Movin' On Up on the South Side
Thai food fans take note: One of Houston's best-kept secrets has moved uptown. Well, sort of. Kanomwan is still tucked away on that Twilight Zone stretch of Telephone Road between the Gulf Freeway and downtown, but in January, it moved up the road (to 1011 Telephone, 923-4130). It's growing like Topsy in the new spot, which was previously incarnated as a neighborhood grocery store, and before that, as a luckless hamburger joint.

The metamorphosis isn't as dramatic as Kim Son's rebirth a few years back, but it's still a marked improvement in ambiance. The seating has mushroomed to some 30 tables, and there's plenty of off-street parking, to boot. The fresh façade boasts new carpeting (albeit in a couple of cobbled-together end runs of green and maroon), pristine white paint and new paneling, plus a second generation of the familiar white lace curtains draped across the front windows. Spanking-new, brass-trimmed ceiling fans twirl arctic currents of powerful air conditioning, and -- egad! -- bottled designer water is served.

One wall is dedicated to framed copies of rave reviews and awards, most dating back to the mid- to late-'80s. For reasons I can't fathom, it's difficult to find more recent mention of Kanomwan in the foodie press. But despite the glaring lack of up-to-date media attention, over the years the restaurant has managed to build a devoted clientele of downtown lunchers. At dinnertime, well, you can usually have the place to yourself.

I've looked in vain for the straggly kaffir lime trees that used to shed on the tables at the old location. I guess they were upscaled, too -- replaced by more reputable-looking houseplants and decidedly nonedible ficus trees. For those who feel an obscure sense of loss at the creeping gentrification of their favorite holes-in-the-wall, I can offer some crumbs of comfort: Kanomwan's food is as good as ever, and the surgical-quality lighting is still terrible. And the lime leaves, though store-bought, still appear as fresh grace notes in the wonderful green curry.

That leaves only the peril of overpopularity to worry about. A recent weekday lunch was a scene of near pandemonium: Every table was filled, and latecomers hovered like vultures at the door, nagging the wild-eyed blur of a busboy to clear them a table. Some overeager patrons even cleared their own tables in order to claim a seat. The kitchen exhausted its supply of both Kanomwan's signature drinks, the sweet Thai tea and the iced Thai coffee. "It's not like this every day," owner Yuthana Charoenrat assured us, while appearing to simultaneously run the register, seat the incoming tide of suits and scribble down more food orders. "But we are busier than before."

So busy, in fact, that they need a break. Kanomwan will be closed through April 29 for the Charoenrats' family trip to Thailand.

-- Margaret Briggs


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