Skip the pad Thai. Go for the bags of gold and bag your wine.
Skip the pad Thai. Go for the bags of gold and bag your wine.

Thai Sigh

Some of us have peculiar habits. Some of us suffer under peculiar rules. Abstaining from wine with dinner is a peculiar habit. Dry is a peculiar rule.

This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Coppell when I stepped into Siam Thai Cuisine, a tiny strip mall restaurant, and began browsing the beverage list, drooling in anticipation of a glass of chilled off-dry gewürztraminer, or maybe if my luck was doubly good, a brisk Alsatian pinot blanc or even a Riesling.

Yet the only items of interest discovered on this list were something called Bangkok mango moonshire and another dubbed Bangkok strawberry sunrise.


Siam Thai Cuisine

Lemongrass soup w/chicken $3.50
Tofu soup $6.95
Thai fish cakes $5.75
Bags of gold $5.75
Honey-glazed chicken $9.95
Chao phraya salmon $14.95
Panang catfish $10.95
Pad Thai $7.25

I supposed a liquor license wasn't had yet, or wasn't applied for, or maybe the BYOB was an intentional character flaw. But there was a Tom Thumb just a few doors down. Surely they must have some utilitarian California varietal that wouldn't make for tragedy (or repeat as farce) if sipped leisurely on the rocks.

Worry morphed into panic, though, as I scanned the store's perimeter, vainly scouring for a Bud display or a Gossamer Bay end cap. My worst fears were realized. The adult beverage section was riddled with impostors: drink mixers, alcohol-free beer and alcohol-free wine. There wasn't so much as a bottle of Aqua Velva. Gad, it had slipped my mind. Coppell is dry. (Though, a recent article in the Coppell Gazette reveals that "Coppell officials are beginning to study the 'wet-dry' issue in detail," which implies the arrival of hope--at a glacial pace.)

I returned to the dinner table empty-handed. But our server, witnessing the despair at our table, rescued us, pulling a couple of half-drained bottles from bowels somewhere, BYOB leftovers perhaps. The first bottle, a Rosemount shiraz, was a drink only a wagon leaper could love. Its bouquet tossed off hefty hints of Worcestershire and soy. A bottle of Kendall Jackson merlot was better, or drinkable, at least. But it still didn't match well with Siam Thai's menu, which is billed as "The authentic Thai cuisine."

Siam has the usual staples: Thai coconut soup, pad Thai, Panang curry dishes. But it has its share of outlaws, too. Thai fish cakes are a paradox: both criminal and angelic at the same time. Five flat cakes, rough around the edges, a feisty reddish brown in color, are delivered on an oval plate next to a patch of red and white cabbage shreds resting on a lettuce leaf. They looked like omelettes fried far beyond decency. With chewy textures miming dense foam rubber, they somehow managed to be addictive.

But this is typical of the creations Southeast Asian cultures often render from fish. Foul-smelling fish sauce--made from fermented fish, a process almost too horrible to contemplate--is an intense ingredient that makes so much of this cuisine sublime. These cakes are crafted from a paste made by pounding fish into a puree that is blended with curry, scallions, green beans and lemongrass. The paste is then shaped into patties and fried.

Eating them is a bit like working your jaws with fish chewing gum (really, they taste better than that sounds). A ramekin of sweet and sour cucumber sauce speckled with peanuts is installed for dipping. We chose to gnaw nude cakes.

There's more of the weird and wonderful here. "Bags of gold" is a strip of menu nomenclature that sounds like a Thai version of those oysters that, like Coors Light, hail from the Rockies. The folds and ripples carry this unfortunate image further. But these little sacks are delicious. Crisp and tied off at the top with strands of lemongrass, they're stuffed with a hash of minced chicken, carrot, scallion and chestnuts, creating juicy "gold" with a broad palette of flavors settled into balance.

Yet these menu heights were never again scaled. Lemongrass seafood soup held promise, but that was it. The broth floated faded and mushy tomato wedges, surimi, deliciously firm and flavorful mussels, serviceable scallops and shrimp, and spirals of tough, shriveled calamari that behaved more like beef tripe or gristle than buttery squid. These ingredients were installed in a clear broth that was tangy and hot, but without much depth and richness.

Siam Thai is a mostly pleasant storefront, with just a few tables and padded chairs installed in a dining room with blue walls trimmed with Thai paintings. This is more of a carry-out establishment than dine-in, but it still manages to toy with expectations. The menu blurb for the crispy honey-glazed chicken, a Siam Thai "chef suggestion," explains the dish starts with marinated chicken that is breaded, deep-fried and topped with a spicy honey sauce. The expectation was a Thai version of Bubba's, golden limbs thickly coated with a brittle, honeyed Thai coat. What you get is something much different. Mingled with broccoli florets infected with browning spots tossing off a disconcerting sourness, the chicken is actually small breast pieces. They're not breaded so much as lightly dusted with flour. And the parched chicken nuggets, glistening in their honey gloss, were more chewy than crisp.

Pad Thai is a Thai benchmark. Restaurants that serve this ubiquitous staple do well to keep their eye fixed firmly upon it. To let it slip, especially in dramatic fashion, casts a pall over the rest of the menu. And here's where Siam danger creeps in. Their version was little more than a knot of fused noodles, one that was nearly impossible to tease into manageability with fork tines. Mixed with bean sprouts, tofu cubes and the occasional chopped peanut fragment (paucity is probably a better word than occasional), the pad Thai's chief protein component--chicken--was, like its honey-glazed brethren in that fried-chicken dish, dry and a little mealy.

Neither oxidized shiraz nor California merlot makes a good bedfellow for such dishes. So on a subsequent visit, we made sure to bring a white wine with hints of honey and floral tones: a California viognier tightly cuddled with ice packs in an insulated bottle sheath to keep it from cooking. Once it was uncorked, we dove into the chao phraya salmon, another in the chef-suggestion roster. The thick salmon fillet, drenched in lemon, lounged in a puddle of red curry. The bright peach meat was spongy, yet deliciously savory and complex. But a side bowl of egg noodles was tough.

Like the honey-glazed chicken, the Panang catfish fillet skirted clear of expectations. Instead of a head-on, deboned fish sheath, or a long fillet gently tapered at both ends, the dish is assembled with fish chunks barely crusted. Bell peppers are used to crowd mushrooms and onion. The Panang curry sauce wasn't the smoothest or silkiest we've washed over our tongue, but it worked.

Tofu soup didn't. Blocks of tofu the size of midget automobiles bob in a broth "with a touch of garlic and ginger" that was mostly just tepid. Clear away a few of those blocks and you'll discover a couple of glass noodles. These seem more incidental than intentional. There was chicken in there, too, which was odd for a dish based so heavily on the ubiquitous substitute for animal parts.

It's enough to drive you to drink. Then again, that's a tough drive to make in Coppell.

820 S. McArthur Blvd., Suite 108, Coppell, 972-462-1584. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 12 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. $-$$


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