Some restaurants arrive with a fanfare. Stang of Siam just kind of showed up one recent afternoon in Baltimore's Midtown-Belvedere neighborhood. One day it wasn't there, and the next day it was, and within about a week or so, Stang of Siam started filling up every night.
That's because word gets around about good food. Standout dishes are easy to find, and diners will tell their friends about a delightfully satisfying entree of deep-fried crispy duck in chili garlic sauce and an exemplary version of Larb Gai, the traditional salad of spicy minced chicken.
People are talking not only about the food at Stang of Siam but the nice evenings they've spent there. Stang of Siam is related to a group of Thai restaurants in the D.C. metro associated with Chuchart "Bobby" Kampirapang, the best known of which, The Regent, is located near the district's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Kampirapang's restaurants, Stang of Siam included, stand out from the crowd by giving diners a little something extra with their Drunken Noodles — namely, a nice room to eat it in. Essentially, Stang of Siam would rather be that nice corner bistro that people go to for a Saturday night date than the little Thai joint they go to on a Tuesday.
The food at Stang of Siam is quite on par with the offerings at other Thai places in Baltimore, sometimes better. This is really just shrewd update to a formula, complete with square plates and light jazz.
The main dining area, saturated with warm woody brown tones, is a spare contemporary space. A massive carved teak wall decoration dominates the restrained decor. Figurines, tapestries and plants are deployed with care, and instead of saying "Thai restaurant," the atmosphere says "restaurant."
For the most part, the menu, which is enclosed in a carved wooden binder, coherently lays out an evening's dining options. Classic Thai restaurant dishes are grouped under noodle, rice and entree headings, and a dozen signature dishes are listed separately.
Appetizers do a good job of introducing diners to the kitchen's eye for colorful and creative plating. Otherwise, they play it too safe and come across as pandering. Mild minced shrimp has been subbed for the traditional potent minced fish in the deep-fried cakes known as Tod Man Goong. Even so, the cakes are crispy, tasty and engagingly plated on a nest of fried potatoes. Goong Sarong, an appetizer of deep-fried shrimp, likewise comes across as an option for people who don't much like Thai food. Steamed dumplings are stuffed with chicken, pork, shrimp and crab meat, which is at least one too many things. They're lovely but inert.
But the Larb Gai shows up just in time to knock our socks off. It's nothing more than ground chicken dressed with kaffir lime leaves, but it packs a spicy wallop. This was a promising sign, and it turned out that the best things were to come.
Sauteed dishes are sturdy choices. The house's Prig King sauce, which gets mixed with a string beans and a choice of meat, carries a bracing smack of chili and the pungency of fish sauce. The milder Panang Curry has all of the enveloping aromatic warmth it should.
But the signature dishes, priced only a dollar or two more than the standard entrees, are the things to try. The clear table favorite was the Gra Prao Ped, an entree of deep-fried boneless duck sauteed with sweet basil in chili garlic sauce. Dining companions who had reluctantly agreed to order this and another fried entree, crispy fried flounder fillets in chili basil sauce, were deep-fried enthusiasts by the end.
Baltimore's Crab Fried Rice, which no one expected too much from, turned out to be something of a must-have. Shaped into a cylinder, garnished prettily and seasoned assertively, it's the rare fried rice dish that earns its place on a Saturday night table.
A limited dessert menu isn't a surprise in a Thai restaurant. Stang of Siam offers custard, sticky rice with mango and coconut ice cream. The sticky-sweet cocktail list and lame beer offerings, never mind the wine list, are disappointing, though.
Stang of Siam is well-tended by its friendly small staff, who seem perfectly capable of stepping from the default service posture, which assumes that diners have never seen Thai food before in their lives.
Noticeably absent from Stang of Siam has been any sign of a proprietor — that is, of anyone with an ownership interest on premises to accept not only compliments on the restaurant's early success but a few suggestions, too.
For one thing, Stang of Siam has an uncanny knack for looking like it's closed even when it's open. That's something an owner's eyes would see. For another, put the fish back in my Tod Mun Goong.
Stang of Siam
Address: 1301 N. Calvert St., Midtown-Belvedere
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect address for the restaurant.