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We are Siamese:

Thai outpost is sure to please

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The fact that controversial Czech Republic sculptor David Cerny's "Metalmorphosis" is located in Whitehall Center is reason enough to travel -- if you don't live around there -- to the southwest side of town. The imposing 30-foot-tall, 14-ton, kinetic, stainless steel sculpture of the head of a man spews water while reflecting the sky. Near to this "art attack" is Siam Garden Thai Restaurant, a cozy, 70-seat spot, ironically devoid of a garden and sporting plastic orchids on the tables. Siam opened in January 2006, but garnered acclaim last fall when the Cerny sculpture was unveiled in September.

On a Friday night, the strip shopping center to one side of the corporate structures seemed unreasonably quiet. During the day, the area teems with office workers. But once night overtakes the commercial development, the area seems to give way to a ghostly silence observed by circling head of Cerny's sculpture.

Once inside Siam Garden, however, short bursts of bright colors and warmth envelop. We noticed only a few tables with customers, but these diners seemed to be quite acquainted with the owner who greeted, seated and served. Table tops are covered with glass to protect the red linens beneath while chandeliers gently sway overhead. Among the collection of gilded Thai ornamental headdresses worn in traditional dance performances are photographs of a smiling Mayor McCrory and Thai Garden owner Lampang Fowler.

This is the second restaurant venture for Fowler, a native of a small town 60 miles from Bangkok, but she has resided in the Charlotte area for 14 years. Fowler had a short-lived Kannapolis eatery devoted to her Thai ancestry, and before that she cooked in a south Charlotte Thai restaurant. However, Fowler wanted a spot near I-485 between I-77 and I-85 ("It's easy to get to -- even from the lake," she noted.) Whitehall fit her requirements. Happily Fowler's gamble has been fruitful.

Thai cuisine seems to be the perfect storm of cascading flavors: the mellowing of coconut milk with searing chilies, zingy ginger with herbaceous cilantro and mint, sweet tamarind with musty nam pla. Some Thai cuisine lovers zero in on the heat, since this is one of the components of their taste spectrum. I have considered ordering a Thai curry dish higher than the extra hot level to test the intensity of heat since there doesn't seem to be any universal restaurant standard. Perhaps if the extreme categories had a caricature of steam pouring from the ears of a cartoon head and the highest category drawn as a head blown off instead awarding simple stars or chile peppers, the strength of heat could be better understood. Heat is part of cultural relativity. Can Thai food be enjoyed without turning up the thermostat?

Not being a hothead, I typically order at a lower level, partially to save my lips for another day, but primarily to taste the other dishes and savor the wine. A small, but smart group of wines are offered at Siam Garden -- both by the bottle and glass. Beers, including the renowned Singha, a beer brewed in Thailand, are available as well.

At Siam Garden, dishes can be ordered from mild to torrid. The starters are affairs to share: gossamer pork dumplings "marinated in an herb steam," a curried chicken package of wrapped pastry. These are stylishly presented on the ubiquitous Thai blue and white earthenware with clever dividers containing puddles of dipable sauces.

What stands out at Siam Garden, though, are the entrees. Soon my table was gobbling up a plate of crispy duck -- the Pad Krapraw. The perfunctory Pad Thai, my Thai bellwether, seemed to go unnoticed with so many other tempting selections. Indeed, this dish was missing the oomph note. Curry selections excel, including one with catfish. A superior peppery red curry was the recommendation of Fowler. This turned out to be an ethereal bowl; a flavorfall of aroma and taste, spiked with chilies, but mellowed by coconut milk.

A limited dessert menu has sticky rice and ice creams: fried and house-made. Prices won't blow the budget: lunch ranges from $7 to $8 while dinner entrees are $11 to $18. Soups, either by the bowl or hot pot (which means enough for you and lots of others), are $4 for Tom Yam to $15 for a pot of seafood laden Siam Pok Tak. A delightful children's menu features chicken satay or bowls of Tom Kha (Thai coconut milk soup) or Gang Jerd (noodles in broth) with rice for $4.25. Sure there's a chicken wings with fries, but kudos to Fowler for giving kids a taste of her cuisine.

For more than 30 years, Thai cuisine has been popular in North Carolina and currently Thai is one of the more popular international cuisines nationally. As Charlotte stretches to areas beyond I-485, it is reassuring to know that travelers bisecting the outskirts of our community can stop off, have a taste of one of our state's more popular ethnic cuisines, and view a surprising piece of European art. What an added bonus for Charlotteans who live nearby.

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