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Throughout the Southwest, ranchers and oil-patch workers alike stop at noon to down cups of piping hot black coffee with the rationalization that "heating up your insides makes the outdoors seem cooler." Though I once pooh-poohed this theory as the desperate philosophy of those who do not understand the caffeine content of Diet Coke, I now understand. Even on the most sweltering, smoggy and beastly Houston day, slurping a steaming, exotically fragrant bowl of chef Annie Wong's spicy coconut chicken soup on the Liberty Noodles patio is calming, mysteriously cooling and sets you right.
Imagine yourself, the typical Houstonian: hot, sagging with that midday energy drop, pissed off about whatever you had to deal with all morning, and before you is a bowl of spicy chicken coconut soup ($10.95). The sinus-clearing bite of chili, lemongrass and lime, aided by the tangy pineapple and the tart cherry tomatoes, is balanced by smooth coconut milk and comforting chantaboun noodles. The heat (thermodynamic and spicy) opens your head, the acid edge awakens your senses, and the calming noodles and soothing coconut offer as much peace as hot cocoa.
Such rich combinations are the crux of Liberty Noodles. (If the name itself strikes you as an odd pairing of words, consider that Wong's partner, Jeffrey Yarbrough, originally wanted to call the operation Noodle Monkey. Other investors pressed for something less goofy.) The space itself embraces a similarly eclectic approach: Piece together the elements, no matter how random they may seem, into a pleasing whole. Texan designer David Nelson, he of the shimmering, psychedelic tricot shirts, created an understated interior for the original Dallas restaurant and has followed suit with the Houston Noodle. Here, the gold- and red-toned main dining room is accented with slate, prints on paper, and lighting fixtures shaded by parasols and birdcages. Between the windows and the bar bar (as distinguished from the slate noodle bar), a water-wall fountain -- already showing Houston hard-water stains! -- adds interest. Nelson's outdoor patio space (facing Texas Avenue) can serve upward of 60 patrons and features an entirely Texan koi "pond," which any good rancher would instantly recognize as merely a galvanized metal stock tank.
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Such frisky touches lighten the atmosphere without seeming busy. Liberty Noodles is a very easy place to be, its comfort created in no small part by the staff, helmed by Shelly Drought (once upon a time at the Redwood Grill). Waiters are quick to provide truly useful assistance: Ask for menu guidance, and no one chirps, "It's all good!"; request a reasonable substitution, and your wish is cheerfully granted; and if you suggest an unfortunate substitution, you will be gently corrected.
Wong, a onetime home ec teacher in Thailand, displays equal grace with her dishes, taking delight in finding the perfect dance partner for each ingredient, taste and texture. Earlier I indicated the spicy chicken soup is "balanced." By saying that, I don't simply mean the sharp and smooth ingredients are given equal weight. Wong balances all flavors with an elegance that Cirque du Soleil acrobats can only dream of. Try, for example, her funky black mushrooms in Japanese beef soup ($10.95), in which one taste rises against and then artfully gives way to another flavor. Wong's dishes also deftly match textures; for instance, a big noodle bowl of spicy duck ($18.95) not only provides crunchiness (rice noodles coiling up out of the bowl like a fanciful trellis) but also tenderness (the duck) and crispiness (the veggies).
Wong may ignore old rules about pairing ingredients, but she's a stickler for authenticity. Her basic training includes an exhaustive study of Thai as well as instruction in the finer points of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Malaysian and Indian cookery. But when the adventurous cook wanted to grill meat according to fajita-country custom, she went straight to Matt Martinez, whose family has been running Tex-Mex restaurants since 1925. The techniques he taught Wong now reach an entirely new audience through her grilled dishes and Thai West tacos ($7.95). Folded into tiny tortillas, the tacos, a surprising marriage of Southwestern grilled chicken and pork to Asian stir-fried mushrooms and cabbage, are addictive, to say the least.
Those precious baby tacos face some stiff competition on the menu's "First Dish" appetizer list: The grilled calamari ($7.25) -- no pencil-eraser texture here -- the simple chicken sate ($6.25), the traditional spring rolls ($6.95) and Wong's own "fall rolls" ($8.95) are all excellent. The latter appetizer is a lighthearted roll variation, wrapped black pepper shrimp served with a commanding wasabi-soy sauce.
But perhaps the finest finger food at Liberty Noodles is the "dumpling du jour" ($6.95), which is something of a misnomer given you have a choice among several options. On any given day, the kitchen might prepare five-mushroom dumplings in Korean dipping sauce, or hot spinach with pork and shrimp served with Asian basil sauce, or an open-faced steamed pork-and-shrimp dumpling. These are all delightful. However, if the daily special includes curried chicken-and-potato dumplings (served with a hopping fruit chutney), make sure to get a double order. It's a nobody-can-eat-just-one situation. (This, incidentally, is the only time I suggest that you not save stomach space for treats further down the menu.)