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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The tom kha gai soup at Thai Lily Café on Dairy Ashford is made with chicken in coconut milk broth with lemongrass, fresh chiles, lime juice and mushrooms. The soup was so fantastic, I picked up my bowl and slurped down the last of it. And I ended up with a mouthful of Thai food's secret ingredients — a big woody chunk of galanga and a thick piece of kaffir lime leaf. Rather than remove the inedible substances from my mouth right away, I sat there sucking on them for a while.
Galanga, a root that is related to ginger, has been around for a few millennia. It was part of ancient Javanese cuisine. It has all sorts of reputed medicinal benefits and a weird flavor that reminds me of pine soap. Kaffir lime has a sharp tang that tastes like citrus perfume. It's rare to get such a heady dose of these two exotic seasonings.
Kumon Lee, the chef and owner of Thai Lily, isn't afraid of strong flavors. Lee's sister owns Vieng Thai restaurant on Long Point, which is known for its uncompromising authenticity. Lee bought the tiny Thai Lily Café a year ago and has completely revamped the menu. The selection isn't as extensive as Vieng Thai's, but the food is just as vibrant and clean-tasting. Lee says he cooks everything from scratch. I believe him.
2390 S. Dairy Ashford
Houston, TX 77077
Dumplings: $5 Tom kha gai: $5 Lunch specials: $7 Curries: $9.50 Pad kee mao: $10
I don't usually talk to the chef when I do a review, but in this case it was unavoidable. On my first visit to the restaurant, the lone waitress hadn't shown up for work yet, and Lee was acting as both our waiter and chef. There are only ten tables in the restaurant, and we were the only customers, so it wasn't that difficult.
The menu invites you to specify mild, regular, spicy, very spicy, or very very spicy, but I forgot to pick a heat level. Nevertheless, the food was all perfectly seasoned to my taste — hot, but only a little painful.
When I asked Lee how he knew my preferred level of heat, he said it was obvious from what I ordered. You don't get pad kee mao, also known as "drunkard's noodles," unless you like hot and spicy food. The dish is made with fresh green chiles. And when I inquired where he got the super-wide and extremely slippery noodles that made his version of pad kee mao so exceptional, he told me he rolled the noodles himself every day.
Spicy pad kee mao with its chiles and fresh purple basil doesn't taste quite right without a cold beer. When I tried to order some, Lee informed me that that the restaurant didn't sell alcohol. BYOB customers are welcome, though, and he encouraged me to go get my beer while he was preparing our order. And so I darted across six lanes of traffic at rush hour. It took some fancy footwork to avoid getting squashed, but I gladly risked death for a large green bottle of Heineken.
The beer tasted great with the splendid som tum we started out with on that first visit. Well, at least I thought the green papaya, garlic, peanut, chile pepper and green bean slaw tossed with fermented fish sauce was excellent — my dining companion disagreed. She found the aroma of the fish sauce overwhelming. But she wasn't drinking beer.
Thai Lily's menu also offers the much more pungent Laotian version of som tum, which is made with fermented purple crab sauce. I wonder what she would have thought of that one?
On my second visit, I tried some of the terrific homemade ground chicken dumplings on Thai Lily's appetizer menu. They look like overgrown xiu mai, or meatballs in cupcake papers made out of wonton wrappers. But instead of being steamed like the Chinese xiu mai you get at a dim sum restaurant, these dumplings were deep fried. They were crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle.
We also ordered spring rolls, but we neglected to specify soft spring rolls, and so we were served the boring fried variety with gloppy sweet orange sauce on the side. They also have cream cheese-stuffed fried cheese rolls on the appetizer list, if you like that kind of thing.
We tried the yum woon sen, a Thai salad made with crystal noodles, ground chicken, shrimp, onions, tomato, cilantro, chile peppers and lime juice, and found it disappointing. The noodles were too stiff, and the mixture was dry. I asked Lee to bring us more dressing, which he did, but it didn't help much. The lukewarm salad just never came together.
Lee's handmade curries are awesome. I ordered the green curry with pork one night. Instead, I was served green curry with shaved white meat chicken. I ate it anyway.
Thai Lily's version of Thai green curry is made with fresh green chiles and herbs. There was a huge pile of shiny green kaffir lime leaves beside my plate when I finished eating. The curry contained crisp green beans and velvety eggplant pieces. The meat didn't really matter much.
When I asked Lee why he sent out chicken instead of the requested pork, he apologized. "Everyone gets green curry with shrimp or chicken," he said. "I just forgot." Pork is more commonly eaten with red curry, he told me.
On my last visit to Thai Lily Café, I got a lunch special with pork in red curry. Talk about "the other white meat" — I could barely tell the difference between the shaved lean pork used in the red curry and the chicken that came in the green curry. The red curry was made with red chiles and had a cumin zing to it that I liked a lot.
Lee's Thai curries are fantastic, but they taste like vegetable stews with some fried meats thrown in at the last minute. I would love to try one of Lee's curries with some braised meat in it. How about some red curry with long-simmered duck legs and pineapple?
But you can hardly expect to find that sort of thing on the $7 lunch special. The special includes chicken soup, one dumpling, one fried spring roll and your choice of entrées. It's quite a bargain.
Thai Lily isn't on the same level as Vieng Thai, but it's a real find anyway. What the tiny cafe does best is short-order Thai, especially noodle dishes. Go try an order of Chef Lee's handmade noodles in pad kee mao. Ask for it "very spicy," if you dare.
And don't forget to bring your own beer — or a pair of running shoes.