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By Katharine Shilcutt
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By Brooke Viggiano
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Finding the tiny Thai Emerald restaurant in the fast-food flatlands off Fuqua requires more than a street address and a map. Your best bet is to navigate by franchise signs.
"Turn off the freeway feeder when you see the Black-eyed Pea," the waitress patiently explained over the phone, talking me in like an air traffic controller. "Then go down Fuqua till you see the Boston Market, and turn into the parking lot just past it. We're sort of behind Boston Market, one down from Subway Sand-wiches and next to CiCi's Pizza."
Whew. They're also flanked by a flashy cell-phone outlet that promises (or threatens?) to activate beepers, if that helps any.
Two wrong turns later we landed safely in an endless expanse of mall parking lot. Once you're in the right lot, we discovered, you really can't miss it. Thai Emerald's neat little storefront is prim as a packet of pins between its boisterous neighbors, the precise font of its sign as formal as an engraved wedding invitation. Full-length lace curtains at the window shield diners from the din outside, the racket of teenagers spilling in and out of the pizza joint next door.
Inside, the cafe is a quiet (and nonsmoking) oasis of calm colored predominantly forest-green, with white tablecloths and brass fixtures. It was a relief on a recent Friday night to find only two other tables of customers, and a friend of the manager softly reading a bedtime story aloud to a sleepy young boy at the back of the room.
The three-month-old Emerald's manager and chef, Jean Schmoyer, moved to Houston from Thailand 11 years ago. Schmoyer may be new to the restaurant scene -- this is her first professional appearance at the stove -- but her menu of treasured family recipes is as placid and pleasing as the ambience of her cafe.
For starters, we were delighted with the mee grob ($4.95), a heaping platter of crisp fried noodles so ethereally light they clung to our fingers like static-charged Styrofoam peanuts. The airy texture of the thin rice noodles reminded us of caramelized Rice Krispies -- "I could eat these for breakfast," cooed a friend -- but their sticky sweetness was intriguingly offset by the briny undertone of fish sauce and a hint of spicy red chili pepper.
Schmoyer puts an elegant spin on traditional saté, too, we found. Her version of the peanutty dipping sauce is light and delicate, the texture almost fluffy. It's also sweet, but not overpoweringly so, braced with a bit of red curry paste and served with skewers of broiled chicken or beef ($4.95) or shrimp ($5.95) arranged on lettuce leaves. The lightly seasoned broiled chicken was so perfectly moist and tender, we were surprised to find the beef strips disappointingly tough, one of this kitchen's few missteps. The saté plates are complemented by cupfuls of cucumber and carrot bits in a subtle rice vinegar marinade, charmingly cut into tiny notched flower and star shapes as pretty as miniature snowflakes.
Thai Emerald dishes out four noteworthy Thai curry plates: red, green, panang and "Mussaman" -- that funny corruption of the word "Moslem" that's rendered differently on every Thai restaurant's menu -- each available in chicken, beef, seafood or vegetarian versions. So far my favorite is the mild Mussaman ($7.95), traditionally made with beef but here much better with chicken. Supple chunks of chicken, tender potato and crunchy peanuts swim in a thick tawny curry sauce, a satisfyingly complex, creamy blend of coconut milk, gingery galangal and just enough red chili peppers to make my nose run a bit. I had cautiously accepted the "one star" hotness factor as offered -- until I get to know a Thai kitchen, I'm careful -- but next time, I'll ask for two stars. At Thai Emerald, it turns out, if you want your food truly hot, you must insist on it; even the green curry ($7.95), gently fragrant with lemongrass and cilantro, is more decorous than demonic.
One of my guests loved Thai Emerald's vegetarian pad thai ($6.95), made with long, thin vermicelli-style noodles, firm oblongs of tofu and deep green broccoli stir-fried just right -- not too crisp, not too soggy. I liked its distinctive anise flavor of fresh Thai basil and the light touch of garlic, but this dish was just too syrupy sweet for my taste, the sugar and tamarind juice drowning the subtlety of the other spices, even the otherwise invincible fish sauce. "I like it just the way it is; I wouldn't change it a bit," she sniffed, pulling the plate protectively toward her end of the table. I felt as if I'd kicked her pet puppy.
We couldn't help a bit of juvenile giggling at the menu translations. "It's a proofreader's nightmare," sighed my friend, herself a former proofreader. For example, the spicy minced meat mixture I've more often seen romanized as "larb" is here represented as "lard," an unappetizing enough word in English, but downright disastrous when combined with "prik," meaning hot. "I'm simply not going to order something called 'lard prik'," huffed our male companion, sending us into gales of laughter.
So we didn't get to try Thai Emerald's tofu version of lard prik that trip, but it's worth noting that this place is a vegetarian's heaven. There are 18 different vegetarian entrées, plus soups, salads, spring rolls and the four curries, all available in non-carnivorous versions. Each of the vegetables we sampled was outstandingly fresh and expertly cooked, better handled than the beef items, I must admit. We found the strips of steak in the Tiger Cries as sadly overbroiled and tough as the beef saté, and overpriced to boot at $10.95.
Okay, I could ask for more tender beef or a little less sugar at Thai Emerald. These minor quibbles are like puppy-kicking in front of a small child who's enjoying a bedtime story. After all, it's not necessary that your favorite neighborhood cafe be perfect. When it's close to your home, it only needs to be very good, friendly when you need comforting and fast when you're cranky. On these suburban counts that matter most, Thai Emerald does very well indeed.
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