The Castle Goes Thai

Times Staff Writer

I have always viewed the Castle on the hill on Melrose Avenue with breathless curiosity.

It looks like something Disney might have conceived for Snow White's witch, or something Charlie Chan might have prowled around in the night. Strange turrets, wishing wells, waterfalls and 200,000 pounds of concrete wrapped every which way, with Gaudi-like madness, nestled in an unrestrained jungle of tropical plants.

I've passed the Castle for years, drawn by its bleak, forbidding demeanor.

It had originally gone up in 1949 as a tribute to the owner's wife. A dream house of sorts--in the eyes of its perceiver. The house had passed on to other owners and was turned briefly into a restaurant before falling into disrepair. The S and T of the Castle sign had disappeared, and for months, I was tempted to get out of my car to hammer them back on.

All Gussied Up

The Castle is now The Siamese Castle, a Thai restaurant, gussied up with fresh paint and a patio area overlooking a pretend brook painted blue that winds down the hill in snakelike fashion. There is a parking area on the same level as the Castle, so you don't have to hike up the steep road. Inside, the place is a dizzying mishmash of styles until your eye meets the impressive carved teakwood "praying hand" chairs and elephant tables imported from Thailand. The real surprise is the cooking. The style and flavors, it seems to me, lean toward Chinese, perhaps because the chef-owner, Tom Sippe, is part Chinese; the kitchen is staffed by men, not women, as is usual in Thai restaurants. The pad thai, for instance, had heavy, rich flavors and color. More natural. Not like Chan Dara's modified light, fresh touch. The Imperial Crispy Duck was brazenly fatty but crisp. There seems to be no attempt at camouflaging oiliness or the effect of cooking with fats.

The menu is far more extensive than found at most other Thai restaurants. The familiar Thai standbys -- mee grob (crispy, sticky rice noodles), tom yam goong (hot and sour soup), pad thai (panfried rice noodles), gai yang (barbecued chicken), nam prig (spicy shrimp), and peeg gai sawam (stuffed chicken wings)--are there, as well as many unfamiliar dishes.

Familiar Things First

I tried the familiar for comparison in my first round. The Castle Salad was fresh, and the kumquat dressing was spicy-sweet and unpretentious. The coconut soup was hot, spicy and strong, but served in an unlikely covered pressed glass compote dish which I worried might shatter before the soup was done. It didn't. The spinach with peanut sauce was quite fresh and tasty and the steamed rice, served from an ornate tureen, was good. I liked the spicy shrimp with its rather heavy dried shrimp paste sauce and shredded carrot base.

The next round added barbecued chicken, served with the syrupy vinegar sauce, which, I must say, was excellent. The marinade, consisting of coconut milk, garlic, cilantro and cumin, among other spices, made the dish. We were served a tapioca pudding using the imported transparent tapioca, coconut meat and lotus seeds. After the first shock over the glutinous texture, good flavor took over. Several other dishes sounded especially wonderful: pan fried tofu topped with ground pork and ginger, mushrooms and chiles on the vegetarian menu, the boned whole deep fried fish (in season) topped with three sauces (garlic pepper, curry and chili), and short ribs simmered in herbs and spices, plus others too numerous to mention here.

The Castle also serves two fixed-price menus offering an appetizer, salad or soup, entree, noodles or brown or white rice, dessert and Thai tea or coffee, for $19 per person, a good deal if you are thinking of birthdays and such.

The Siamese Castle Thai Garden Restaurant, 4857 Melrose Ave. , 460-6738. Open for lunch seven days 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and until 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Parking on premises or weekend valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. Average entree $7.

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