Crab Shells and Stink Beans
The menu at Vieng Thai, the best Thai restaurant in Houston, is spell-binding. I've never heard of half the dishes on it. And although I've eaten three belt-busting meals here, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I want to keep coming back until I've eaten all 12 appetizers, seven soups, 14 Thai salads, six curries, ten rice dishes, eight vegetarian dishes, 19 entrées and 14 noodle bowls. But unfortunately, the time has come to stop eating and write the damn review.
Vieng Thai is not a fancy restaurant. It's a mom-and-pop affair where Dad works the weekends (he runs a print shop during the week) and Mom works the weekdays. The extremely modest dining room has scuffed concrete floors, cheesy fixtures and a decor dominated by a wide-screen television and a karaoke setup. The air-conditioning is so bad that regulars take turns pointing a high-speed portable fan at their tables. On the plus side, flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts are all okay by this joint's dress code. And you're welcome to bring your own beer. (The food is so hot, you'd better bring a 12-pack.)
Vieng Thai has a strange relationship with mainstream diners. It's a Thai restaurant for Thais, so the servers have to do a balancing act. They will try to talk you out of dishes they don't think you will like. But they will give you the strange stuff if you insist. And if you ask for your food to be prepared hot and spicy, it will be hot and spicy indeed.
"I could eat here every night," one of my chile-pepper-loving dining companions sighed into her fiery tom kha gai on our second visit. The chicken soup was extraordinary. I've never seen a broth so bright white with coconut milk, or tasted so much lemongrass, kaffir lime and chile peppers in Thai chicken soup.
On a different visit, the tom yum goong, a spicy hot-and-sour soup with shrimp and mushrooms, sent another one of my dining companions on a short trip through inner space. The soup is loaded with whole dried chiles, and he inadvertently chomped down on a couple. He closed his eyes and winced until the hallucinations passed. Then he respectfully fished the rest of the short brown peppers out of his soup bowl before proceeding.
The massaman curry with beef, coconut milk, potatoes and peanuts probably drew the most enthusiastic response from my companions. The dense red curry had a healthy dose of ground peanuts, which tasted sensational with the beef chunks and spicy chiles. It was the richest dish we ate here. The green curry with chicken was more typical of Thai curries. It was thin and soupy and served in a bowl. We should have requested rice bowls so we could spoon lots of the sauce over our rice. I love this kind of Thai curry, but it's a mistake to try to eat it on a plate.
The E-sarn sausage was also a big hit. E-sarn (or Esarn) is a remote region of northeast Thailand that is famous for its lemongrass- and garlic-flavored sausage. At Vieng Thai, the fried sausage slices are served with a garnish of chopped red onions, cilantro, peanuts and chile peppers.
I've given up on ordering pad thai. Like nearly every other place in Houston, Vieng Thai puts the chiles and other condiments on the side instead of mixing them into the noodles. This is supposed to allow you to season it the way you like it, but it's a little like being served naked spaghetti with the marinara sauce, meatballs and crushed red pepper on the side. So now I always get the kee mao (drunken noodles), a spicy stir-fry of slippery, curly noodles, chicken chunks, garlic and onions with lots of chiles and basil, all mixed together thoroughly. Vieng Thai's kee mao is one of the best I've had.
My daughter, who tries to avoid the hottest Thai dishes, was delighted with the Thai ginger chicken, which included white meat chicken, slivers of fresh ginger, mushrooms and onions in a Thai ginger sauce. She also loved the pad thai for the same reason I avoid it. The mildest dish we sampled at Vieng Thai was the tiger cry (tiger gy on the menu), a plate of thin slices of New York strip steak cooked well-done and served with a spicy dipping sauce. The gently spiced appetizers we tried included soft spring rolls, chicken satay with peanut sauce and the deep-fried fish cakes called tod mun.
Plenty of things on Vieng Thai's menu turned out to be mild enough for the meek. And then some dishes proved too bizarre even for the adventurous.
The refreshing salad called som tum is a slaw of tart and crunchy shredded green papaya seasoned with lime, garlic, chiles and fish sauce. There are two versions available at Vieng Thai: Thai and Laotian. The Thai som tum was one of the best things we tried on our first visit to the restaurant, so on my last visit, I asked for the Laotian version. The waitress told me I wouldn't like it. I assured her that I've eaten Laotian food before and know all about the funky fish sauce. So she agreed to bring it on.
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.
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.
For Houston's legion of ethnic-dining connoisseurs, this place is a rare treasure. And for those extremists who seek the edgiest in culinary thrills, it's a dream come true. If Laotian crab sauce and stink beans aren't outrageous enough for you, ask them if they can whip you up some gaeng tai pla.
I dare you.
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