She tells me not to order the Siam sator. I explain to my server at Siam Central, a new Thai restaurant in Mission Viejo, that I am an adventurous eater. But she is holding on. She wrinkles her nose and says, “This is for the Thais, not for the Americans. You won’t like it. It’s too strong.”
Since I have already ordered more food than I can eat, I let his advice prevail. But in the hours that follow, I get more and more frustrated that I didn’t order the sator beans.
I have eaten sator beans before and enjoyed them, at Jitlada in Los Angeles and at an outdoor restaurant in Bangkok called MahaNaga. Even in the sprawling Thai city of LA, beans are scarce. Granted, I’ve never seen them on a menu in Orange County.
So I come back later in the week freshly excited. I have a different server this time: it’s the owner herself. When I ask for Sator Siam, she also hesitates for a moment. She studies me briefly but says nothing.
While she gauges me, I suggest: “I’ve had them before. ”
“Truly?” she asks. “Or?”
“To Jitlada in LA,” I say.
Apparently I said the magic word. Her eyes light up. “It was my dish,” she says. She embarks on a story about how she and her family were the original owners of Jitlada before selling the restaurant over 20 years ago. She takes her pencil from her tablet and scribbles the final touches on my order, then turns and smiles and heads straight for the kitchen.
Sator beans can be considered an acquired taste. In Thailand, they are often called “stinky beans” on menus in English. They look like beans except that they are flatter. They have an unusually pungent flavor that tastes like mushrooms, asparagus, garlic and truffles, all mixed and compressed, like nature’s original molecular gastronomy. It doesn’t take long for the unmistakable aroma of stinky beans to flood the dining room with intrigue. I see other customers sniffing the air.
The beans are sautéed with squid, shrimp, ground chicken, and pork, along with pickled garlic, Thai chili peppers, and a dollop of fermented shrimp paste. If you ask me, it’s the shrimp paste that deserves a harsh warning more than the beans. But each ingredient camouflages the other. There’s an almost overwhelming explosion of umami in even the smallest bite of this dish: salty, funky, herbal, spicy and aromatic. There is nothing else like it in Orange County. And it is absolutely delicious.
The smelly beans aren’t your only clue that Siam Central isn’t like most other Thai restaurants in Orange County. Another is kua kring, a radioactive dry curry from southern Thailand. This curry is more often written “kling” instead of “kring”, but it is the same dish – and it is very unusual to see it in OC. This curry is not wet, like a stew or soup. It looks more like a plate of sloppy Joe meat (a choice between ground chicken or ground pork). “This one is spicy,” the owner tells me when I order it.
“Oh great. How spicy? I ask.
“On a scale of one to ten, the sweetest we can do is a seven,” she says.
Good thing I didn’t ask for an eight because my teeth all melted after just one bite. While it’s incredibly spicy, it’s also surprisingly refreshing and herbal, like mint and lime leaf.
The owner comes back to see me and notices that sweat is forming on my forehead despite the air conditioner firmly keeping the dining room at a freezing temperature of 65 degrees. “Put rice on it,” she said. “It will help. You can’t eat this one on your own.
In the same section of the menu where you will find the kua kring, you might also notice the massaman curry, a familiar stew made from potatoes, carrots and coconut milk that has its origins in Indian and Malaysian cuisines but frequently appears on Thai tables. Don’t understand that one. Return the menu to the same “house special” section where you found the sator beans. You will find “roti massaman” there. This is the massaman you want. It’s the same curry, but instead of being served with rice, it’s served with paratha roti (flatbread) in butter and flaky for dipping.
Also in this “house special” section there is an amazing soup called tom saeb. It uses a lemongrass base similar to the more familiar tom yum, but instead, this soup is made with pork broth and chopped pork ribs. It is spicy and slightly acidic with a hint of sweetness. And I wonder why this soup isn’t as widely available as Tom Yum because it’s amazing.
The menu repeats indefinitely, over 100 items not including drinks or condiments. And all the standards are there for anyone looking for classic pad thai, green curry, papaya salad, pad see ew, larb, spicy green beans with red curry paste and kaffir lime. – all of this is very good. I haven’t tried it but there is even a Chinese Orange Chicken Plate for people who might not like Thai food. (Or maybe for anyone who isn’t brave enough to order the sator beans after being told these things aren’t for you?)
It is important to note that although the staff are incredibly warm and friendly, the service is neither quick nor efficient and can be downright maddening if you empty your Thai tea before you have finished your kua kring and your face is on. fire. point that flames visibly erupt from the top of your head. We could probably walk to the gas station around the corner and buy a bottle of water faster than refueling here. Make sure you have plenty to drink before taking a bite of something spicier than level five.
Or: 25571 Chemin Jeronimo, Mission Viejo
When: Lunch and dinner, from Tuesday to Sunday
In line: siamcentralthai.com