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Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen's Tom Yum Kung: hot hot hot!

We’re beyond “like.” We’re into addiction here.

A celestial being welcomes you to Tom Yum heaven.
A celestial being welcomes you to Tom Yum heaven.
Place

Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen

226 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

My favorite comfort food? This is my favorite comfort food. A soup that is making beads of sweat pop from my brow, that sends peppery shafts radiating out into my gills. Then the flavor that follows: lemongrass! Galangal! Sharp, lemonish, pine-resin-ish. Plus something warmly sweet at the end of the mouthful. I lean in. Oops. Have to be careful. Orange flames are still spurting out of the hotpot’s chiminea. Tom Yum Kung, hot hot hot! The “kung,” (say “koong”) — shrimp — gives you relief when you bite in, gentling the edge of the soup’s heat. There are maybe half a dozen nice big fat white ones floating under the red surface, along with mushrooms and big chunks of tomato.

Manager Win, sweetens dishes for local tastes.

I’m especially interested because, hot news! Tom Yum Kung has just been accepted onto UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Menu. Cool.

So glad I decided on Thai today. I’m down in IB, at Seacoast and Palm, where that great pub, Ye Olde Plank Inn, is still serving up grog next to the waves after 100-plus years. I started there. The problem was, all they had food-wise was a pizza. (Ten-inch, six bucks). Guy next to me ordered one. I was hongry too, except I had noticed this Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen a block back, swirling with plenty of people inside. So I started thinking: a little mouth-burn could do a lot of good. Tom Yum Kung! It’s a gastro-version of taking a sauna. ’Course the soup has gotta be maxxo hot, spice-wise, to work. Hot as you can handle it.

Some like it hot! Tom Yum hotpot keeps the spices sizzling.

So I came back up Palm, and now I’m inside this little red box of a building with a driftwoody frontage. Inside’s plain white with a matte-black ceiling, brass lotus flowers on the wall, and, sitting right on top of the counter, this welcoming apsara, looks like — one of the divine creatures of the Hindu and Buddhist universe. I’ve always liked how these mythical people look happy, not stern, full of life, not wagging fingers at you.

“Welcome!” says Win, the busy manager guy who’s serving three customers at the same time. He sits me down and slides plastic menus at me. Three of them.

Goodness. There’s a lot. I start reading. First up, appetizers, including fusion deals like Siam chicken wings with sweet Thai chili sauce ($12.95); larb gai (Laotian-style spicy ground chicken, $10.95), and yum woon sen, glass noodles with seafood ($12.95, small; $15.95, large). 

Then we’re on to entrees. These stretch from $13-18, depending on your protein. Like, pork with rice would cost $12.95, duck tamarind would be $16.95, spicy spaghetti seafood goes for $17.95, and Crying Tiger — basically, sliced New York steak with Thai spices (the tiger “cries” fat on the spit) — $16.95, plus fried rice dishes and noodles (mostly around $13-18).

Sweet, sumptuous, peanutty panang.

But I have come in with my mind made up. I already know what I want: Tom Yum Kung, the famous hot and sour soup with shrimp that come from the rivers and canals of Thailand’s Central Plains region. And for me, this soup ain’t the real thing if it don’t come bubbling in a hot pot with a fire up the middle. Plus: has to have those nice big juicy kung, prawns. And — did I say? — muy spicy is mandatory, at least in this bad boy’s book. Here they have “mild,” “medium,” and “fire” categories. Me: “fire.” Sweat out all the poisons.

“You are unusual,” says Win. “Did you know that 90 percent of our customers ask for Pad Thai?”

Wow. Pad Thai, the go-to Thai dish. They say it was named by one of Thailand’s most famous nationalist leaders (and occasional dictator), Plaek Phibulsongkhram. He called the dish, which uses Chinese rice noodles, “Pad Thai” to build up the idea of Thai cuisine. I see that here, the noodles come with wok-fried protein, like pork, chicken, or tofu ($12.95) or seafood ($15.95), with bean sprouts and green onions and — here’s why I think 90 percent of us ferang (non-Thai) customers go for it — it has lots of scrambled egg and crushed roasted peanuts. They just give it that comfort food feel. (They say we also love Pad Thai because it has so much fat and too much sodium.)

Woody exterior captures the atmosphere.

