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Crab Shells and Stink Beans

The most authentic Thai restaurant in Space City is a wild Asian-food ride

If there's a nation with a weirder cuisine than Laos, I probably don't want to go there. It was in a Laotian restaurant in the north of Thailand that I sampled steamed fish with mang da, a pungent sauce made by pureeing a variety of male beetle with a particularly odiferous musk gland. The sauce tastes a bit like blue cheese. The fish sauce at this exotic outdoor restaurant was stored in reused Nescafé jars. It had a sewerlike scent owing to the big chunks of putrefying fish that floated in it.

I figured the Laotian som tum at Vieng Thai would be like the Thai version with a stronger fish sauce. And I was half right. In fact, the Laotian som tum is seasoned with an aromatic fermented crab sauce.

The tiny purple crabs were chopped up and tossed in with the green papaya and the rest of the ingredients, creating one of the crunchiest salads you will ever encounter. Two out of four people at our table couldn't handle eating the shells.

In Laotian som tum (front, pictured with E-sarn 
sausage, massaman curry and tom kha 
gai), crab exoskeleton is mixed in with papaya 
salad.
Troy Fields
In Laotian som tum (front, pictured with E-sarn sausage, massaman curry and tom kha gai), crab exoskeleton is mixed in with papaya salad.

Location Info

Map

Vieng Thai

6929 Long Point Rd.
Houston, TX 77055

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Outer Loop - NW

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

E-sarn sausage: $6.99
Tom kha gai (chicken soup): $6.99
Som tum (papaya slaw): $5.99
Tiger gy (steak): $11.99
Kee mao (noodles): $6.99

6929 Long Point, 713-688-9910.

Eating crustaceans "shells and all" is common in Asia, where the lack of dairy foods makes calcium hard to come by. The smaller bits of crab shell were easy enough to crush between the molars. And anybody who loves crabs is used to eating a little bit of shell now and then. But a couple of pieces of exoskeleton mixed in with the papaya were big enough and hard enough to threaten serious damage to the sturdiest of dental work. So as highly as I recommend the Thai-style som tum, I suggest you skip the Laotian papaya salad for safety's sake.

While I love larb, a Thai salad of finely minced meat seasoned with scallions, chiles, mint, cilantro and lime juice, I'm used to eating it cold. Both the larb salad and the crystal noodle Thai salad on Vieng Thai's menu came to the table piping hot. They tasted a lot better the next day after sitting in my refrigerator overnight in a take-out container.

When it turned out the restaurant was out of catfish curry on my third visit, our waitress suggested the pad ga pow, which means "sautéed basil" in Thai. The menu described it as "a mixture of chiles, long beans, bell pepper, basil and your choice of meat." I skipped over the other options and ordered the dish with the intriguingly named crispy pork.

What came to the table was a stir-fry with pork belly -- the meat from the fattiest part of the pig, the same cut from which bacon is made. So essentially the dish consisted of thick slices of uncured bacon. Because of the high fat content, this meat cooks up wonderfully crispy and melt-in-your-mouth tender. In fact, pork belly is turning up in chic restaurants all over the country these days. I recently had some cooked with wild mushrooms in a French restaurant in Telluride, Colorado.

I was smacking my lips over Vieng Thai's spicy basil and garlic pork belly when I noticed that I was the only one eating it. After quizzing my dining companions, I discovered that others found the meat too gross to eat because of the visible stripe of fat. "You like bacon, don't you?" I almost implored the rest of the table. But then I realized that if they didn't eat it, I could wrap it up, take it home and have it for lunch the next day. I love the stuff, so I kept quiet. If eating pork fat doesn't scare you, don't miss this dish!

The most peculiar thing I ate at Vieng Thai was called pad sar-tor, which the menu describes as "sautéed shrimp, chile paste, Thai herbs and sar-tor." Sar-tor are big beans that taste like green peanuts, the proprietor told me. And they're very good for you. The green seeds mixed in with the shrimp and seasonings turned out to be about the size of fava beans. They had a nutty taste, a waxy texture and a woody crunch. What our waiter didn't mention was that sar-tor beans also have a somewhat offensive aroma.

"They smell like furniture polish," one of my dining companions declared, declining to eat any. Known as twisted cluster beans or stink beans in English, sar-tor "beans" are actually the seeds of a giant tree. The beans grow inside flat green pods that hang from the tree limbs. Sar-tor are considered an emblematic food of southern Thailand, where the trees are common. The other distinctive regional dish of southern Thailand is gaeng tai pla, a charming curry that was once fed to me by some Thai friends outside Phuket. It was a bright yellow curry with a pungent seafood flavor.

"What's in it?" I asked as I ate a bowl of the stuff.

"Mackerel innards," my guide giggled, to my dismay. Gaeng tai pla means "curried fish guts" in English.

I didn't see any fish-gut curry on the menu at Vieng Thai, but it wouldn't surprise me if I did. This is an unself-conscious restaurant that serves Thai food for purists and doesn't care what the squeamish think about it. I can't recommend this restaurant highly enough. It serves not only the most authentic Thai food in Houston but also some of the most exotic Thai dishes I've ever seen.

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