Famous Las Vegas restaurant Lotus of Siam weathered COVID-19 with preparation, foresight

Ed Komenda, Reno Gazette Journal
·4 min read
Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas boasts a vast menu of Thai specialties.
Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas boasts a vast menu of Thai specialties.

LAS VEGAS – Long before COVID-19 shut everything down, Lotus of Siam co-owner Penny Chutima ordered bulk supplies of masks and gloves.

It was January. Coronavirus news was still overseas. Friends thought she was crazy.

"Like one of those conspiracy theorist people," she said. "They were like, ‘No. Not in America. Nobody in the States will ever shut down.’ So when March came around the corner – boom."

Lotus of Siam is a Thai restaurant known for its vast menu of north country specialties. What does that mean? This is not a place to get pad thai.

Lotus of Siam co-owner Penny Chutima expects variant strains of coronavirus will require sanitation measures to get even more strict.
Lotus of Siam co-owner Penny Chutima expects variant strains of coronavirus will require sanitation measures to get even more strict.

This is the place you visit for a Thai meal you've never heard of. Noted dishes include the sa-tay prawns (in any style they serve), stuffed chicken wings and Thai jerky.

Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer, called Lotus of Siam the best Thai restaurant in the country. “It was the best Thai meal I had ever eaten,” he wrote. “I went back for the next four or five meals in a row, and I almost cried when I had to get on a plane back to New York.”

Taking a bite on his show "Parts Unknown," chef and writer Anthony Bourdain had this to say: "That's perfection, man."

Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is a place you visit for a Thai meal you might never have heard of, such as Kha Nom Jean Nam Ngyow (rice vermicelli curry).
Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is a place you visit for a Thai meal you might never have heard of, such as Kha Nom Jean Nam Ngyow (rice vermicelli curry).

With two locations in Las Vegas, Lotus of Siam has a reputation restaurants envy. COVID-19 threatened to take it all away.

Before the pandemic, the restaurant employed 110 people. Today, that number is about 70. Social distancing, table limits and caution are a way of life for the family that's operated the restaurant since 1999, when Chutima's mother – the storied Chef Saipin – took over. In the middle of their toughest year, Chutima's life changed. She had a baby.

A year after the pandemic collapsed Las Vegas tourism, Lotus of Siam is back to operating both restaurants. The USA TODAY Network talked with Chutima about how they did it and where the restaurant is going from here.

Why she started preparing for the pandemic so early

"My mom was watching the news from Thailand. I had a lot of friends in China on WeChat posting into our feed. A bunch of doctors reported this was something that has no cure. They said it was kind of like a pneumonia but worse."

How Lotus of Siam prepared

"We did our research first, and then my mom told me to order a lot of the masks, because in Thailand they wore masks. We ordered masks. We ordered a bunch of gloves. At that time, my mom bought a lot of food items in bulk – coconut milk and especially rice, because we knew that if anything was to happen, China would close. So we ordered a lot of the rice, Thai teas, Thai coffees. A lot of main necessities we ordered in huge bulk."

Lotus of Siam’s enviable reputation and success were threatened by COVID-19.
Lotus of Siam’s enviable reputation and success were threatened by COVID-19.

On the close-knit family atmosphere at Lotus of Siam

"We have people who have been with us since the beginning. There are people I consider like my cousins, because they’ve been with us 18-19 years. Some of them have master’s degrees. But they’ve all been working for us, and it doesn’t look like they want to leave any time soon. I was there when I was like 12. My sister was about 5 or 6 years old. These people watched us grow, and they brought in their kids, and now we’re watching them grow."

Whether she notices people feeling more confident about dining out

"The vaccine gives people some sort of confidence that things might get back to normal, but I don’t see things changing with protocol. With new strains being present, sanitation is going be more strict. Everything that I’ve done so far is probably going to be staying."

The family that run Lotus of Siam have gone through "every stress in the book."
The family that run Lotus of Siam have gone through "every stress in the book."

What keeps her positive and moving forward

"That thing (she looks at her daughter). She’s about to be 6 months old. Everybody’s always like, ‘How can you take this restaurant thing so easily and smoothly?’ I feel like I’ve been through every stress in the book – owning a restaurant, helping to manage it, making sure it’s up to my mother’s standards and at the same time have a 6-month-old. I can handle it now."

What she'll tell her daughter when she's older

"You were born during a pandemic, and we had to be inside (laughs)."

Whether she hopes Las Vegas will see a return to some kind of normal

"I’m a realistic person. Many people will see me as a pessimistic person. But I do see Las Vegas is hopeful. We all just need to work together. It’s not just small businesses and restaurants anymore. Our government officials have to hear us out, too."

Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network.

This article originally appeared on Reno Gazette Journal: Las Vegas Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam weathered COVID-19. Here's how