But not for me. Tonight, I intend to meet the heat. I love Tom Yum’s sour undercurrent. And hey hey! Here it comes, this burning bowl of goodness. Great for your health, too, they say, and loaded with good-for-you herbs like lemongrass. Just love chomping into the prawns and big chunks of tomato, and, oh yes, getting heat relief from a cold bottle of Singha beer ($4.95). 

One thing I notice that is different: my soup has a sweeter tang to it than most Tom Yum Kung I’ve tried. “We put palm sugar into it,” admits Win. “Our customers like it a little sweeter. And palm sugar gives it a gentler heat.” Just now, he’s here delivering a panang curry. Huh. That golden, coconut milk-infused, kinda thick soup with red and green peppers, chunks of chicken, and the totally seductive taste of turmeric, kaffir lime, fish sauce, galangal, coriander, garlic...but also the secret ingredient again: crushed roasted peanuts, a la Pad Thai. Tempting. What thu heck. It’s madness, but I ask for a plate of panang. Costs $12.95 with chicken. I’ll make this two meals.

Have to say, having both — this creamy, sweet-but-also-spicy, nutty panang, and a “chaser” of the more liquidy Tom Yum — is like going to foodie heaven. I eat way too much. We’re beyond “like.” We’re into addiction here. 

Half an hour later, I’ve waddled back into Ye Olde Plank. Drinking buddy’s pizza bones are still on his plate.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Heaven, son, heaven.”

  • The Place: Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen, 226 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach, 619-621-6650
  • Hours: 11am-2:30pm; 5-9pm daily (Saturday, Sunday, 12-9pm only) 
  • Prices: Siam chicken wings, with sweet Thai chili sauce, $12.95; larb gai (Laotian-style spicy ground chicken, $10.95); yum woon sen, glass noodles with seafood, $12.95, small, $15.95, large; pork entree with rice, $12.95; duck tamarind, $16.95; spicy spaghetti seafood, $17.95; Crying Tiger (New York steak, sliced, with Thai spices), $16.95; pad thai, (noodles, protein, with egg, roasted peanuts), $11.95-$15.95; mango, sticky rice, $8.95
  • Buses: 933, 934
  • Nearest Bus Stops: 3rd and Palm (933, westbound); 2nd and Palm (934, eastbound)
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A celestial being welcomes you to Tom Yum heaven.
A celestial being welcomes you to Tom Yum heaven.
Place

Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen

226 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

My favorite comfort food? This is my favorite comfort food. A soup that is making beads of sweat pop from my brow, that sends peppery shafts radiating out into my gills. Then the flavor that follows: lemongrass! Galangal! Sharp, lemonish, pine-resin-ish. Plus something warmly sweet at the end of the mouthful. I lean in. Oops. Have to be careful. Orange flames are still spurting out of the hotpot’s chiminea. Tom Yum Kung, hot hot hot! The “kung,” (say “koong”) — shrimp — gives you relief when you bite in, gentling the edge of the soup’s heat. There are maybe half a dozen nice big fat white ones floating under the red surface, along with mushrooms and big chunks of tomato.

Manager Win, sweetens dishes for local tastes.

I’m especially interested because, hot news! Tom Yum Kung has just been accepted onto UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Menu. Cool.

So glad I decided on Thai today. I’m down in IB, at Seacoast and Palm, where that great pub, Ye Olde Plank Inn, is still serving up grog next to the waves after 100-plus years. I started there. The problem was, all they had food-wise was a pizza. (Ten-inch, six bucks). Guy next to me ordered one. I was hongry too, except I had noticed this Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen a block back, swirling with plenty of people inside. So I started thinking: a little mouth-burn could do a lot of good. Tom Yum Kung! It’s a gastro-version of taking a sauna. ’Course the soup has gotta be maxxo hot, spice-wise, to work. Hot as you can handle it.

Some like it hot! Tom Yum hotpot keeps the spices sizzling.

So I came back up Palm, and now I’m inside this little red box of a building with a driftwoody frontage. Inside’s plain white with a matte-black ceiling, brass lotus flowers on the wall, and, sitting right on top of the counter, this welcoming apsara, looks like — one of the divine creatures of the Hindu and Buddhist universe. I’ve always liked how these mythical people look happy, not stern, full of life, not wagging fingers at you.

“Welcome!” says Win, the busy manager guy who’s serving three customers at the same time. He sits me down and slides plastic menus at me. Three of them.

