Decades after the first Thai restaurant arrived in the Buffalo area, I still meet people who greet the suggestion of Thai food with wide-eyed horror, like I’d suggested swallowing live goldfish.
What a shame, since Thai cuisine has so much to offer eaters across the adventurousness spectrum. Maybe that's why it's the second-most-popular Asian flavor in town, represented in about 30 restaurants.
The standard local Thai menu offers many dishes that make it an easy reach for American tastes. At a place like Taste of Siam, on Elmwood Avenue across from the Lexington Co-op, satisfying a squeamish person is simple. Order some grilled meat, fried calamari, some pasta with shrimp for Mr. No Surprises.
With his sensitive palate safely bubble-wrapped, the more venturesome members of your party can, in good conscience, seek thrills elsewhere on the menu.
Diners climb a flight of stairs to find that Taste of Siam has one of the airier dining rooms in the city, with a two-story glass atrium facing Elmwood Avenue. There's another room in back with handsome wainscoting and lots of light, and tables sporting fresh flowers. The bathrooms are another flight up, on the third floor.
Start your Thai food skeptic out with the satay combo ($7.50). Skewers of beef, pork and chicken were thoroughly marinated, brushed with sweet glaze and grilled until caramel-edged, and served with cucumber salad and peanut sauce. One of the better versions in town, it was flavorful and not dried out.
Another safe bet is the fried calamari. Tangles of well-fried squid tentacles ($8.50) were crunchy as can be, and if you say calamari instead of "tod pa muk," the server will understand. The tangy, jammy heat of the pineapple dipping sauce needed no translation. It also worked with fried chicken sausage patties spiced with red curry and lime leaf, tod mun ($5.50), which arrives with a saucer of cooling cucumber salad.
A little more adventurous are appetizers like boned-out chicken wings stuffed with ground pork sausage, shiitake mushrooms and bean thread noodles, then fried. They’re called peak khai ($7 for the pair). It's just a meatball stuffed in a chicken wing, albeit with an exotic moniker. More of that pineapple sauce offered extra flavor, though it was tasty already.
Same with the ka nome bang moo ($6.50), which is like Chinese shrimp toast, except the sausage on the deep-fried toast is ground pork this time, with a pronounced but not unpleasant flavor of pig.
Don’t miss the tom kha soup, coconut milk broth braced with lemongrass, lime and chile, fragrant with cilantro and packed with mushrooms and fresh tomato. With chicken, it’s $6 for a bowl, but $14 brings an aluminum hotpot with built-in heater to the table, with enough for four servings.
When it comes to entrees, Taste of Siam keeps ordering simple. Pick your protein – meat, fish, seafood, tofu – then decide the setting. Will it be tossed in a wok, surrounded by vegetables and a savory sauce? Or with vegetables and a variety of pasta? Should it be tossed with a leafy, fresh salad with a tangy dressing? How about simmered in Thai curry, coconut gravy redolent of spice?
Lahb ($14, pork), a dish of chopped meat dressed as a salad, was relatively light, bright with lime juice, flavored with red onion, scallion, cilantro and fresh mint. I wished for more assertive dressing, and smoke flavor in addition to gritty texture from what the menu described as ground smoked jasmine rice.
Another salad setting, yum nam prik pow, employs red chile paste and lime leaves as the backbone of its dressing flavors. Applied to seafood ($19), the result was a juicy mélange of firm scallops, shrimp and scored squid in brick-red sauce that looked more emphatic than it tasted.
Yellow curry with pork ($14) was flavored with turmeric, ginger and other spices, loaded with vegetables like zucchini, onions, carrots, celery and baby corn. The creaminess comes from coconut, not cow, so if you choose tofu ($12) instead of pork, it’s a vegan delight. It’s soupy, but meant to flavor piles of white rice, so it works. Like other dishes ordered medium, this came out slightly tingly, not a threat to break a sweat.
Nothing we tried was particularly spicy, not even the pud prig sod stir-fry ($14 with beef), which advertises jalapenos among its vegetable medley. The mixture of cabbage, celery, carrots and onions, in a sauce with garlic and black pepper, was a fairly safe choice.
So did the pud see ew, wok-fried flat noodles, ordered with tofu ($12). The best part of the assemblage of broad rice pasta, cabbage, broccoli, bean sprouts and chewy fried tofu cubes in soy sauce was its crisp vegetables. I missed the smoky “breath of the wok” and caramelization found in my favorite versions.
Our entrees left me wishing for more emphatic seasoning – not just chile heat, but more of the other sour, salty, funky elements that make balanced Thai cuisine special. The entrée that left the biggest impression was a stir-fry built around nuggets of crispy eggplant ($14, chicken), with baby corn, onions and mushrooms. The eggplants’ crust held up to its bath in dark soy for a memorable dish.
Dessert included sweet rice with mango ($6.50), which disappointed with crunchy mango and chewy rice, and sweet red rice with custard, whose rice was even stiffer. Fried ice cream ($6) in a pancake-like coating was solid, and a coconut cheesecake ($6) was a rich tropical treat.
Taste of Siam delivered a solid Thai meal, though I would have enjoyed more assertive flavors. For people who are taking their first forays into the cuisine, though, the low-key approach should provide a fine setting to Thai it on for size.
Taste of Siam- 7 plates (out of 10)
Thai favorites in airy Elmwood room.
Where: 810 Elmwood Ave. (886-0746)
Hours: noon to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: Appetizers, soups $5.50-$16; salads, noodles, curries and stir-fry $12-$24.
Wheelchair access: no
Gluten-free options: Many choices.