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The City of Houston's building occupancy permit does not, as far as I know, stipulate what kind of restaurant can do business at a particular site. But you might think otherwise when you consider the curious case of 1226 Westheimer.
By rough count, this strip-center location deep in the heart of Montrose has now housed no fewer than four different Thai restaurants, stretching all the way back to the '80s, when Renu's set up shop there. Proponents of reincarnation may find food for thought in this.
The latest incarnation, Nidda Thai Cuisine, is a modest enterprise. A dozen tables occupy a space that could accommodate twice that number, with the buffet accoutrements of the previous tenant (Bangkok Place) done away with. The battened plywood paneling, a remnant of the Renu's era (if memory serves), provides a touch of warmth to the space's impersonal acoustic-tile ceiling and industrial gray carpet. A few decorative elements soften the effect -- a travel agency poster of Thailand, a sequined tapestry of elephants -- but the overall impression is still "strip center make-do." Of course, in itself, minimal decor is okay. Some of the best ethnic food in the city can be found in similarly unassuming surroundings.
Houston, TX 77006
Green papaya salad: $6.95
Squid salad: $7.95
Gaeng som curry: $7.95
Thai-style shrimp: $12.95
Coconut ice cream: $3.75
But that's not exactly what you get at Nidda.
The virtues of the best dishes at Nidda are the virtues of good Thai food in general: fresh ingredients with complex flavors of sweet, sour, spicy and salty bouncing off one another in unpredictable combinations. The Thai-style shrimp, for example, gets it just right, balancing muscular garlic, aromatic basil and peppers into an exciting blend that enhances the sautéed shrimp without overpowering their succulent appeal. And a simple plate of stir-fried eggplant is among the best I've tasted.
But despite the obligatory boast on the menu that this is "The Best Thai Food in Town," for the most part Nidda's successes are moderate but its flaws minimal, placing it in that vast territory bounded by ah, not too bad and hey, pretty good.
A "Grand Opening" banner out front attests to Nidda's relative infancy (it opened in May), and it's clear that the establishment is still finding its way.
On one visit, our waitress eyed the not inconsiderable leftovers on a platter of drunken noodles and asked apprehensively, "Too hot, too spicy for you?" Actually, the spice and heat of the dish were, if anything, a tad too conservative -- it was just too much food,given the trencherman's assortment of intriguing dishes we had ordered.
It's of obvious concern to Nidda just how much to mute the bold, sometimes fiery flavors that are the hallmark of Thai cuisine in order to appeal to an Americanized palate. But it's hard to blame them for asking about our spice threshold on a Thursday night so slow that only three tables were occupied.
Still, that kind of thinking may explain, at least in part, why something like the green papaya salad at Nidda proved to be a mild disappointment -- emphasis on "mild," as in easygoing. At its best, this Thai favorite can have a wonderfully tart, almost astringent quality, the sharp, lime-laced dressing tap-dancing vibrantly across the crunchy strips of raw, unripe papaya. This version does more of a comfortable soft-shoe, with an appetizing but cautious dressing drenching slightly soggy slivers of (canned?) papaya.
The Americanized palate could also explain why a fried soy bean cake appetizer is served with a peanut-and-chile dipping sauce so tame and well behaved, it hardly puts a dent in the spongy blocks of tofu.
Far better are the selections that don't seem to be aimed at accommodating some genteel, mid-range customer base, such as the gaeng som curry, a bracing concoction that has the musky, vinegar-rich taste of a Szechuan hot-and-sour soup. Larded with whole shrimp, bok choy and mushrooms, it's hearty fare that produces a delightful slow burn as you ladle up and finish off several small bowls of it.
Milder, but no less impressive, is the panang curry, with the sweet coconut milk and zesty kaffir lime leaves combining to create a piquant, spoon-licking sauce that's perfect with chicken. Lord help me, if there'd been biscuits on the table, I'd have sopped it up like gravy.
Nidda also sticks to its guns with the squid salad. There's no namby-pamby pretense here, no strategically scattering a few delicate pieces of the mollusk amid heaps of lettuce, onion and tomato. No, siree. As my dining companion observed, "That's a lot of squid." She said it the same way Roy Scheider in Jaws said, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." And, remember, this isn't calamari, deep-fried and dripping with gooey, taste-masking marinara. It's squid, lightly boiled and cross-hatched with a knife (a flower-cut pattern, I think that's called), then gently doused with a bit of red pepper-flecked tamarind sauce. Large chunks of the slightly chewy off-white flesh dominate the plate. For those who've never sampled plain ol' squid but are inquisitive: No, it doesn't taste like chicken. It tastes like...squid. And if you are a devotee, that alone may be a reason to visit Nidda.
It's not surprising that Nidda tends to wobble between merit and mediocrity.
The owner (and occasional cook) Som Kid is brand-new to the restaurant business. With admitted reservations, she launched into this culinary adventure primarily at the urging of her husband, who operates an auto repair business in Montrose. She has staffed the establishment with friends and acquaintances -- "all Thai people," she says proudly -- and has named it after her mother, who remains in Thailand. And, a waitress confides, Nidda doesn't know her daughter has even opened a restaurant, much less named a half-dozen of the dishes after her.
Well, that's probably something Dr. Phil needs to help them work through as a family. But the more immediate concern at Nidda may be getting its long-awaited beer-and-wine license so it can start offering Singha, that potent Thai brew that pairs so well with this robust food.
In the meantime, diners have to rely on the first-rate desserts to finally quench those Thai peppers. There's a lovely coconut ice cream that truly tastes as homemade as the menu claims. A nimbly fried banana with not-so-homemade vanilla ice cream is also a treat. But traditionalists will probably prefer the pleasantly gelatinous glob of sweetness called sticky rice that's served with fresh mango slices.
A scaled-down version of the elaborate menu is offered for lunch, at a reasonable $6.95 for an entrée, soup or salad, and a roll.
With longtime favorites Thai Pepper and Golden Room already laying claim to Montrose -- and Thai Sticks gaining ground -- there's not a lot of elbow room for a newcomer. To her credit, neophyte Som Kid is trying to follow her own path at Nidda. There is, for example, no mee krob on the menu. Asked about the absence of this almost compulsory Thai dish of crispy noodles covered with a palm sugar-based sauce, Kid flatly rejects it as "too sticky, too sweet, no good for the healthy people." Fans of South Parkwill no doubt recall the episode in which it's revealed that one of the eight primal curse words just happens to be...mee krob. Apparently Kid shares that belief. Let's hope she continues to display such spirited conviction when deciding just how spicy and flavorful the food at Nidda should be.