Restaurant Review #144: Sri Siam Cafe, North Hollywood

Green papaya salad, mixed with tomato, chili and lime juice (and normally, dried shrimp)

You would probably never go to Sri Siam Cafe unlesss someone recommended it to you or you have a great knack for picking out diamonds in the rough. Its location in your average run-down Valley strip mall doesn't conjure images of great dining. But to overlook Sri Siam, or any other restaurants of its ilk, would be a huge mistake. The food is excellent, the service is friendly and fast, and you can't beat the prices: most dishes are just $6-8. As if that weren't enough, there is plenty of free parking in the lot right out front and mango sticky rice for dessert.

This isn't necessarily a restaurant you'll want to dine in at, and it's definitely not a place you'd want to take a date, but this is, after all, a hole in the wall. The flooring is the same low-grade tile found in every public school hallway in America and the chairs are the same metal tubing and fabric chairs that seem to be standard in most Thai and Chinese restaurants, yet the purple tablecloths and happy patrons give the place a pleasant feel. Just don't make eye contact with the seven miniature baby dolls hanging from a high shelf or the owl figurine collection and you'll be fine. Stare at the homemade photographs of menu items instead. A 14" TV mounted on the wall broadcasts a Thai station, but it's so quiet you'll barely notice it.

I usually don't order the papaya salad anywhere that puts dried shrimp in it (which is most places), but the waitress spoke English clearly so I went for it and asked for no shrimp. Most green papaya salads I've tasted have been sweet, so I was surprised when this one was mostly salty and spicy. Without the sweetness, it tastes more like a salad and less like the most amazing concoction on earth. I still liked it, but I like the sweet versions better. I love the texture of green papaya--it's chewy like a carrot, but very moist. And as requested, there were no dried shrimp to be found.

Pad Thai

No ketchup here! Of the numerous times I ate pad Thai in the midwest, I never had a ketchupy pad Thai until I moved to Los Angeles--surprise! I've grown to enjoy the ketchup versions, but I don't think ketchup is any substitute for tamarind. Tamarind has an intensely tangy and sour flavor all its own, that really can't be replicated by anything, including vinegar and tomatoes. I guess ketchup isn't the worst idea for a substitute though, and plenty of people seem to like it.

Interestingly, pad Thai doesn't overtly have any of tamarind's sour or tangy properties, but if you tried to cook pad Thai without it, you'd notice the difference (and if you use too much, it's utterly disgusting--kitchen experiment gone wrong speaking from experience here). I was thrilled to eat Sri Siam's mildly sweet, pleasantly greasy, not overly-sauced pad Thai with plenty of al dente noodles unadulterated by obnoxiously healthy add-ins like carrots and broccoli. Personally, I never mix in the sprouts, cabbage, or other sides--I like to eat just the noodles with the ground peanuts on top. Yum.

Rad nah - rice noodles topped with gravy, Chinese broccoli and meat

This dish didn't look too appetizing when I opened up the container, but it was surprisingly fantastic. The noodles came in a separate container, to prevent them from getting soggy--a smart, thoughtful move. The noodles were a bit sweet, as if they'd been fried with a bit of palm sugar, while the sauce was salty. The beef, in spite of being a little pale, didn't have that thin consistency and flat flavor that I was expecting--it had bite. Most surprising was the Chinese broccoli, which looked like spinach, but didn't taste like it. It had a tangy flavor and a nice crunch--it wasn't soggy like spinach tends to get. And it definitely wasn't like American broccoli--Chinese broccoli is a member of the mustard family like American broccoli, but it tastes more like kale and has leaves rather than florets.

I was incredibly happy with my experience with Sri Siam. All of the dishes were great, and the total for three dishes? $19! I can't wait to dig into the leftovers.

Sri Siam Cafe
12843 Vanowen St.
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Hours 11am-10pm
Free delivery within area with $15 minimum
Takeout available

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