Friday, April 22, 2011

Tears and Loafing in Las Vegas: A Pilgrimage to the Lotus of Siam

When our meetings in St. George wrap up early, I suggest to Theo that we consider heading down to Vegas for dinner. “It’s not that far,” I reason, “and we’ll never be closer.”
Theo assures me he’s game. He reminds me that he “appreciates good food,” and because he’s dated cover girls and lived a bachelor life in big flashy cities like LA, New York, and Duluth, Minnesota, I figure “the man must know what he’s talking about.” He certainly dresses the part.
We put the sleek, red Chevy Aveo on cruise control and let the miles roll by. Dust devils. Trailer parks. Joshua Trees.
In the distance, Vegas beckons like a mirage: a shimmering illusion, a lake of water over bone dry stones in a valley that sees less than four inches of rain a year, and when that rain comes, it comes all at once, like nickels from a slot machine. Here and gone. Boom and bust. Brandon Flowers screeching into a microphone.
Not far from the blazing lights of the Vegas Strip—the wide-eyed tourists, the mini Statue of Liberty—we find what we came for in a rundown strip mall, where tweakers peddle tired stories about how a few bucks will help them get out of town and on to a better life. Though early March, it’s 70 degrees at 8:30 p.m. and a cool, dry wind blows from the southwest.
We have arrived. Where? At a non-descript Thai restaurant that looks like ten thousand other Thai restaurants in strip malls from Vancouver, B.C., to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The entrance is dark and cluttered; the windows, dirty.
Pushing past the penny dailies full of used car ads, the signed celebrity photos, the drab plants drooping in the corner, we are greeted by a cheerful young woman standing next to a vase of origami flowers folded with oiled fingers from crumpled dollar bills.
We ask for a table, caring not for the run-down strip mall, the dirty windows, the penny dailies, the grimy flowers, for this, this is Mecca—the Promised Land. The Holy Grail for culinary enthusiasts. The Lotus of Siam.
As we wait in the lobby, crowded even on a Tuesday night, in March, at 8:30 p.m., we peruse the many framed restaurant reviews hanging on the wall. “Best Thai in America” gushes one reviewer. “Best Thai in North America!” blares another so as not to be outdone. Last but not least, this bold acclamation: “Saipin Chutima may be the finest Thai chef in the world.”
With visions of Thai nirvana dancing in our heads we are led to a small table and presented with a menu that looks like a Dickens novel. I stop counting at dish 135 and quickly become lost in that vast menu, torn between legions of dishes that all sound impossibly good. Should I go for the Tom Kha Gai soup or the Thai Beef Jerky I read about on the Internet? The bacon wrapped prawns with sweet and sour sauce or the fish cakes with fresh cilantro? Which of the dozens of delectable hand-ground curries—green, red, yellow, Massaman,or Panang? Beef, chicken, fish, or duck?
At length, reluctantly, I choose three: the beef jerky, for an appetizer; the green papaya salad to share (choosing a modest "4" on a heat scale from 1 to 10); and the duck curry, which I remember so fondly from a pilgrimage past.
The waiter smiles and takes my order, then turns to Theo, pen in hand:
“And for you?” he asks. Theo hesitates, no doubt dreaming of white sand beaches and palm trees, the turquoise waters of the Andaman sea lapping softly at the sides of a long tail boat, flags fluttering from a Buddhist temple, gleaming in the tropical sun.
“I’d like some … fried rice,” he says with a surprising confidence, “with chicken!”
Bold move, my friend. Carpe diem. Seize the day.
Halfway through the meal, Theo asks: “Could you pass the salt? This is kind of bland.”
I pass him the salt, wordlessly, and take a pair of chopsticks to the green papaya salad in front of me: shredded papaya, crisp and cool, set off by the fire of thai chilies, a hint of shrimp, and a shot of fresh lime, just spicy enough to keep one eating and eating and eating lest the heat become unbearable. It’s so good, it makes me want to cry.
Somewhere on the Strip, a light bulb burns out.