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After a deep whiff of the duck red curry at Thepthidaa, the new Thai restaurant near the Alley Theatre on Louisiana, I burst into song: "If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain..." My dining partner was chagrined.
Blame the duck. The curry sauce it was served in contained so much pineapple and coconut milk, it smelled exactly like the tropical drink. I even asked the owner and head chef, Premvadee Roberts, if she used the sweetened coconut cream called Coco Lopez in the dish. She said it was regular coconut milk, and that the pineapple juice made it sweet. The sweet curry sauce had lots of boneless duck chunks in it, but my dining companion wouldn't eat any because she didn't like the fatty skin attached to the meat. So I had to take up the slack. It didn't taste bad over jasmine rice -- if you like piña coladas.
Luckily, we had also ordered Thepthidaa's excellent som tum, a green papaya slaw seasoned with fish sauce and chiles. I alternated bites of the crunchy, sour salad with the creamy curry sauce for some relief from the sweetness.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Lunch special: $7.95
Tom yum soup: $5.95
Som tum salad: $7.95
Basil pork: $9.95
Khee Mao noodles: $9.95
Our other entrée that night, pork prik khing, was much more to my tablemate's liking. The straightforward combination of garlicky pork with chiles and green beans didn't swamp her tastebuds like the duck.
We started our meal with a bowl of the Thai chicken soup called tom kha gaai. The kitchen at Thepthidaa doesn't skimp on the coconut milk. In the case of the soup, that's a good thing -- it's richer and tastier than some of the watery versions I've had at Thai restaurants around town.
But due to the coconut milk in the duck red curry, I had to give up on it. It was just too rich. Which is an odd problem in a Thai restaurant.
We were eating on a weekday at 6 p.m., and there wasn't anybody else in the restaurant except the waitress and the owner, so I didn't embarrass anybody with my Jimmy Buffett impersonation. The place has been empty or nearly empty every time I visited on a weekday at dinnertime. I love the feeling of having the whole restaurant to myself.
It's much busier during lunch.
Thepthidaa's $7.95 lunch special comes with a cup of hot-and-sour soup, a crispy spring roll and a rotating selection of entrées. We sampled the "ginger chicken" and "massaman beef curry" on a recent Thursday afternoon. An asterisk beside the beef dish indicated it was hot, while the ginger chicken didn't earn the spicy star. When we ordered, we asked the waitress if we could add some heat to the ginger chicken and get the massaman beef curry extra hot. She agreed and wrote a note on the order. When we tasted our entrées, we concluded the kitchen had ignored the instructions.
Without any heat to balance it out, the massaman beef curry was dominated by that Skippy peanut butter flavor that's common to so many gloppy satay sauces and massaman curries. The ginger chicken was innocuous. The orange dipping sauce for the spring roll tasted like marmalade. The hot-and-sour soup, which actually had a little bit of black fungus in it, may have been our lunch's only saving grace.
In fact, all three of the soups I tried at Thepthidaa were above average. The first time we ordered soup, our waitress told us to order two small bowls rather than splitting one big one, which we did, although I never did understand why. The tart and savory tom yum with lemongrass and white-meat chicken was the best of the bunch. It was even better than the coconut milk-rich tom yum gaai.
In four visits to Thepthidaa, the best thing I ate was an order of pork khee mao noodles. The wide rice noodles were slick and tossed with enough stir-fried pork, basil, onions and chile peppers to give the "drunken noodles" an interesting texture and an herbal kick.
Pork with basil, another dish of stir-fried pork with plenty of garlic, basil and chiles, was a close second. The spicy chicken with cashew nuts had an awesome crunchiness, though a little more chile would have brought it up a notch. The pad Thai with shrimp wasn't bad. At least they don't serve the pad Thai with the ingredients unincorporated and expect you to mix it yourself. The bowl of noodles, though well-tossed, lacked the hot and sour flavors to balance the sweet and salty.
The worst thing I ate at Thepthidaa was the "shrimp & scallops with vegetables," a stir-fry of broccoli, carrots, celery and zucchini with some chopped-up scallops and a smattering of tasteless shrimp. It was reminiscent of the kind of cheap Chinese food you get at strip center restaurants with names like Golden Happy Dragon Lantern -- only it cost $14.
At Thai Gourmet on Richmond, they ask you if you want your food mild, medium, hot, Thai hot or Thai extra hot. No matter what you say, the food will melt the enamel off your teeth. Likewise, at Vieng Thai on Long Point, the food is always wildly seasoned.
Thepthidaa, on the other hand, is an outpost of the old-fashioned school of American Thai cooking that goes easy on the spice level for fear of alienating mainstream diners. The food isn't totally timid -- it has a little zing here and there -- but not much. If you like your Thai food on the tame side, you are in luck.
The owner of Thepthidaa, Primvadee Roberts, once ran the popular Thai restaurant on Memorial called The King & I, named after a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that was made into a movie in 1956. Both the play and the film starred a bald actor named Yul Brynner (19201985) who played the King of Siam, as Thailand was once known.
Judging from the newspaper clippings and old reviews of the King & I restaurant that are now displayed on the walls, Roberts sees her new restaurant as a comeback opportunity. Even her new Thepthidaa business card reads, "Premvadee Roberts, Chef/Owner (formerly of The King & I)."
The cryptic and unpronounceable new moniker, Thepthidaa, is also the name of Roberts's daughter. Though new, the restaurant is something of a throwback. Maybe I have been spoiled by the authentic exotica at Vieng Thai ("Crab Shells and Stink Beans," September 1, 2005). But the cheese roll appetizers and the sweet-and-sour pork, chicken and shrimp on Thepthidaa's new menu seem sadly dated. So does the peanut buttery Massaman curry and the piña colada-like duck. I know that this kind of tamed-down Asian food appeals to a lot of people. And Premvadee Roberts has a lot of loyal supporters.
Years ago, The King & I restaurant was on the cutting edge of Thai cuisine. But a lot has happened since then. A new wave of authentic Thai restaurants has taken the city by storm. Satay and pad Thai have gotten to be old hat. And not so many Houstonians remember Yul Brynner anymore.