It’s as incongruous as finding a restaurant like Town House in the middle of what seems like no-where in Chilhowie in southwest Virginia. Chilhowie happens to be a beautiful area and there happens to be some outstanding product grown and raised in that area, but still, it is not a place that one can reasonably expect to find world class dining like what John & Karen Urie Shields produce there. Thai Siam is a totally different kind of restaurant than Town House, but the surprise of finding a Thai (or any) restaurant as good as it is in a small town in rural Virginia remains.
It is not difficult to pass right by Thai Siam even when the GPS is telling you that you have arrived at your destination. It looks more like an old farm house than a restaurant and if it weren’t for a couple of signs out front it would blend right in with everything else nearby. Most of their business is take-out, but there are a few tables in the spare dining room, dressed with some colorful place mats and a few ornaments to celebrate the owner’s Thai heritage. Ms. May claims that she is 70 years old, but looks and acts at least 20 years younger. She is the owner, a Bangkok native who met her husband years ago and ultimately followed him back to his farm home in little Arrington, Virginia about45 minute drive south of Charlottesville just off Rte 29. He passed away and she decided to open a Thai restaurant in the building about 7 years ago. Her original chef didn’t work out and the restaurant was floundering until she brought her brother over from Thailand. The fact that he had never cooked before was not really a question. She trained him and he has been doing the bulk of the cooking ever since.
She trained him well. From our first dish to our last, the flavors were bold, clean and impeccably balanced and the textures were spot on. We started with freshly made Thai spring rolls with a beautifully crunchy and tangy peanut sauce. The crisp vegetables, the clean taste of mint and the softly translucent rice paper wrap provided a refreshing and pleasant entry into Thai Siam’s food.
It wasn’t until our next dish, though that we began to realize that this meal was going to be as special as we hoped it would be when we hopped in the car to drive down from Charlottesville. The larb with pork was simply delicious, delighting each part of our tongues. Spiced “hot” but not “Thai hot” this had plenty of tongue-tingling spice, but also great citrus as well as more complex flavors running throughout. The pork was minced fine and added its own flavor to the mix. A variety of onions added both flavor and texture.
Plah Goong, or shrimp “Steamed, minced & toasted with red peppers, crispy red onions, lemon juice & spring onions” spiced “hot” was also quite tasty with superb balance. While the shrimp were good, as the main meats went at Thai Siam they were the least impressive to me. What flavor they had tended to be carried from the rest of the dish. Fortunately, those flavors were outstanding.
Crab fried rice used fresh crab meat along with egg and other ingredients to make a flavorful, comforting and satisfying dish. This was spiced much less aggressively at the “medium” level. This was the dish I would return to after bites of the spiciest dishes to calm my spice-toasted tongue.
Tom Yum Goong, a hot and spicy soup, was what most other “hot and spicy” Asian soups only dream of being. While this one was ordered with shrimp, the main protein was insignificant. The flavors of lemon grass, Thai chili (“hot”), kaffir and lime were blended into perfect harmony. I will dream of this on many a cold winter’s night.
The”hot” spice designation was plenty hot and carried a lot of power, but while challenging, it was quite bearable. We ordered Drunken noodles with pork at the “Thai hot” level. Ms. May laughed, but obliged. The heat didn’t seep in until after the primary flavors of the dish including the intoxicating aromatics of Thai basil, left their delightful impressions, but once it did, it was as if the devil himself had put coals from Hell directly on our tongues. It burned so good!
We had one more dish to go. Originally we had only ordered a few appetizers, but with those as good as they were, we branched out to order more food, with this being the final thing we ordered. I might have ordered even more, but the kitchen was starting to get backed up with orders from take-out calls. We had arrived at the perfect time – around 2PM on a Friday, just after the regular lunch time and before an early dinner rush. With only Ms. May and her brother occupying the kitchen, and their non-compromising approach to making top-quality, fresh food, it doesn’t take much for them to get behind and with their local popularity it doesn’t take much for them to run out of food. Such was the case here. Even had we not been full, at this point, it would have been difficult to order more as we would have had to wait an inordinate amount of time.
That final dish did not take long to come, but it would have been worth a longer wait even if it had. Gai Tim Prik with beef ordered “hot” was basically a Thai version of the Chinese take-out classic “beef and broccoli,” but it was so much better than just about any beef and broccoli dish I’ve ever had. Featuring carrots, garlic and black pepper, it was once again expertly balanced with complex, deep flavors. Even though it was “hot” it was a nice follow-up to the “Thai hot” drunken noodles.
Our special trip down from Charlottesville taken on the basis of a recommendation from a friend, was well worth it. I have never been to Thailand, nor do I consider myself an expert in Thai food, but I have experienced some of the more well known Thai restaurants in the United States and Europe and enjoy its balanced and nuanced flavors. While not as inventive, luxurious or mind-blowingly incredible as Copenhagen’s Kiin Kiin, nor with as extensive menus as more classic Thai restaurants like Sripraphai in NYC or Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Thai Siam still deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as these stars.
I never would have expected such an exceptional Thai experience in rural Virginia, especially in a restaurant as non-intuitively located as Thai Siam. I have no problem recommending a trip there, however, there are a few caveats to that recommendation. We just showed up and were incredibly lucky that our timing was good. We had originally planned to go down for lunch on Saturday instead, but that would have been a mistake as we would have been shut out due to a private party that had booked the restaurant for the day. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon, for people to be disappointed in this way after a long trip according to Ms. May, who already has as much business as they can handle. It is not that they don’t appreciate people making special trips. It is just that they will not receive special attention over her regular customers. It is best to call the restaurant first before making any extended journey, so as to avoid that potential for disappointment. One will not be disappointed with the food, however.
Thai Siam Restaurant
4137 Tye Brook Highway, Arrington, VA 22922