July 25, 2022 - 9:01 am
Updated July 26, 2022 - 12:56 pm
Let’s take this piece by piece so we don’t get dizzy.
One: Lotus of Siam is opening a new location in Red Rock Resort. Timeline: End of year.
Two: The original Lotus, currently closed on East Sahara Avenue, is completing renovations. Timeline: End of year.
Three: The current Lotus, on East Flamingo Road, will shut for a makeover, then temporarily set up shop on East Sahara once work there is finished. Timeline: End of year.
Four: Temporary Lotus will eventually return to its renovated Flamingo Road space, with East Sahara continuing as a public restaurant, and as a commissary kitchen for the other restaurants. Timeline: Second quarter of 2023.
Which means: In about a year, Lotus of Siam will have gone from its current single location to three locations and undergone a Las Vegas expansion (after 23 years) that the owners have long been of two minds about, even as the restaurant enjoyed international acclaim for its Northern Thai food, at once robust and refined.
“We were courted by people in Texas, L.A., San Francisco. We even had people in Mexico who wanted us in a resort,” said Penny Chutima, managing partner of Lotus of Siam, who spoke with the Review-Journal in an exclusive, first on-the-record discussion about these developments. Her parents, chef Saipin and Bill Chutima, founded the restaurant.
“It’s a mom and pop shop,” Penny Chutima continued. “They were first generation here. They were very content. They weren’t really pursuing another location even if the logistics were there.” (And a brief unhappy experience in 2010 with a business partner in a Manhattan outpost only confirmed the challenges of expansion.)
But over the past five years, things changed. Penny Chutima became more involved at Lotus of Siam (sister Sabrina also helps run the business). The pandemic highlighted how precarious the restaurant industry can be, even for icons (so: how to cement a legacy?). And the Chutimas found a congenial partner to expand with, one with similar roots.
“We’re growing organically, not forcing ourselves to grow,” Penny Chutima said. “We wanted to get this right.”
Family to family
A longtime friend helped bring about the expansion.
Lou Abin, who helped build the Tao Group hospitality hegemony, has known Penny Chutima (who once worked as a Tao restaurant hostess) and her family for many years. Two or three times a year for more than a decade, Abin would ask if the Chutimas were ready to open another Lotus of Siam.
“These were business proposals, site locations, really thorough pitches,” he said.
Discussions about expansion became serious a few years ago, Abin said, and continued into the pandemic. In 2021, Abin and Penny Chutima founded Bua Food Group, a company to own and develop restaurant concepts (Bua means “lotus” in Thai). Later that year, through a letter of intent, the business partners settled on Red Rock to house the new Lotus of Siam.
What sealed the garlic prawns for the Summerlin casino? Family.
The late Frank Fertitta Jr. founded Station Casinos, owner of Red Rock, in the mid-1970s, and members of the Fertitta clan are still among the owners and executives of the parent company.
“They’re a family company. We started off as a family company. That’s one of the things I feel close to,” Penny Chutima said. “There’s a special place in my heart for Red Rock.”
Menu highlights; sauce strategy
The menu at Lotus of Siam is famously expansive, with about 150 dishes on the current iteration, plus one of the city’s best selections of German white wines, which link arms beautifully with Thai food. The Red Rock menu will be slimmer, about 90 dishes, with fewer wine choices as well, Penny Chutima said.
But fear not for the khao soi: Signature Lotus items are making the trip west. Not just khao soi (crisp duck atop egg noodles in curry sauce), but also those garlic prawns (distinctively butterflied, with crisp edible “potato chip” shells), and dishes like Northern-style larb (prepared with Northern spices, not lime juice), whole red snapper and soft shell crab.
Neighborhood favorites like pad Thai and fried rice also appear on the menu, along with Thai-style crudos and ceviches.
Chef Saipin Chutima said she would be at the new restaurant every day until it settles, then one or two times per week after that. “I’m very excited for us to be in Summerlin so people in the west side don’t have to travel so far to dine with us,” she said. Jeffrey Sauz, future chef de cuisine at Red Rock, is learning the Lotus method at the Flamingo Road restaurant.
As Lotus of Siam moves toward three locations, such “training will be especially important because that’s where we make sure the steps of cooking, the steps of service, are followed,” the chef said.
Also helping to maintain consistency? The fact that base sauces — curry, fried rice, pad Thai, stir-fry, about 25 in all — will be made by the chef in batches at East Sahara for all the Lotuses. “Only three people know the recipes,” she said.
More new spots for Lotus partners
Penny Chutima’s warm feelings toward Red Rock, feelings that helped decide the deal, are returned by the property.
“We’ve been huge fans of Lotus of Siam for a long time,” said Joe Yalda, the resort’s vice president of guest experience. “Their values are very similar to our values. We are both Vegas-born businesses.”
Besides Lotus of Siam, Bua Food Group is joining with the casino in two other food and drink ventures: Naxos Taverna and Kallisto Oyster Bar at Naxos. The taverna will offer dips and spreads, salads, vegetables dishes, and grilled fish and seafood; Kallisto is Bua’s take on a traditional oyster bar, with Mediterranean influences.
“Greek cuisine has a lot of seafood, so they really work hand in hand,” said Abin, the Bua co-founder. “We feel Greek cuisine is an area of opportunity within the city. The healthy aspects of Greek cooking have been gaining momentum over the last several years.”
Mark Andelbradt is executive chef of all three Bua Food Group concepts at Red Rock.
Lotus of Siam, Naxos Taverna and the oyster bar belong to a larger resortwide renewal that also features a new casino bar, a new cocktail lounge in the old Crimson event space, an adults-only pool lounge, upgrades to the High Limit Slot area and, in the food court, a Nielsen’s Frozen Custard, the first expansion of the original Henderson store.
Not retired yet
Chef Saipin and Bill Chutima purchased Lotus of Siam in 1999. There had been two other Asian spots, going back decades, in the restaurant’s Commercial Center storefront.
Just a year after it opened, Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, called Lotus of Siam the finest Thai restaurant in North America in a review in Gourmet. In 2011, Saipin Chutima was named co-winner of the Best Chef: Southwest category in the annual James Beard Awards. And over the years, encomia reliably ensued.
But in late 2017, the roof collapsed after a heavy storm, and Lotus of Siam moved from East Sahara to its current premises on Flamingo Road, with Penny Chutima leaving law school to help her parents.
Except for a year beginning in June 2020, when Nevada restaurants were allowed to resume in-person dining, the first Lotus of Siam has not been open to the public since the roof collapse.
“That’s like my mom’s first born,” Penny Chutima said of the original location.
Now that the first born is returning (in a sense) by reopening, now that Bua Food Group is thinking of launching even more Lotus of Siam restaurants, is Saipin Chutima finally thinking of retirement, even as a possibility?
“She’s not very retired. She’s still cooking,” Penny Chutima said.
“My only job now,” the chef said, “is to make sure of the ingredients.” But Lotus of Siam has always had the most important ingredient of all: family.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct surname of chef Mark Andelbradt.