Thai Tip: I used to long for a Thai drive-thru to open up in Houston. I had the menu all worked out: the kind of grilled chicken Renu's once served; green-chilefied Thai cole slaw; skewers of sate; and pad Thai, the eventful noodle dish. Then Thai Racha showed up along the fast-food alley of Long Point at Gessner, drive-thru window and all. And if it didn't turn out to be the Thai drive-thru of my dreams, it did turn out to have what is surely the most exciting dish dispensed from any Houston takeout window.
I am speaking of the tom yum gai, a soup that's fragrant with kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass, electric with red pepper and fresh lime, stocked with crunchy scallion and soft mushrooms. Oh, and chicken, too, although it's a little dry, and not terribly important. So exotic is this brew, it's hard to believe it comes packed in styrofoam, its lid Scotch-taped down as if to hold it in check.
Only slightly less appealing is Thai Racha's tom ka gai, a coconut-laced chicken soup that's gingery and gently sweet-sour, with a bracing hit of cilantro to pick things up. Pad Thai? Basic and quite decent, with a bit of egg scrambled in with the rice-stick noodles, bean sprouts and finely ground peanuts. But too sweet for me ... until I stir in the plastic thimbleful of fresh lime juice I can usually beg off Thai Racha's nice proprietors. Add a pinch of the ground red pepper they pack along with it, and you may swear off Big Macs forever.
The rest of the simple menu may not be as good as what you'd get in a top Thai restaurant (red chicken curry with an appalling amount of orange grease set off my alarm bells), but measured against American fast food, it acquits itself rather well. The world would be a better place if you could grab Thai Racha's lime-fueled chicken salad on every corner, so virtuous and clean-tasting is this crunch of prettily scored cucumber, carrot, iceberg and skinless marinated chicken. Too bad the tomatoes that should light up this classic Thai salad are the pallid American supermarket kind.
It's best not to take that drive-thru window too seriously. Pad Thai has to be cooked to order, so you may end up idling for a good ten minutes. (Still, since Taco Cabana made me wait 20 for a quesadilla last week, that doesn't seem so bad.) My advice is to go inside, check out how clean the place is and how serious the kitchen looks, and how spiffy and smiling the owners are in their cheerful red shirts. Contemplate the amazing golden-dragon ceiling. Sip a Thai limeade. Regard the neighboring pupusa joints and Korean shopping strips. And tell yourself, as you walk out with your aromatic and wonderfully inexpensive booty, that this is how the melting pot is supposed to work.
Off-the-wall Tip: The most interesting bakery in town right now happens to be the Moody Gallery, where sculptor Lisa Ludwig's totemic cakes in glazed terra cotta or bridal-white sugar are on display through August 5. An innocent looking confection sprouts real finch eggs and birth-control-pill rosettes. Naked, un-iced layers stair step toward the sky. A towering wedding cake stands cloven in two. Pomegranates, pea pods, corncobs and roses brood mysteriously on a dark, organic ziggurat that seems to have risen from the underworld. They exude wit and pathos and an odd grandeur. Go see.