>> Wednesday, August 12, 2015
THE OLD SIAM
69-12 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
When I first moved to Forest Hills, there were precious few decent restaurants, but a Thai restaurant hidden between the shopping district on the one side of Austin Street and the police station on the other was one of them, Bann Thai. I went there quite a bit. They always seemed to have customers, the food was good, and it had class. The restaurant even made it into the Grand Theft Auto IV video game. Then, for some reason Bann Thai became The Old Siam. Nothing seems changed but the awning and the tables. They're not fancy, but they're still upscale. The food's not expensive. But now, when you walk by, they're always empty. In fact, when the rest of Austin Street is teeming with the concert crowds, and other restaurants are filled to capacity, Old Siam is all but abandoned. Why? Did they plummet so much in quality that they can't pay people to eat there? Turns out, no.
When I first suggested to Pike that we go here, his response was one of trepidation. A perpetually deserted restaurant on an empty stretch of zeroesville does not much confidence breed. Sure enough, when we showed up, we sat alone but for one other table. When we left, the door closed with the echo of an empty room. I can only guess that it's a combination of location and competition. The dining options for Forest Hills has improved exponentially in the last decade, Thai food's heyday was 2009, there are three other Thai restaurants within walking distance, and they're all good. But Old Siam isn't bad. I think it needs to find a niche. I'll get to that at the end.
The Old Siam isn't expensive so we ordered appetizers and soup to start, figuring that this way we could try more of the menu. I started with a Lettuce Wrap because it sounded healthy. Shrimp and Chicken, ground and cooked in a peanut sauce with scallions. I didn't know that you'd wrap the filling yourself, but they don't skimp. Flavor-wise, I was impressed. On the plate, it looked like a low-rent attempt at being fancy, and maybe it was, but it was actually very, very good. Sweet and peanuty, but light and moist. Pike chose the Shrimp Roll, whole dough-wrapped shrimp, deep fried with a sweet dipping sauce. Again, very very good. "The food here isn't bad enough to justify why this place is deserted" he softly said across the table. We followed that up with Tom Yum Soup, a spicy lemongrass heavy soup. He ordered the chicken one, and I ordered the vegetarian one. In this instance, we differed. Pike liked the soup way more than I did. I thought it was not better than fine. He thought that it was far better than fine.
For entrees, Pike ordered the Garlic Seafood. Shrimps, scallops, mussels, squid, and (imitation) crab - at least they're honest - with steamed mixed vegetables under a garlic black pepper sauce. He liked it, and so did I. The sauce was rich and tangy and the seafood was tender. His one complaint, which he tempered with an "and this seems to always happen" was that they really need more seafood. Not just two mussels, not just a few scallops. Also, lose the imitation crab. It feels cheap. I ordered the Honolulu Stripper because how do you not order something with that name? It's mixed vegetables, chicken, scallops, and pineapple in a chili sauce. This entree was very sweet, the vegetables had a nice crunch, and the chicken was well cooked and not dried to a crisp, but I'd have liked it to be spicier than it was, especially because it had a chili pepper drawn net to it on the menu. Still, taste-wise no complaints.
The whole thing came to $35 per person plus tip, which these days is pretty cheap. I returned alone later to try the one thing that everyone who eats Thai food in the States has on their short list, the Pad Thai. I got mine with chicken and, like everything else, it wasn't bad. I would have preferred a firmer noodle, but I'd recommend it. Sweet, a little spicy but not by much, and with a squeeze of lime, perfect. For $12 you can stuff yourself.
The Old Siam needs to differentiate itself from the competition. For starters, it's not cheaper than Thai Pot on Queens Boulevard or Hive on Yellowstone, so it's not going to grab the strictly budget diners. It's not as trendy as Jade, so it's not going to get the people who want a reflecting pool with their meal. It's not as convenient to shopping as Bangkok Cuisine. So it needs to become the kind of place that people will go out of their way to go. It has to be the kind of place that, when you're walking down Austin and reach Eddie Bauer, you don't just turn around.
There are two ways to become a destination. The first is to have a celebrity chef or celebrity customers. The second is to be better and more interesting than everyone else. No more imitation crab. No more lychee martinis. Don't swamp people with a ten page menu that takes half an hour to wade through. Cut it down to seven appetizers and ten entrees that the other restaurants don't have. Keep the pad Thai, it's a popular dish that everyone wants on a menu and, like roast chicken on an American menu. Cute names are fun, but twelve different sauces with mixed vegetables and your choice of shrimp, tofu, or chicken is the been-there-done-that plan of every other Thai restaurant in the galaxy and a tropical stir fry is a tropical stir fry is a tropical stir fry. Make me want to go eat at The Old Siam because they have a dish that I literally cannot get anywhere else. I'll pay for it if it's good and I'll tell other people to pay for it. Dim the lights. Toss some tea lights on the table. Call a beer distributor and get a variety of Thai beer. Get a cocktail book at Barnes & Noble down the block and shake up some tropical cocktails that aren't just sugar and rum. The interior isn't trendy and modern, so own that old-school vintage vibe. Make me feel like I'm eating in a kind of 1960s Bangkok hot spot.
Of course, if The Old Siam makes a fortune on take-out, then they can ignore everything I said because it doesn't matter at all.