After the departure of Sukhothai and before the arrival of Nicky's Thai Kitchen, Downtown lunchtime dining entered an epoch I commonly refer to as the Dark Ages.
The nearest Thai restaurant was Nicky's on the North Side, a wide murky river away and far too much of a hike for lunchtime. Sure, there were reams of other restaurant openings that offered delicious lunchtime offerings. But when you crave Thai food -- its perfect balances of spicy, salty, sweet and sour; the heavenly flavors of kaffir lime, coconut and lemongrass -- nothing else will satisfy, not even a succulent sandwich and buttery pastry from Bluebird Kitchen, or one of those 10-pound burrito bowls from Chipotle.
Thai food is strangely addictive in that way, and lucky for Pittsburghers, Thai restaurants are becoming more ubiquitous. But despite a robust lunchtime crowd, Downtown still has fewer Thai restaurants than Squirrel Hill.
The number of Thai joints Downtown recently doubled -- to two -- with the opening of Siam Restaurant in a space previously occupied by Sukhothai. Sukhothai was a standby favorite that got high marks for authenticity from a Thailand-born friend. It was a tragedy when it closed.
Siam is tucked away on First Avenue, far away from the raucous lunchtime crowds at Market Square. Situated on a rare quiet street behind the Art Institute, it offers an oasis of serenity in a part of the city where it sometimes feel like you can get trampled by a mob of hungry middle managers in polo shirts at the noon witching hour.
The walls are painted a vibrant ocean blue, which serve as a backdrop for hand-painted, wispy clouds. The wait staff was friendly and swift. Ambiance-wise, it was an ideal break from the grind of a workday.
I brought along two fairly reliable dining companions: Timothy McNulty and Annie Siebert. Upon being seated in the near-empty dining room, we were promptly given fried spring rolls with a little sweet and tart pink dipping sauce, free of charge. My spring roll lacked the crisp I'm accustomed to, but the filling of meat, vegetables and glass noodles was spot on.
Next up, we got the steamed dumplings ($7.25), which came with four. The dumplings reminded me of Chinese shumai, with the filling stuffed into a tiny basket of dumpling skin. The filling was ground pork with vegetables to add a bit of texture and crunch. A dark, sweet soy sauce was a perfect accompaniment.
We moved on next to a chicken labb salad ($12.95), a traditional dish of ground meat tossed with onions and herbs and dressed with a pungent mixture of citrus and fish sauce and served on top of greens. This version lacked the traditional lemongrass, but it was nonetheless a hit at the table.
Even though it was sweltering outside, perpetual soup lover Annie got the tom yum noodle ($8.50), a twist on the dish typically served in tiny side dish portions. The broth was spicy, sweet and tart -- as is it's meant to be -- and came stocked with soft tofu squares, cabbage and other vegetables. Annie -- who would eat food that's still ablaze if health codes allowed it -- complained only that it wasn't quite spicy enough, especially since she ordered it at an 8.
Tim ordered a Thai standby -- pad thai with vegetables ($8.50), an absurd portion of noodles topped with onions, eggs, and a healthy portion of vegetables. At a spice level 5, it was just the right amount of heat.
But curiously, the pad prik khing with chicken ($8.50), a stir-fry with meat and green beans all coated in a chile paste, was the spiciest, even though I only requested a spice level 4. I found myself wiping a bit of sweat from my brow. But it was still a delightful combination, the chili paste lending the right amount of heat and a subtle sweetness.
Our primary complaint -- and it was a minor one -- was about the lack of consistency in the spice levels. But there were no long lines, no cold cuts, no "Would you like chips with that?" And if you order right, you won't feel as if you need a nap right afterward. Between the delicious food and the soothing space, Siam offers a perfect midday break from the gloomy world of office cubicles.
Siam Thai Restaurant is at 410 First Ave., Downtown; 412-281-1122.munch
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.