Good Food Spoken Here

Language barriers are no match for a shared food fascination

Siam Watsanserekul, the owner of Bangkok Tokyo, is bilingual, but Thai is his first language; mine is suburban American. So when I stopped in a few months after the restaurant's late winter opening, it took pantomime, broad smiles on both sides, careful expression reading and some six-to-10-word English phrases that weren't super-clear to me before we ascertained that we both like The King and I musical, and its star Yul Brynner.

That's how we got to the musical's precursor movie and book, Anna and the King of Siam, which is an easy way to remember the spelling of Siam's first name. It's actually a nickname, pronounced "Sam" in these parts.

This common ground established, Siam announced he would select some dishes to send to the table. This made me nervous. My food preferences are fairly daring, but I do have my sticking points. Most people let me make well-done-this, no-ketchup-that, and don't-you-dare-add Equal demands for myself.

No arguing with that pleasant grin, though, so I steeled myself to pick around and make do and be polite.

Instead, the first tiny saucer was a direct hit—a rice pudding, a smidgen of fresh mango on the side, creamily coconut. Lovely. More about that later, because Siam had now ducked back to the kitchen himself to create a colossal Lobster Roll. Half was served in a martini glass with a seafood mayonnaise at the bottom, strands of crab cascading over the side; half on the plate below. Fish roe and seeds dot the dish, set off with rosettes of pickled ginger and sculpted wasabi paste. Siam zip quick turned that into a soy/wasabi dipping sauce on my plate. How did he know I didn't want the Lite soy sauce?

It was fresh, it was decadent, it was gorgeous. And the lobster in the roll had been panko-breaded and lightly, crisply cooked before rolling. I chalked it up to coincidence that this Thai man, who came to the U.S. for college in the '80s, later spent 20 more years in Thailand and returned to the U.S. only in 2001, had selected one of the few sushi selections on the menu that didn't have raw fish, which I eat only sparingly. Nor did he proffer the Crispy Duck, which is quite popular, though he surely didn't know about my childhood pet, Ping.

I scanned the menu for what I'd eat next time. Crab soup maybe, or a rack of Ka Proud Lamb? Spicy basil-fried rice? I mentally settled on the Salmon Mango; salmon is my all-time favorite.

Arms waving, speaking slowly, we spent a nice hour talking about the avocado in the rolls, just like Florida, where Siam has other restaurants, and the cooked-rare tuna with ponzu sauce (which is sort of sour) that is popular on its own and in their spicy tuna salad. I'd found out the rice for the pudding is steamed for two hours, before adding coconut milk (not cream) and a bit of sugar.

I could have gone on all day, connecting over our shared fascination with ingredients, and taste, and preparation, however limited our shared experience. But it was time to go. Siam sidled up with a parting dish. I could take the remains to go, he said. I peeked in. It was the freshest, lightest, seared salmon you've ever seen, blanketed beneath a thin round of scored, fresh mango.

I swear, I'd never said a word to Siam about ordering salmon next time—not in English, Thai, or body language.

In a later conversation, I learned Siam and I both have lots of engineers in the family and a tendency to get lost on long driving trips—and neither of us is very good at remembering names or long-ago dates. But is any of that really important, as long as we both love good food?