Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. daily.
Price range: Main dishes from $2.50 to $7.50; complete dinners from $12 for two persons to $22 for four.
Atmosphere: Small, plain and friendly, the food a joyous experience.
Credit cards: Visa, Master Charge.
Reservations: Advised on the weekends.
Special facilities: Parking lot; accessible for customers in wheelchairs, booster chairs.
Marylanders no longer need make forays across the District line in search of Thai cooking, one of the tastiest Asian cuisines now available in the Washington area. No farther than Wheaton is the Siam Inn, a tiny restaurant that thinks big when it comes to turning out a good meal.
It took the youthful vision of our two daughters, 9 and 12, to spot the Siam Inn, which is a block east of Georgia Avenue off University Boulevard. It is wedged into a bleak little shopping center next to a 7-11 Store.
The decor in the Siam Inn - a handful of tables done up in blues and reds, and a token amount of Thai ornamentation on the walls - is not awesome. Clearly, the inn's energies go into the cooking, most of which is inspired. Its imaginative and delectable fare is offered at the lowest of prices, which makes a visit to the Siam Inn a happy affair.
Our waitress spoke little English but she knew what Sprite and wine meant, thus accommodating the family's primal needs. The rest of the ordering took place by using cryptic English, pointing to the menu and a vigorous nodding of heads. This system served us well and so did the waitress.
Dozens of main dishes, most in the $3 to $5 range, are listed on the menu, but we decided to have the dinner for four, priced at a deflationary $22. For this sum, there is a choice of soup, two appetizers, four entrees, rice and tea or coffee.
My husband and I chose the Gai Tom Kha, a lemon chicken soup with coconut milk. We were overruled by the kids who bristled at the mere mention of milk. So we compromised on Tom Yai Gai, basically the same soup without the coconut. It was a tangy, refreshing, hot broth laced with chicken chunks and strands of lemon grass.
Choosing appetizers is plain agony, for this is where the Siam Inn is truly ambitious. I would not rule out a meal entirely selected from the two dozen appetizers offered: treats like deep-fried chicken stuffed with pork and crab; shrimp cooked with lime, garlic and mint; minced pork with shallots, peanuts and spring onions, pepper spareribs, and, of course, spring rolls, shrimp tempura and fried wontons.
Our first pick was Hoy Jaw, walnut sized balls of minced crabmeat and shrimp wrapped in papery pancakes and fried. The family praised the flavor but the filling was a bit dry. It didn't measure up to our second choice, Pla'Nua, which was first-rate.
Pla'Nua is a dish of thin slices of barbecued beef tossed with a savory combination of shallots, lemon grass, garlic and fresh mint leaves. The mint makes the dish and cools down the chili peppers which the Thais use with abandon.
Main dishes at the Siam Inn are not the outsized portions served at Chinese restaurants, so it's best to get one per person.The tiny but meaty spareribs, glazed in an almost caramelized sweet and sour sauce, especially appealed to the children, who also put a fair dent into the beef and green peppers.
I suffered temporary paralysis of the tastebuds when I inadvertently bit into a fresh chili pepper in the Gai Nan Chao, an otherwise wondrous blend of fried chicken pieces, mushrooms, peanuts and bamboo shoots. Unless you have an inner lining of asbestos, you are well advised to use caution on any dishes made with chili sauce or peppers.
Our final choice was curied beef with vegetables, deliciously pungent but not apt to sear your esophagus. It went well with the rice.
For the adventurous, there are many exotic main dishes such as fried hog maw with garlic and pepper, stewed ox tongue and chicken with noodles, mushroom sauce and quail eggs. The Siam Inn is not appropriate for very young children, but older ones might enjoy milder dishes like fried fish, noodles with chicken, pork or shrimp, sweet and sour pork or roast duck.
The menu urged us to ask about Thai specialties for dessert, but the only thing available on the night of our visit was not-so-special American sherbet. No one complained.
Our dinner, so graciously served and thoughtfully prepared, came to $32.03, including tip. We envy Wheaton its Siam Inn.