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Mom-and-pop, Thai-style

There's a soft spot in my heart for small family-owned restaurants, the kind with Mom and Dad in the kitchen and the kids working out front. What those places lack in polish they make up for with the love and care put into the food. Downtown Houston's first Thai restaurant, Taste of Thai, is just such a place.

The storefront nestles next to Dawn Donut in a tiny strip center, and the decor is what you'd expect: tasteful on a shoestring budget, a quiet place with about a dozen black tables. The food, though, is anything but ordinary.

I love almost all Thai soups, and the ones at Taste of Thai are as good as I've ever had. The tom yum goong ($3.50 for one, $8.95 for four), is sharp and invigorating, a spicy lime-based broth with shrimp and straw mushrooms. Equally delicious is its more soothing cousin, tom ka kai ($2.95 for one, $7.95 for four); slices of chicken float in a broth smooth with coconut milk and flavored with lime and galanga.

Among the appetizers, mee krob ($4.25) -- crispy noodles, onions and bits of tofu dressed in a sweet red sauce -- was tasty, but the serving is too large for two people, and the sauce becomes cloying; order it only with a crowd. A better choice for a party of two is the angel wings ($3.95): two boneless chicken wings the size of drumsticks, stuffed with a flavorful mixture of pork, shrimp and water chestnuts then fried to a golden brown. Served with a slightly sweet dipping sauce, they are wonderful.

First choice among the entrees goes to the roast duck red curry ($12.95). Thai red curry paste is combined with chilies, fresh basil and coconut milk. I'd be happy with a large bowl of that sauce alone, but it combines beautifully with the sweetnes of the pineapple and tomato and the rich meatiness of the duck. Because the duck is simmered in the sauce, the skin is no longer crispy.

This, for me, is not a problem. But if you like your duck crispy, order the chef's special duck ($12.95); it came highly recommended by our waitress, the owners' daughter. Half a roasted duck is spiced, hacked into pieces and fried until crispy, then served with stir-fried vegetables and a terrific sauce for dipping. We asked our waitress what was in it. "I don't know; Mom made it," she shyly explained. "Sweet Thai soy sauce, chilies and...?" Mom makes a great sauce.

Almost as good is the yellow curry ($7.95), slices of chicken, potatoes, onions and coconut milk in a yellow curry paste. It's tangier yet mellower than the red curry, and its chunks of potato dissolve into the sauce to make it more robust than the elegant duck curry. A fine dish -- and so is the exemplary pad thai, rice noodles sauteed with tofu, chicken or shrimp, egg and a good-sized pinch of chilies and spices.

If only the eggplant with shrimp ($10.95) were so thrilling. Our waitress made a face when we ordered it and, when questioned, explained that she didn't like eggplant. And although the shrimp and Thai soybean sauce were well prepared, the chunks of eggplant were, well, a bit on the crunchy side. The waitress looked crestfallen that we hadn't enjoyed it, explained that they like eggplant undercooked in Thailand and said that if we ordered it again, her father would cook it to our liking. (She also deducted 20 percent of the dish's cost from the bill.)

Dessert -- homemade coconut ice cream ($2.95) -- was perfect. Thick with coconut and not too sweet, it could have atoned for sins much worse than undercooked eggplant.

Taste of Thai, 2020B Louisiana, (713)751-0262.

 
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