Goodness. There’s a lot. I start reading. First up, appetizers, including fusion deals like Siam chicken wings with sweet Thai chili sauce ($12.95); larb gai (Laotian-style spicy ground chicken, $10.95), and yum woon sen, glass noodles with seafood ($12.95, small; $15.95, large). 

Then we’re on to entrees. These stretch from $13-18, depending on your protein. Like, pork with rice would cost $12.95, duck tamarind would be $16.95, spicy spaghetti seafood goes for $17.95, and Crying Tiger — basically, sliced New York steak with Thai spices (the tiger “cries” fat on the spit) — $16.95, plus fried rice dishes and noodles (mostly around $13-18).

Sweet, sumptuous, peanutty panang.

But I have come in with my mind made up. I already know what I want: Tom Yum Kung, the famous hot and sour soup with shrimp that come from the rivers and canals of Thailand’s Central Plains region. And for me, this soup ain’t the real thing if it don’t come bubbling in a hot pot with a fire up the middle. Plus: has to have those nice big juicy kung, prawns. And — did I say? — muy spicy is mandatory, at least in this bad boy’s book. Here they have “mild,” “medium,” and “fire” categories. Me: “fire.” Sweat out all the poisons.

“You are unusual,” says Win. “Did you know that 90 percent of our customers ask for Pad Thai?”

Wow. Pad Thai, the go-to Thai dish. They say it was named by one of Thailand’s most famous nationalist leaders (and occasional dictator), Plaek Phibulsongkhram. He called the dish, which uses Chinese rice noodles, “Pad Thai” to build up the idea of Thai cuisine. I see that here, the noodles come with wok-fried protein, like pork, chicken, or tofu ($12.95) or seafood ($15.95), with bean sprouts and green onions and — here’s why I think 90 percent of us ferang (non-Thai) customers go for it — it has lots of scrambled egg and crushed roasted peanuts. They just give it that comfort food feel. (They say we also love Pad Thai because it has so much fat and too much sodium.)

Woody exterior captures the atmosphere.

But not for me. Tonight, I intend to meet the heat. I love Tom Yum’s sour undercurrent. And hey hey! Here it comes, this burning bowl of goodness. Great for your health, too, they say, and loaded with good-for-you herbs like lemongrass. Just love chomping into the prawns and big chunks of tomato, and, oh yes, getting heat relief from a cold bottle of Singha beer ($4.95). 

One thing I notice that is different: my soup has a sweeter tang to it than most Tom Yum Kung I’ve tried. “We put palm sugar into it,” admits Win. “Our customers like it a little sweeter. And palm sugar gives it a gentler heat.” Just now, he’s here delivering a panang curry. Huh. That golden, coconut milk-infused, kinda thick soup with red and green peppers, chunks of chicken, and the totally seductive taste of turmeric, kaffir lime, fish sauce, galangal, coriander, garlic...but also the secret ingredient again: crushed roasted peanuts, a la Pad Thai. Tempting. What thu heck. It’s madness, but I ask for a plate of panang. Costs $12.95 with chicken. I’ll make this two meals.

Have to say, having both — this creamy, sweet-but-also-spicy, nutty panang, and a “chaser” of the more liquidy Tom Yum — is like going to foodie heaven. I eat way too much. We’re beyond “like.” We’re into addiction here. 

Half an hour later, I’ve waddled back into Ye Olde Plank. Drinking buddy’s pizza bones are still on his plate.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Heaven, son, heaven.”

  • The Place: Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen, 226 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach, 619-621-6650
  • Hours: 11am-2:30pm; 5-9pm daily (Saturday, Sunday, 12-9pm only) 
  • Prices: Siam chicken wings, with sweet Thai chili sauce, $12.95; larb gai (Laotian-style spicy ground chicken, $10.95); yum woon sen, glass noodles with seafood, $12.95, small, $15.95, large; pork entree with rice, $12.95; duck tamarind, $16.95; spicy spaghetti seafood, $17.95; Crying Tiger (New York steak, sliced, with Thai spices), $16.95; pad thai, (noodles, protein, with egg, roasted peanuts), $11.95-$15.95; mango, sticky rice, $8.95
  • Buses: 933, 934
  • Nearest Bus Stops: 3rd and Palm (933, westbound); 2nd and Palm (934, eastbound)
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Comments
1

address is wrong, it's 226 Palm Ave but in Imperial Beach, not San Diego. Both exist but only one has the good food.

Aug. 1, 2021

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