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Bangkok and the Bayou City have something in common. There, as here, the best Thai food can be found in humble mom-and-pop restaurants where they aren't afraid to let bold flavors shine bright. In Bangkok, I ate the best pad thai of my life at a little stall on a city street choked with motorbike fumes. And in Houston, I found the city's most exciting Thai curry at an 18-table restaurant wedged in between a Whataburger and a pool hall on a West Loop access road.
The minute you walk in the door, you know there is something eccentric about Vung Thai Cafe. The walls are painted lime, and the tables are decked out with lemon-colored linens and flanked by green-vinyl-and-aluminum diner chairs, circa 1950s. A large aquarium on the bar holds a single goldfish enormous enough to merit its name, Red Diver. This is not a restaurant that's trying to please everybody, but rather a shrine to an individual taste.
When we sit down for dinner on our first visit, my girlfriend isn't very enthusiastic. She loves Thai food, but she just had it for lunch. So we gravitate toward the unusual items that you don't find on every Thai menu. Like "shrimp in the blanket," which is five individual shrimp tucked into egg-roll wrappers and deep-fried. You pick up these hot, crisp tidbits by the tail and dunk them into a spicy dipping sauce. It's a simple but tantalizing appetizer, and two of them seem to wake up my dining companion's appetite; we flip a coin for the fifth.
1714 W. Loop N.
Houston, TX 77008
Shrimp in the blanket: $4.95
Duck pineapple curry: $7.95
Pla lard prik: $7.95
Pad prik king: $7.95
Larb nur: $5.95
Tom yum soup: $3.95
Red, yellow or green curry: $6.50
The other appetizer is a plate of chicken-and-shrimp-stuffed Thai dumplings, six of which arrive soggy, in tattered wrappers. They look like they have been boiled more than once. The dumplings would be the only mediocre dish we were served.
The waiter is a young Asian man who doesn't speak much English. We get into a familiar dilemma when he asks how hot we want our entrées. Vung Thai Cafe caters to Thai people, he tells us, so if we ask for our dishes hot, they're going to be extremelyhot. I defer to the sage judgment of the other side of the table and go with medium hot.
We order an intriguing-sounding house specialty called duck pineapple curry, as well as the waiter's recommendation of pla lard prik, deep-fried fish fillets covered with sweet Thai chile sauce. (Pla means "fish," and prik means "chile.") Actually, his first recommendation was pad prik king, fresh Gulf shrimp with curry and green beans, but we had just eaten the shrimp appetizers, so we went with his second choice. The hot, crispy fish came in big pieces, and the sweet and hot chile sauce made a sensational topping. But it was the curry that really got our attention.
The cafe's duck pineapple curry is served in a large soup bowl that's decorated with a yellow flower pattern and looks vaguely Mexican. The curry is pale orange and soupy, and the meat is heaped in a big pile with a basil sprig on top as a garnish. I spoon some over steamed rice. The sweet pineapple chunks and full-flavored wedges of duck meat are an awesome combination. The rich flavor of sweetened coconut milk balances the considerable heat in the curry sauce, and the sharp aroma of pungent basil lingers in my mouth long after I bite into it.
Too often Thai dishes taste the same from restaurant to restaurant. But this curry is different. Like the decor, it makes a unique statement. And beyond that, the dish has another quality that has become rare in Thai food: Vung Thai Cafe's duck pineapple curry tastes like home cooking.
Cooking at home is, more or less, a thing of the past in Bangkok, explained Dr. Foo Swasdee, my guide when I visited there nearly two years ago. You can get a meal from one of the city's ubiquitous street stalls more cheaply than you could buy the ingredients at a grocery store. Middle-class dwellers don't even bother to build kitchens in their homes, which saves on the a/c bill in a city whose weather makes Houston seem positively polar. Swasdee grew up in Thailand, earned a Ph.D. in food chemistry from Texas A&M, owns a restaurant in Austin and leads culinary tours to Thailand.
I told her that I wanted to visit the best food stalls in Bangkok, so she introduced me to a well-to-do architect who was also a devout foodie. Listening to him rhapsodize about his favorite place to eat fried chicken while we drove around in his Mercedes, I was struck by how much he sounded like an American boasting about Mom's apple pie. Which made me realize that in Bangkok, the food-stall owners and street vendors arethe home cooks.
I thought about my tour of Bangkok's street vendors as soon as I tasted the cooking at Vung Thai Cafe. The restaurant seems to be following in that proud hole-in-the-wall tradition. The food tastes like the kind your mom would make if she were Thai.
On our second visit to Vung Thai Cafe, my girlfriend and I sample dishes from all over the menu. Some of them are wonderful; some taste like Thai food found elsewhere. But don't construe this as a complaint about uneven quality. Consider it a suggestion of what to order. In Bangkok, you have to know what an eatery specializes in and order accordingly. It's the same here.