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Siamese Garden in Venice

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Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats restaurants—often obscure, ethnic, unsung spots—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Have a place she just must taste? Drop us a line.

If you’re looking for the Thai restaurant Siamese Garden in Venice, be careful not to walk a couple of extra feet along Washington Boulevard or you’ll wind up at the Cali Tex-Mex carnival that is Baja Cantina, a labyrinth of ‘70s-decorated rooms, patios, and bars filled with patrons downing margaritas the size of their heads surrounded by TV screens, surf memorabilia and the occasional scantily-clad girl handing out plastic charm necklaces touting liquor logos. But, walk through wooden archway and along the palm-dotted pathway to the Thai eatery next door, and you’ll find yourself a world away from the raucous party (except on nights when Baja's live music spills over).

While most of L.A.’s Thai restaurants aren’t exactly known for their fantastic atmosphere, Siamese Garden has somehow managed to not only land the sole restaurant space on the Venice canals, but has turned the place into a bona fide romantic spot to boot. Twinkling white lights and lanterns hang along the raised outdoor deck overlooking the canal with a glass wall on one side and a fence lined with potted plants on the other.

My friend and I sit inside, in a tiny dining room that feels more like a European-style cafe with wooden bistro chairs, upholstered booths, brass railings, and candlelight. Our booth has sheer lacey curtains we can shut for more privacy, but we decide we're comfortable dining while the world watches. The chilly night we visit, a few groups of four or five are sitting outside under heat lamps, while several couples (including one taking full advantage of the booth-curtain perk) are sitting inside where the warmth isn't rationed.

Our server is ready to take our order moments after we sit down, and we decide to start with shrimp basil rolls, which, like most of Siamese Garden's items, come out quickly and nicely plated on a leaf-shaped ceramic dish. It's the little details I especially like about this restaurant. There's a bubbling fountain adjacent to our booth, fresh flowers on the table, and a little hand carved wooden spoon for doling out the sweet orange dipping sauce that comes with our summer rolls. Each of the four plump halves are bursting with large shrimp, sliced sweet red peppers, lettuce, and shredded carrots, but the wrapper is a bit chewy and the basil gets lost in the crowd. (I later get a peek at the Kratongtong appetizer, comprised of corn and ground chicken stuffed into tiny shells, and realize that's the way we should have gone.) Those who can't resist ordering the ubiquitous Pad Thai will be happy with Siamese Garden's version, filled with plenty of whole shrimp and chicken chunks, a nice balance of tamarind flavor and perfectly cooked rice noodles.

In addition to the usual noodle and curry dishes, the menu has a solid selection of seafood, with a couple versions of whole fried tilapia; a salmon filet topped with shrimp and kaffir lime leaves in a coconut sauce; calamari stuffed with chicken and served alongside eggplant; and a mix of shellfish in a peppercorn, basil and white wine sauce dubbed "Deep Sea Diamond."

Finally, we order a dish from the dedicated vegetarian menu, a bowl of tofu with broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots in a zippy green curry sauce.

If you're looking for Singha beer, Siamese Garden's got it, but oenophiles are best off paying the bargain-priced eight dollar corkage fee and bring a bottle of vino from home.

So will the food here beat the best Thai grub you've ever tried? Probably not. But it's good. And, if you want to wash down your Tum Yum Gai with your favorite bottle of Riesling while canoodling in a semi-private booth by candlelight, followed by a post-dinner stroll along the canals, Siamese Garden fits the bill.
Appetizers: $3.25-$9.95, Entrees: $9.95-$22.95

—Lizbeth Scordo

Siamese Garden

301 Washington Blvd., Venice, CA