They say there’s no place like home, and that’s certainly true for Michael Brillhart, owner of Sweet Siam at 79th Street and Quivira Road in Lenexa.
After 18 years of helping manage his uncle’s high-volume Thai restaurants in Georgia and Alabama, the Shawnee Mission East graduate returned to Johnson County to create his own concept. Brillhart opened Sweet Siam in January, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I was yearning to get back to Kansas,” says Brillhart, who focused on Thai food because “that’s what I know.”
So do his chefs, three of whom moved north with Brillhart. Their initial menu reflected many of the dishes featured at his uncle’s restaurants, Surin’s of Thailand and Surin West, but Brillhart’s gradually tailoring them to his own tastes with more fresh vegetables and herbs.
Peek around the corner next to the restaurant’s door, and you’ll see Brillhart’s herb garden — sweet and Thai basil, Thai chilis and lemongrass. He also grows cilantro, parsley, more basil and kaffir lime leaves at his mother’s house in Mission and plans to plant even more herbs and vegetables like green beans and bell peppers next season.
“Fresh always tastes better,” Brillhart says.
Sweet Siam’s menu ranges from the authentic to the adapted. There are appetizers and salads ($4 to $8.95) like Thai larb, a spicy dish from northern Thailand that is here made with either ground chicken or beef, and the very approachable fried wonton-wrapped shrimp that Brillhart calls shrimp in a blanket.
Soups (from $2.50 a cup to $5 a bowl) are described in a straightforward way — spicy hot and sour soup, say, rather than calling it by its Thai name, tom yum — and the curries ($11 to $12.50) come in the familiar yellow, green, Panang, red and Masaman versions.
Stir-fries ($10.50) feature a variety of vegetable combinations with your choice of protein, plus fried rice options ($9 to $11) and noodle dishes ($10.50) including a good rendition of the always-popular pad Thai.
It’s a comfortable dish, and one that we always order because it makes the kids happy. But at Sweet Siam, it was hard to get them to eat it, if only because our friendly waiter had pulled a second table up to ours and brought out a selection of puzzles to work while waiting for dinner to arrive.
Once Spiderman, the Disney princesses and a U.S. map were assembled, they happily dug in. There’s also a kids’ menu ($3.50 each) with macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, catfish or fried rice.
That left the grown-ups free to enjoy their Thai-style soft shell crab in a light Thai sauce and a snapper pan-fried and topped with mix of red onions, bell peppers and ginger matchsticks with lime juice, lemongrass, fish sauce and cashews.
Both were touted as restaurant specialties ($11 to $19), along with dishes like roasted garlic shrimp with scallops and asparagus; a marinated boneless duck breast, fried and served with basil sauce and flash-fried basil garnish; and the ka proud lamb, a grilled double lamb chop with a basil sauce and shrimp fried rice.
It’s a lengthy menu that Brillhart culls down to just 11 choices at lunch ($7 to $8), ranging from noodles and curries to Thai barbecue chicken and roasted duck in a red curry sauce.
There are desserts ($5) like coconut cake and chocolate wontons with strawberry sauce, too, but what caught my eye was the bar. It stands out even amid the contemporary space, with its mix of warm gold and orange and cool green walls, vivid photos of Thai street life and dark wood furnishings.
The bar top fades from pink to blue to purple, highlighting Brillhart’s hope that guests will also order drinks like the Mahi Thai, made with Malibu rum, Myers dark rum, grenadine and pineapple and mango juices. Or, that they’ll go with one of the Boulevard or Free State beers on tap. After all, it’s just a taste of home.
Anne Brockhoff is a regular contributor to FYI | Food. She blogs at fooddrinklife.wordpress.