Rivers have been invested with so much symbolism they've become a literary tradition. Samuel Clemens made us all believe a trip down the river was the great American adventure. Joseph Conrad convinced us it was an avenue into the amoral soul. For Norman Maclean a waterway served as the bond that brought brothers together.
I've always enjoyed reading about the mythical properties of free-flowing waters. To the mind a river offers challenge or endows strength. To the body it represents survival. Either way, the inclination to follow a river metaphorically is undeniable.
I enjoy far less actually traveling on one. Water's healing current often induces a kneeling experience for me, my mouth open and head hung over the edge of whatever boat I may be on. Yet somehow, usually at the urge of my Aquaman brother-in-law and against all personal logic, I frequently find myself sailing, motorboating, even canoeing -- my brain buffeted, stomach revolted by the current. Only if I were a salmon, determined to survive and spawn the next generation, might I find exhilarating the mad rush against me.
If I were a salmon I might also have appreciated the struggle at Siam River.
Another float in the 163rd Street parade of Thai restaurants, Siam River is distinguished not only by its food but by its excruciating concept of time. Each long and fluid hour began to take on a sameness the night we visited. Fifty minutes we waited for the main course to arrive. (We finally gave up expecting to see one of the appetizers -- it never appeared.) In the past I've complained that dining at some restaurants simply does not qualify as "an evening out," but at Siam River a meal could take a week.
If you don't mind leisure, by all means vacation at the River. The staff is pleasant (if barely competent), and the fare, especially the curry and the noodles, welcomes the uninitiated palate as well as the more knowledgeable one. The menu employs a powerful sense of whimsy illustrated by wonderful idioms, such as "a meal without rice leaves the stomach empty" and "if your children like to eat fish, they will grow up smart." It also offers an extensive selection of dishes and a guide for levels of spiciness. Food can be ordered in any category ranging from zero (mild) "for babies under six years old" to four (very spicy) "for mad Thai people only."
The range of the food applies not only to spice, but to influence. Thai cuisine is a unique amalgamation of Indian and Chinese flavors, characterized by fish and noodle bases. At Siam River a diner can depend, like the sun, on the Eastern and Western parameters -- quick-fried vegetables in flavored oils and soy sauce on one hand, curried stews with coconut milk and peanuts on the other.
The interior of Siam River looks something like Lewis Carroll meets Yul Brynner. Miniature multipatterned parasols hang in clusters from the ceiling like mushrooms, or as if the roof were one giant cocktail. The ceiling itself is made of old-fashioned acoustical tiles (a sort of foam placard that reminded me of basements and school gymnasiums; I refrained from poking holes, hiding illicit goods, and calculating the number of dots per tile, though as the hunger meter ran it became a serious strain not to).
Fortunately, to relieve the stress brought on by unfulfilled temptation, I had company at my table if not in the dining room. For reasons unknown to us -- a party of six -- we were seated in the back room, despite the restaurant's empty tables. A frilly pink nylon curtain absorbed the open door space. It effectively blocked the main dining room, where waitresses keep an easy eye on their sections. The only time we viewed other diners was on their way to the bathroom; we'd point them in the right direction.
While privacy is a valued commodity, solitary confinement is a punishment -- "out of sight, out of mind" being the operative cliche here. Our waitresses were sweet but forgetful. We never received our yum conch appetizer ($5.95), and refills on rice required a search party through the pastel door. Nevertheless, we had the freedom to converse as loudly as a flooding river, whereas the main dining room murmured like the Dead Sea.
Even without the yum conch, however, food was plentiful when it finally debuted. We began with a chicken and a beef satay ($5.95 each), spears of meat that had been marinated in ground cumin, coriander, coconut milk, and soy, and then seared on a tabletop grill. Satay has become a staple of any Thai restaurant in America, though in actuality the combination of ingredients is Malaysian in origin. Siam River serves a traditionally Malay interpretation, with a rich, slightly oily peanut sauce and a refreshing cucumber pickle accompaniment.
The mee krob ($4.95), also a familiar tradition, mixes the textures of toasted rice noodles, firm shrimp, chicken, and honey sauce. A bit on the sweet side and bare on the shrimp side (we found one), this appetizer leans more toward the Chinese influence in Thai cookery. The dry, crunchy noodles mildly introduce the meal, preparing the stomach for the more complex spices that often follow.
Next on our table was the tiger tear ($5.95), sliced beef in lime juice, coriander, and chilies, served cold over greens. We ordered this at level three and wished we hadn't. Only two of us survived.
But as if in a video game, we were all magically reborn to enjoy the "stand-up" chicken ($12.95), a whole roasted game hen staked upright, vegetables at its drumsticks like disciples. This sacrificial chicken was baptized at the table with typical Thai flair -- in flames. We suspect the unfortunate fowl to be the reason our meal took so long to appear (it couldn't have been that River had bigger fish to fry). Thai dishes average less than ten minutes to prepare. But a chicken can take as long as an hour to bake, thus delaying a course. And for the weak-hearted, the cruel presentation can delay the entire meal, permanently. We were thankful we hadn't ordered King of a Little Lake ($13.95) -- frog legs. The possibilities for presenting stir-fried Kermit could prompt animal rights intervention, or at least a protest from Miss Piggy.
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Compared with the "stand-up" chicken, our other choices appeared tame. The chicken with asparagus ($8.95) and ginger beef ($7.95) were hardly works of art. But the ingredients were fresh and generous and a soothing contrast to the shrimp curry ($9.95), a spicy red-curry and coconut-milk broth with potatoes and a pineapple twist. A little rum and this could have been one interesting pina colada.
As to be expected, the noodle dishes garnered the most praise. Though a bit soupier than I prefer, the pad Thai ($5.95), practically the national dish of Thailand, moved faster around the table than it probably did in the wok. With the exceptions of lemon grass and coconut, pad Thai combines the flavors that most characterize Thai cuisine -- fish sauce, peanuts, dried shrimp, garlic, chili powder, and coriander.
Pad see eiew ($7.95), a variation on a theme, used sen lek (medium flat rice noodles) as a base. Topped with a variety of meats -- chicken, beef, and pork -- as well as broccoli and bean sprouts, this dish could be a satisfying meal in itself, and perhaps should have been. Because noodle plates rarely reside more than two or three minutes over fire, we would have been assured of a meal that was not a marathon, and a postprandial mood that was not impatience. But by then we had cast our bread upon the waters.
SIAM RIVER 3455 NE 163rd St., N. Miami Beach; 945-8079. Lunch Monday -- Saturday from noon until 2:30 p.m. Dinner every night from 5:00 until 11:00 p.m.