- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The neighborhood is a-changin’. Old, worn joints like Mickey’s Patio on Barracks Row on Capitol Hill have given way to clean, family-friendly eateries. Mickey’s space on Eighth Street SE has been replaced by Old Siam, a new Thai restaurant.

Out are the pool tables, beer mugs and blue-collar types. In are tables for four, orchids and families. The bar is still well-stocked, but now mixed drinks (one is called tsunami) feature umbrellas and cherries.

Is this change a good thing? In Old Siam’s case, the answer is both yes and no. The food is a definite improvement, but the uniqueness and quirkiness are gone. It’s clean, but a tad boring.

Also, the service is fast, but not terribly informed. To the question of what is a cuttlefish, the response was, “It’s a fish.” In fact, it’s a type of squid. It has eight arms, and it was one of the ingredients in the hoi jaw, a May special appetizer. The dish also included crabmeat, water chestnuts, soybean oil and spices, all wrapped in a soybean sheet. It was, indeed, very fishy.

The chicken satay, however, was great. The tender skewered, marinated chicken was very tasty, as were the accompanying peanut sauce and cucumber relish.

The crispy duck salad — boneless roasted duck tossed with fresh ginger, scallions, celery, carrots and a chili paste and lime dressing — is an excellent appetizer choice. The flavors and textures contrast but combine perfectly.

The tom ka soup is also a nice choice. It’s surprisingly and pleasantly light — it seems brothier, less creamy than usual. The flavor is mild but has that wonderful hint of lemon grass.

The entree menu is extensive, featuring three dozen dishes, including 10 vegetarian, six noodle and fried rice and various curries. Each dish on the menu is marked with one, two or three stars to indicate the level of spiciness — but even the three-star dishes were not very hot.

The krapow — which had three stars — is a tasty dish of sauteed squid, shrimp and scallops doused in sweet Thai basil leaves, chili and garlic sauce. (It also can be served with pork, chicken or beef if preferred.) The seafood was perfectly prepared, featuring that not-chewy-and-yet-not-raw consistency.

The pad Thai chicken (which also can be served with shrimp), however, was a little dry and light on flavor.

The chicken Panang curry (again, other choices include beef, pork or seafood) is a nice dish. The sauce, consisting of the yellow Panang curry, peanut sauce, coconut milk and basil-leaf garnish, is very tasty. The chicken, however, was a little dry.

A nice, albeit a little gritty, surprise was the spinach and black bean sauce — spinach stir-fried in a black bean sauce with mushrooms and chili. The ingredients were so fresh and the preparation so good that even the anti-vegetarians in our party enjoyed the dish.

Among the desserts, the mango and sticky rice choice was our favorite. The sweet rice is topped with coconut milk and served with fresh mango.

Other choices include crispy banana and various homemade ice creams, which are all tasty but not very creamy. They include coconut ice cream, served in a coconut, and lemon ice cream, served in a lemon. The presentation is lovely, which can’t be said for most of the starters and main courses.

Some of the dishes arrived on white plates and others on flowery plates. Garnishes were sparse, and the food seemed to have been heaped rather than placed artfully, or even carefully. One guest didn’t receive a fork, and all of us lacked knives.

Other inconveniences included bright overhead lights and loud, very cold air-conditioning.

Hopefully, these kinks will be worked out and future dining experiences will be more comfortable and pleasing to the eye. This time, we were happy with the reasonably priced food but felt the decor, service and overall presentation fell a bit short.

RESTAURANT: Old Siam, 406 Eighth St. SE; 202/544-7426

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $3.95 to $7.95; main courses, $7.95 to $14.95; desserts, $4.50 to $5.95

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Limited street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair access

METRO: Eastern Market station on Orange and Blue lines

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