Just a mile west of Caesars Palace is a stretch of Flamingo Road dominated by chain restaurants, many of which serve tepid interpretations of various international cuisines. Here lies Lotus of Siam, a family-run restaurant famous for its traditional Thai food. Opened in 1999 by chef Saipin Chutima and her husband, the popular restaurant serves intensely flavored food from Northern Thailand.
“Chef’s vision was – and remains – to bring Northern Thai food to people all over the world,” says Penny Chutima, the chef’s daughter. “We want to help people understand our culture’s food. As Thai people, we often share our dishes because it brings us closer together as a family – or friends and co-workers – so my mother loves to share dishes and try new things, especially when that means guests are taking a chance with us and stepping outside of their comfort zone.”
Thai restaurants have proliferated around Las Vegas for decades, though they were mostly serving plainer, less spicy dishes prior to Chef Chutima’s arrival. Thanks to the electrifying cuisine of Northern Thailand, she’s introduced recipes developed by her family over multiple generations that highlight the major flavors of the country’s mountainous regions.
The exotic ingredients that Chutima’s recipes require mean that her shopping list can’t be fulfilled at any old grocery store. While local farms supply some of the herbs and spices required nightly, most groceries are picked up in Los Angeles, 270 miles (435 kilometers) away. Chutima was determined not to compromise on her family’s time-tested recipes, so a few specialty items are imported from Thailand. “If we can’t source something, or US herb restrictions change, then we substitute to the closest possible flavor profile,” says Penny.
Chutima’s strong relationship with food started at the age of five, when her grandmother introduced her to some of the family’s recipes. Since then, she has developed impressive cooking skills that honor her family’s cooking background. Penny says, “My mom loves to make food, especially chili dips and khao soi. It’s her favorite dish to make, because the herbs are so different from any other curry. Recently, many people seem to love our crispy duck khao soi, garlic prawns, sea bass ginger and nam kao tod (crispy rice salad). That seems to be what we’re yelling for most.”
After meeting her future husband and business partner Suchay at the age of 17 in his grandmother’s restaurant, Chutima emigrated to the USA in the early 1990s, and the married couple opened their first Lotus of Siam restaurant in Norwalk, Los Angeles in 1994. Following a complete renovation of their first Las Vegas restaurant in the late ’90s, they replaced the buffet with table service, serving core dishes like sai kua (Northern-style sausage), nam prik hed (mushroom spicy dip) and khao soi (hand-cut rice or egg noodles with coconut milk and curry).
The original home of Lotus of Siam – in a lowly strip mall on Sahara Avenue – is currently being restored after a partial ceiling collapse in 2017. Penny says, “We have the new Flamingo Road location open while the original on Sahara is getting fixed. It’s a change for guests in terms of the vibe, and it gives more access to those who travel from afar for our cuisine. Also, there are two daughters, me and my sister, so it’s one [restaurant] for each of us.”
Chutima and her creations are amongst the most celebrated culinary innovators in Las Vegas, which has earned her numerous awards, including the 2011 James Beard for Best Chef in the Southwest.
Recommended by Las Vegas chefs and celebrated by celebrities and locals alike, Lotus of Siam continues to attract large crowds looking to have a taste of Northern Thailand cuisine. “It’s amazing to see over the last 20 years how [Chutima] has opened up a different world for Thai food. I know she takes a lot of pride in that, too, but I don’t think she would ever admit it,” says Penny.