This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Finally! Aliso Viejo—the land of beautiful hills and barren sidewalks, its city hall buried within an industrial park and a university run by a controversial Japanese Buddhist organization—has suffered a years-long blackout in the Weekly's food pages, mainly because its restaurants are either chains or terrible. The embargo is now over, thanks to SIAMESE EXPRESS.

South County's best Thai restaurant initially appears as drab as any of its contemporaries, and a glance at the menu above the register doesn't inspire much—pad Thai, curries, a couple of Chinese dishes, stuff they sell at Ralphs. Ignore that menu. Grab a copy of the canary-colored takeout menu, which reveals that this smallish eatery whips up an astounding 98 dishes. And the majority of these meals are unique: Sure, there are 12 types of fried rice, but each is absolutely distinctive. Pineapple fried rice features large chunks of the fruit, with cashews hidden underneath the mound; the squid variety is a bit bitter, with a marine taste and spicy due to heavy sprinklings of chile powder. And you've tasted most of the curries that Siamese Express offers—green, red, yellow, Panang—but how about the salmon curry? This sweet, hearty jewel of the sea should become de rigueur at all Thai restaurants.

One can spend the proverbial year scarfing through Siamese Express' offerings—I've visited half a dozen times, always picking different things with the help of fellow gluttons, and there's still about three-quarters of the menu to go. Ten dollars buys you half a duck glazed with a honey-like sauce that seeps through the crispy skin and into the oily flesh. All the salads—squid, shrimp, even Chinese sausage—are simultaneously spicy, sour and sensational (although I'm disappointed they don't include a green papaya salad). Basil enlivens most of the noodle platters, while lemongrass dominates the soups. Everything is good: Pick a menu item while blindfolded, and you'll find your meal of the month.

Although Siamese Express stays open until 9 p.m., visit in the early afternoon. Every morning, the cooks whip up a batch of what I call Thai tamales: glutinous rice studded with sugary black beans and purple yam wrapped in a banana leaf. This dessert is frequently sold out by the evening, and the owners tell me local Thais will drive in to buy it and nothing else. But don't call it a Thai tamale—just ask for the sticky rice wrapped in banana (it's not on the regular menu and only sometimes listed on the specials blackboard). Enjoy the small, filling treat while marveling that you found it in Aliso Viejo.

SIAMESE EXPRESS, 26952-C LA PAZ RD., ALISO VIEJO, (949) 831-0882.

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