Witness the peppercorns on the spicy pla pad ped.
A few years ago I interviewed the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold in advance of his talk for the UW-Madison's Humanities Without Borders series. We got onto the topic of "authenticity." He'd eaten in Madison before and doubted there was much, if any, authentic Lao or Thai cuisine here. "Madison certainly has an enormous array of restaurants representing other cultures, but they tend to be cooking for the people who are not themselves," Gold said. On the other hand, he reflected, "You go in there and the food is tasty and it's really good."
So leaving aside the question of whether Monsoon Siam is serving more authentic Thai than other area restaurants, is it tasty and really good? Much of the time, the answer is yes.
The answer for some of the more familiar appetizers, though, is no. The deep-fried veggie spring rolls arrive crisp outside but mushy (filled with mostly cabbage) and bland inside; the fresh roll, a rice paper wrap filled with lettuce, carrots and avocado, was boring. Kanom jeeb, crabmeat and pork meatballs wrapped in a wonton skin, tasted like meatballs, and with the accompanying sweet Thai soy sauce they're like the ubiquitous cocktail meatballs you last consumed at a baby shower. They are, however, quite tasty.
More satisfying is the papaya salad, with a tart and spicy lime dressing. Even it could use more green beans among the shavings of papaya, and the two grilled shrimp add little to the dish. More of a flavor contrast comes from the zippy, super-rich sundried dried beef appetizer -- a peppery, crispy jerky set on a bed of shredded cabbage.
"In order to maintain the integrity of our food, please do not ask for substitution," reads a warning on the Monsoon Siam menu. I'm not sure if that is meant to include asking the kitchen about altering heat levels, but at no point did anyone ask me how hot I wanted a dish. A dish that was depicted on the menu with three hot peppers came three-hot-peppers-hot, a decent heat level for spicy food lovers. Dishes depicted with four hot peppers on the menu came four-hot-peppers-hot, by God.
At Monsoon Siam, four hot peppers is bracing on first nibble and builds up after a few forkfuls into something quite lacerating.
The dish called Southern Heat features finely minced chicken with Thai herbs and green peppercorns, somewhat like a chicken larb -- served hot, and very spicy. (This is a four-hot-pepper dish, and how.) It qualified as tasty and really good, though it needed its accompanying steamed veggies only to douse the heat. Otherwise they didn't add much.
Pods of young green peppercorns are also out in force in the pla pad ped, another four-hot-pepper dish. This one was challenging. I'd ordered it as takeout, and the kitchen thoughtfully packaged the chili paste sauce separately from the lightly breaded and fried tilapia. The tilapia was delicate and flavorful, but there would have been almost no way of discerning that if it had come already doused in the sauce.
The drunken noodle, at three peppers hot, was easy to like, with fresh beans, tomato and basil, as was a red curry with beef and a panang curry. The curries compare favorably with most east-side Thai curry offerings. The ka pow, a rice dish featuring -- like many dishes here -- lots of basil, fell in line too.
Monsoon Siam serves many dishes not often seen at other area Thai spots. The lemongrass chili tofu, for instance, with tofu "light battered and quickly deep-fried," is great, largely due to its sweet lemongrass chili sauce. The tofu, though, comes as a large brick; this would be tastier if it were cubed, then battered and fried. The steamed bok choy accompanying it was chewy and not a particularly good contrast for the rest of the dish.
The mild "asparagus delight," with a light garlic sauce, is built on almost too much asparagus, six or seven large shrimp, and the secret star: shitake mushrooms, which absorb the sauce. Still, a lack of balance among various elements of an entree, as here, was a problem with a number of dishes. This one's served on "brown rice," but it's not exactly brown rice -- the kitchen says it's a blend of white, red and brown rice.
Monsoon Siam is a pleasing modern cafe, likely to be found playing French musette tunes. There's an open kitchen, a small bar with taps from local breweries (Goose Island 312, Big Sweet Life from Wisconsin Brewing, Pecatonica Nightfall, Spotted Cow), and fast, friendly and efficient service.