thai-inspired beef osso buco, braised with curry paste, peanuts, and coconut milk.

Owner Tarika Wanjiam opened Hollywood's Siam Rice Thai & Tapas in August, in a beige stucco strip mall along Sheridan Street. For years, he or she has also owned Siam Rice Thai Sushi, located on Biscayne Boulevard in the heart of Miami. Bangkok-born Jatupol Yutap came from the Miami location to run the kitchen here and described the two as "like brother and sister."

Though the Miami location is slightly rundown and in a neighborhood sketchy enough that someone is hired to keep an eye on customers' cars, the Hollywood location is shiny and clean. Beyond a glass door is a modest, dark space, with white and gray walls, one of them adorned with black-and-white pictures of everyday life in Thailand. The front half of the room is flanked by forest-green banquettes surrounding pale oak tables that gave a distinctly Asian feel. In between were two similar tables matched with short black-topped stools. An L-shaped bar with only four seats offered a view of two chefs in the open kitchen, quietly working away. On two separate weeknight visits, the dining room was full, but the pair, separated in age by at least four decades, amazingly pumped out dishes from a long menu.

On that menu: everything from soups to curries to stir fries. An entrée, crispy duck curry ($16.95), came with half of a boneless duck perched on an orange-red coconut-milk-based sauce infused with the perfect mix of chili paste, fish sauce, sugar, and lemongrass. Despite being set atop a steaming bowl with eggplant, peppers, chunks of pineapple, red grapes, and peas, the duck skin was pleasantly crispy with a thin layer of fat separating the crunch from the duck's tender meat.

Emphasis, though, is on the appetizers. Nearly 30 of them took up the inside of the trifold menu. None was more than $8, and it would be easy to make a complete meal for two out of four or five well-picked options. Choices ranged from the aforementioned steak bites to a seaweed salad ($4.95) that was fresh, crunchy, and salty thanks to a hit of fish sauce.

Golden bags ($5.95), which we later learned were amped-up crab rangoons, came atop a squiggle of sweet chili sauce. Instead of imitation crab with too much cream cheese inside a fried, store-bought wonton like we've come to expect at Florida Chinese joints, Siam Rice offered half a dozen tender yet crispy fried pouches stuffed with toothsome chunks of chicken and shrimp, with just enough cream cheese to bind it all together.

Our only real disappointment was the shrimp shumai ($4.95). Inside each dumpling was a rubbery, shrimp-like filling wrapped with a translucent, textureless dough that made us suspect they could have come from an Asian grocer's freezer case. Yutap confirmed that they weren't made in-house but pointed out that his gyoza ($4.95), a pork and cabbage dumpling that is wildly popular in Japan, is. Our mistake.

A word of warning: Americanized as this place may be, spice is applied according to Thai standards. We requested medium on the beef salad ($7.50). What we got left our eyes and noses running.

Yutap, who noted he came to the States from Thailand about five years ago, readily says that the dishes on Siam Rice's menu are half-authentic and half-Americanized.

As a chef, he explains, "I can say nothing in America is the same as in Thailand because so many of the ingredients are so different. I just cook the food, and OK, I cook some more on the Thai side and cook some on the American side."

So the dishes taste good and are served in generous portions at a fair price and in a comfortable environment. What else can you ask for? Snob!

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Zachary Fagenson is the restaurant critic for Miami New Times, and proud to report a cholesterol level of 172.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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