The dining scene in Toms River just gets better and better…
If you live over in the Cherry Hill/Moorestown/Voorhees area, this doesn’t really apply to you, but here in Ocean County we were in dire need for some Thai food. When the choices were between schlepping up to Red Bank or down to Egg Harbor Township to get some-any- Thai, something needed to happen. And it is a-happening now at Siam Spice on Fischer Boulevard in Toms River.
Only open for a few months, Siam Spice had already generated a good amount of buzz on Chowhound. Eager to taste what the people were going on and on about, Lisa and I headed there for a rare weeknight dinner date. Yes, just the two of us for a change. In fact, our date was so unexpected, we didn’t bring our camera (our apologies for the lack of pictures).
Being it was still roasting outside at the time, we quickly sat down and ordered a few Thai iced teas. For those of you unfamiliar with the drink, it’s strong, dark-reddish tea, mixed with chai-like spices and a bit of sugar, poured over ice, with coconut milk poured over it for a beautiful two-toned look. As expected, it was cold, sensual, and refreshing.
We started things off with a Thai fish cake (Tod Mon): 4 cute little disks of fried joy. The crispy crust outside gave way to a surprisingly toothy, but pleasant texture inside (a finely diced mixture of fish, green beans, red curry paste, and kaffir lime leaves), while the dipping “viniagrette”(flavored with cucumber, red onion, and sweet peppers) cut through any heavy flavors, enhancing it nicely. The Yum Woon Sen, a salad made with shrimp, minced chicken, and glass noodles in a lime “dressing, seemed similar to the perfect balance of flavors in traditional larb (a “salad” made of ground pork, chicken or lamb, served over cold vegetables): tart citrus, chili heat, sweetness from sugar, savory from fish sauce, garlic…. it was outrageously flavorful.
As usual, we decided to share our entrees. John picked the Basil Combination Seafood with Tamarind Sauce: a combination of screamingly fresh shrimp, tender-perfect calamari, and large (yet sweet) mussels in a delicious, lightly-spiced sauce. I chose the one dish that still sticks in our minds-the Crispy Siam Spice Roasted Duck. A tender sliced duck is glazed with honey, tossed with diced fresh pineapple, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, and kaffir lime leaves, while all of it swims gracefully in a gorgeous spicy red curry sauce (which counteracts what might have been too sweet into a beautiful balance of flavors that we just couldn’t stop eating).
Aside from the wonderful food, it was the vibe we got from the place that made it a special evening- one of those “food moments”that are as contingent on place and time as much as flavors and appetites. As we ate, I observed that the kitchen was run by a small staff of women-one of whom would keep peeking out of the kitchen door window from time to time, sometimes just to smile. After the initial dinner rush died down, she came out and spoke with the couple on our left-who, it turns out, are weekly regulars (this, despite being open for only 3 months!). It soon turned into a fun, friendly conversation between the 5 of us, where John and I discovered that she happened to be the proud chef and owner- and the two very young (but still courteous and skilled) waiters were none other than her son and his best friend.
She asked us how we liked the spice (meaning the heat level in the dishes). I expressed that it was perfect- enough to make my nose run sometimes, but the dishes weren’t just about delivering heat; there were complex flavors to enjoy as well. I mentioned that sometimes, in some Indian, Thai, or Mexican places, when the waitstaff doesn’t ask how hot we like it, it’s automatically assumed we want it “mild.” We complimented her on not “dumbing it down.” Her reply was that she wants her customers to first taste how a dish is supposed to be prepared, just to try it. If they dislike the heat level, then she’ll adjust it for them. She also pointed out how not all Thai food is really hot, that certain dishes have certain heat levels. I asked her about the whole snapper special that she was running that day- to which she said they unexpectedly ran out of the fish quickly . But she wasn’t willing to just go out and get more in the area just to keep offering it that day; she explained that, although some seafood is good to get around here, she gets a better, fresher snapper when she “sends the kids up North to get it.” That kind of attention to detail and a refusal to compromise explained the amazing quality of the seafood in our dishes….
As she discussed how she had to force herself pick a day out of the week to close (don’t go on a Wednesday- you’ll be out of luck!) in order to balance her life as a mother, she also expressed how she actually still misses coming in on that day. When she asked how we found her restaurant, we mentioned that we heard really good things on Chowhound-and being that most folks tend to be very negative on that site, we knew we had to stop in. Then she said something that astonished me: “I want them to post the negative things. How else will I know how to improve and please my customers?” I wish I had something negative to say to help this amazing chef become even better. OK, maybe she could offer larb, our favorite Thai salad, on the menu?
Siam Spice is one of those rare places you come across that has its heart and soul in what they are doing. It’s headed by a woman who is following her passion, and with her talents and skill, bringing joy to all her customers through food. We can’t but help to wish them every success. And eat there-often.
-John and Lisa