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Where the Home Fires Really Burn

Vung Thai Cafe serves the food your mom would make -- if she were Thai

For appetizers, we try the larb nur appetizer and tom yum shrimp soup. Emboldened by our tolerance of heat on our previous visit, we tell the waitress, a young woman who speaks little English, to make the dishes really hot. Unless you have recently emigrated from Thailand or have an asbestos palate, I would recommend you not repeat this mistake. I like my food pretty damn hot, but I still find this heat level a tad too high. The blond across the table gets wide-eyed and starts mopping her nose after two or three bites.

"Well, at least the pain makes you eat slower," she says with a laugh. The shrimp soup is thin and unremarkable, but the larb is a winner. Essentially larb is a pile of sautéed ground beef blended with onion, scallions, fish sauce and crunchy peanuts, then mixed with salad greens and cilantro with a sweet-and-sour dressing; think of it as a Thai hamburger salad. "It's pretty sweet, but you need the sweetness to balance the heat," my dining partner observes.

Almost every Thai dish is a balance of four flavors: sweet, hot, sour and salt. Palm sugar is the traditional Thai sweetener; regular cane sugar is used here. Thai peppers supply the heat. Fermented fish sauce, soy sauce and salted peanuts are the sources of the salty flavor. The sourness comes from a wide variety of ingredients such as limes, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and tamarind. "Americans are always asking me to leave out the sugar or leave out the salt," a Thai cooking instructor told me. "But you can't do that. It wouldn't be Thai."

Vung Thai Cafe: Serves the kind of food your mom would make -- if she were Thai.
Troy Fields
Vung Thai Cafe: Serves the kind of food your mom would make -- if she were Thai.

Location Info

Map

Thai Touch Cafe

1714 W. Loop N.
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Heights

Details

Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. (713)868-3551

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

1714 West Loop North

In Bangkok, I was told that the sweet-and-sour flavor of a great pad thai should come from tamarind. Food stands that substitute lime juice and sugar for the more expensive tamarind are held in lower esteem. As wonderful as Vung's pad thai tastes, I find myself missing the tamarind in this moist and spicy noodle dish. "Sometimes we use a little tamarind, but today we're using lime juice and sugar instead," the waitress confirms. I hope this is owing to a seasonal shortage, because otherwise it is an excellent dish.

The biggest disappointment at Vung Thai Cafe comes when I order from the section of the menu marked "Curry." So impressed was I with the duck pineapple curry on my first visit, I want to try some other varieties. There is plenty from which to choose: red and green curry with your choice of chicken, pork or beef; yellow curry cooked with chicken and potatoes; masaman beef and masaman shrimp curry; even a panang curry.

Masaman (also spelled "mussaman") means "Muslim" in Thai and refers to curries with cinnamon and cardamom, spices brought to Thailand by Muslim traders from India. Panang refers to a southern Thai style, with kaffir lime leaves, a style also originally inspired by Indian curry.

I order red curry with pork. This turns out to be thin squares of pork quick-fried and then unceremoniously dropped into a red curry sauce. The result is hard to reconcile: a dish of delightful sauce with some tough pieces of tasteless pork added. When I go back to Vung Thai Cafe, which will be soon, I will stick with curries in which the meat has been cooked with the sauce. The yellow curry with chicken and potatoes sounds particularly promising.

Perhaps you already have a favorite Thai restaurant and feel a loyalty to the cooking there. If so, I salute you. But if there is a hole in your culinary life where home-cooked Thai food is supposed to be, I recommend you go to Vung Thai Cafe immediately. Sure, the menu has a few clunkers, but the standout dishes blow away typical Thai fare. Try the shrimp in the blanket, the larb nur and especially the duck pineapple curry. But be forewarned: You will never be satisfied with boring commercial Thai food again.

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