new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Cafe de Siam in Tampa: Papaya Salad and Family Tradition

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cafe de Siam in Tampa: Papaya Salad and Family Tradition

Cafe De Siam
11242 W Hillsborough Ave, Tampa, FL
(813) 855-1108 ‎

Cafe de Siam is our family's go-to Thai place, located very close to my grandparent's home in Tampa. It's a small, family run place with a pleasingly interesting menu and a basic but comfortable dining room: I believe I have been eating there for at least 8 years, possibly longer. The owners know my grandparents and are always happy to see us - we like seeing them, too.

My grandmother and I started off with some spring rolls. These were pretty unusual, with a flour crepe-like wrapping instead of rice paper. To my surprise, the crepe treatment worked very well: the filling of egg, bean sprouts, crab, and pork was fresh and crunchy. I didn't quite grasp the squiggle of Chinese mustard down the side, but then again, I have never quite grasped the Chinese mustard concept. (It just doesn't go with stuff! What the hell do you use it on? What the hell is pink "duck sauce"? NO ONE EATS THAT IN CHINA GOD okay i'm finished)

Next move: Thai papaya salad (som tam) with shrimp and peanuts. I love green papaya salad to distraction. It's one of my favorite foods: crunchy, deliciously fresh green papaya, spicy-ass fish sauce dressing, crunchy peanuts, and shrimps, in one delightful combination. In Thailand, som tam is considered to combine the four primary tastes of Thai cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce, and sweetness from sugar. I've been told you can buy this stuff on the street in Thailand and dictate how much you want of each element - wish we had that going on in the USA. Really authentic versions are made with brined crabs, small and delightfully funky - order them if you see them available, as they're rather rare in the USA. This was a particularly finely grated and delicate version, with a pleasing slow burn and a bunch of crunchy peanuts. Entirely successful.

A dish of seafood in spicy garlic sauce proved to be another success - the fresh, high quality seafood was a pleasant departure from the usual soggy out-of-the-bag seafood combos most Thai places serve up. The sauce had a pleasantly powerful preserved garlic flavor, and I especially liked the chunky snow crab legs, as most places use fake krab and call it a day with this dish.

Red vegetable curry with coconut milk wasn't as much to my taste - the vegetables were a little overcooked, and the sheer richness of the dish ain't really my deal. I'm much more interested in the snappy, fresh, explosion of fresh style Thai cooking, although light-handed coconut milk preparations do have their place.

No dessert for us, although my cousin's swear up and down by their sticky black rice dish. We took back a whole bunch of leftovers. I'm always glad to see this place when I come into Tampa.

Good Asian food acts as my anchor point, the proof positive I need that I can like and thrive in a place, without it I'm adrift and confused - I must have readily available papaya salad or the world goes pear shaped, I'm lost. I am going to have to settle in California or actually finally in Asia, but this is a price I am prepared to pay up.

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