Written by Eric Taubert Wednesday, 06 January 2010 19:21
So many new restaurants open up in the trendy Southwest Florida lifestyle centers with colorful signage, opulent interiors, mood lighting, service staff in colorful costumes, and gimmicky menus -- only to close down a few months later when the expected business fails to appear. The owners don't understand what went wrong. The location was right. Their staff was friendly. Their restaurant was attractive. They placed colorful advertisements in all the right magazines. They even had a frequently updated Fan Page on Facebook. They were focused on the details...just not the right ones. In the end, independent restaurant success and longevity is all about two things...consistently great food and perceived value. Get those two ducks in a row and everything else becomes icing on the cake.
For a local example of this concept in action, one need look no further than the Siam Hut on Del Prado Boulevard in southeast Cape Coral. The Siam Hut is located in a rundown, and not particularly visible, strip mall with poor parking conditions. Their sign is exceedingly generic. The interior of the restaurant is clean, but notably aged -- and certainly not what you'd call polished. There's never any host staff working the front door. The same few employees are there every time I arrive, and even though I've been to the Siam Hut quite a few times, I'm never greeted with any amount of familiarity. Normally, a female member of the service staff will see me standing awkwardly at the front door and brusquely gesture for me to seat myself wherever I want. The menu has a lot to choose from, but the descriptions are vague, and clarifications from the service staff are tough to get and never seem to clear things up. Service is strictly business, and while always polite, is never quite warm.
So far, this doesn't sound like much of a recipe for restaurant success, does it? That's because I haven't mentioned the food yet.
Simply put, the food is purely sublime each and every time I visit the Siam Hut. Thai cuisine, when prepared correctly, results in a thought-provoking and cerebral balance of flavors, details, and variety sure to tantalize even the most jaded of taste buds. Rest assured, Siam Hut does Thai right. An entire arsenal of exciting and authentic Thai ingredients is utilized -- kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galanga, chili peppers, tamarind, and coconut milk. Siam Hut has several soup and appetizer offerings. For starters, check out Siam Hut's incredible version of Tom Kha Gai, a spicy Lao/Thai soup comprised of tender strips of chicken cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with galanga, lime juice and chili peppers. You may also want to try the Mee Grob (crispy rice noodles) tossed with shrimp and finished with a sweet tamarind sauce. Or opt for the Goong Gra Boug, which are shrimp in spring roll wrappers fried to heavenly perfection and served with a side of plum sauce.
There are several large salads available with varied proteins like chicken, tofu, chinese sausage, squid, steak, pork, and shrimp. There are predictable, yet exquisitely prepared, Thai noodle dishes like Pad Thai and Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles). The Siam Hut Specialties and Fried Whole Fish dishes are always tempting, but it's the curries which beckon me most boldly. Siam Hut offers six distinct curry dishes -- and all of them rock and roll!
During my most recent visit, my dining partner and I started with the Siam Rolls. Four crispy, yet meticulously grease-free, fried spring rolls stuffed with ground chicken, bean thread (cellophane) noodles, and Asian vegetables were presented with a side of Siam Hut's homemade plum dipping sauce. An excellent choice.
For main courses, we both opted to try different curry dishes. My companion chose the less-likely Shrimp Pineapple Curry cooked in coconut milk with the natural sweetness of crushed pineapple. I went with the Red Curry and shrimp made with dried chilies, lemongrass, garlic, onion, powdered kaffir lime leaves, and coriander. At Siam Hut, you are always given the choice of "mild, medium, or hot" with regards to the spice level of the dish you order. I have a penchant for the spicy stuff, so mine was ordered hot. My guest ordered hers medium.
Steamed rice was delivered to our table ahead of the entrees. The curries themselves appeared in ornate candle-fired urns designed to keep them warm. As we spooned our curries onto the awaiting rice, the aromas were complex and intoxicating. Although they looked similar, both curries had unique flavor profiles. The Shrimp Pineapple Curry had a sweet and tropical edge. The Red Curry was savory and intricately composed with layers of multifaceted flavors. Both were at the spice levels requested. A pleasant bite for the medium, and a sinus-clearing lasting burn for the hot.
An additional side of shrimp fried rice we ordered was almost a meal unto itself, and flavorful to the point it required no additional condiments.
The Siam Hut has dessert options, as well...but I regret to inform you, I've never made it that far.
As for perceived value, the prices at the Siam Hut are, by all standards, reasonable. The appetizers were in the $3 to $6 range. The curries were around $13. Every time the server drops the check on my table at the Siam Hut, I turn it over and think "That's it?" How often do you feel like that in Southwest Florida?
You see, the price of a meal at a restaurant incorporates lots of hidden extras. When an expensive glossy advertisement convinces you to dine on a posh piece of real estate with a prestigious address and great landscaping, in a restaurant with an upscale sound system, glittering glassware, fancy art on the walls, and a full corporate team -- a food and beverage manager, a hospitality manager, a sales and marketing manager, an executive chef, a team of sous chefs, line cooks and prep guys, plus a host staff -- you pay for all of that in the price of your meal. You also absorb the costs of training new employees, the liquor and food thefts of criminal employees, the electricity and insurance bills, and so on. It all adds up. So next time you wonder why that skimpy piece of fish on a plate just cost you $32.00 - remember, you're not just paying for the fish. Or when you order a six-ounce glass of wine for $12.00, then see the entire unopened bottle down at Total Wine for $8.00 -- now you know why.
This is why sometimes it's good to have the food, just the food, and nothing but the food. Without having to pay for a bunch of unnecessary employees and embellishments, mom and pop restaurants are able to charge less money for bigger portions comprised of better ingredients. Do they always do that? Of course not, but the ones that do are usually rewarded with great word-of-mouth and better chances at longevity.
The consistently great food and perceived value at the Siam Hut are something residents of Cape Coral have been able to count on for almost 25 years now...and they still pack the seats of this medium sized restaurant on a regular basis. I've been in prettier Thai restaurants located in more upscale neighborhoods with lots of bells and whistles, but pricier menus -- and I can honestly say none of them call me to return visits the way Siam Hut does. Here's to hoping for their continued success!
-- writing and video by Eric Taubert
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