In the milquetoast world of salads, nothing compares to the meat salad called larb. It seems innocuous enough—warmed ground beef, chicken, pork or even duck mixed with toasted rice and chilled onions on top of cabbage. But appearances, as the cliché goes, can be deceiving, and this seemingly benign combination is actually an inferno: dusted on the salad are diced chiles, chili powder and enough lime juice to dissolve a skeleton. Eating larb is a masochistic pleasure—I can't remember sweating so much since the sauna room at Bally's—but a fruitful one, too: the interplay between spice, meat, bitterness, sourness and an infusion of mint creates heaven through hell.
Larb is the national dish of Laos, but many local Thai restaurants also offer the salad. Unfortunately, many also mitigate its intensity for American taste buds, meaning that most of the larbs in Orange County are mild at best, vanilla at worst. Not so at Diho Siam, a Thai-Chinese restaurant in Costa Mesa across the street from the perpetually dying Triangle Square. Diho's larb is vicious yet regal—Hannibal Lecter on a plate.
I first visited the restaurant years ago, on a date that went nowhere. I remember the food to be fine but unremarkable—just like my date. On a whim, I recently decided to visit again and initially thought little had changed. Diho Siam is hidden in a shopping plaza where it's one of the few non-chain businesses. The dining room is still small, the service polite. The song selection continues to be wildly eclectic, everything from "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to the Bee-Gees' greatest hits. They've yet to include a drink menu, and the Chinese section of the menu (printed upside down) remains as uninspiring as the Combo C special at your local buffet.
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A close read of the menu, though, reveals the jewels. There is a small but impressive emphasis on Isaan cooking, a cuisine native to northeastern Thailand that specializes in spicy and sour dishes. All of Diho Siam's examples excel, and most of them are salads. In addition to the aforementioned larb (here spelled "laab"), order the som tum—shredded green papaya topped with peanuts then doused in lime juice. Diho Siam's som tum isn't wholly authentic—no crumbled dried shrimp mixed in, for one thing, nor is fermented shrimp paste provided as a condiment—but it still maintains its sweet-sour charm. Naem sod, meanwhile, is a drier type of larb: ground pork cooked alongside chilies, ginger and roasted peanuts; shove the naem sod into lettuce slices and create impromptu burritos. The safest bet for wimps, the yum nuea (grilled beef salad), still possesses enough spice to make a Mexican nostalgic for mami.
Folks looking to avoid the heat can still enjoy themselves here. Start with some appetizers, but avoid the spring rolls—when I had them, they were, unfortunately, as hard as PVC pipe. Ask instead for the healthy heap of pun krib, massive wontons stuffed with chicken and potatoes and wrapped in mee krob crispy noodles. And the fried chicken wings, spicy with garlic and white pepper batter, could make you the life of the party come next Super Bowl weekend.
After this follows a rather mundane selection of rice and noodle dishes—pad Thai, pineapple fried rice; you can probably name the rest—but Diho Siam gets adventurous again with the curries. Thailand's Holy Trinity of curries—green, red, yellow—are available and delicious, bowls of coconut milk spiced with a light, enveloping curry. Diho Siam also sells two curries without coconut milk, but those dishes—rainbow and green bean—seem more influenced by gravy that they do heat. It doesn't matter, though: green bean curry is grand.
DIHO SIAM, 1835 NEWPORT BLVD., #D154, COSTA MESA, (949) 645-3259. OPEN MON.-THURS., 11 A.M.-9 P.M., FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-9:30 P.M., SUN., 12 P.M.-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $16-$30, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.