Approaching the newly opened, less-than-one-week-old restaurant Foreign Correspondents on a dreadfully rainy Saturday evening, it was surprising to see the restaurant’s rainbow neon signage and modern gray facade. On the surface, the building looked as if it could have housed a hip '80s pop record label. But the surprise factor is part of what makes the place one of Houston’s newest gems.
“The food here is colorful, so we wanted our decor to reflect that,” said Assistant General Manager Oscar Garza. Indeed, not only is the signage colorful, but a huge mural on the back wall inside — a 3D work by local artist Jon Read — projected an array of primary colors and read like a graphic novel. It told a story that began with figurines sitting atop a center island, a green Shrek-like fictional character holding a sword, prepared to battle an evil character over a kingdom. The story continued on the wall in an intricate plot that included space travel, a fight and a damsel in distress — all of it playing to the fun, upbeat ambience that Foreign Correspondents was going for.
“We didn’t want to have elephants and statues and Thai decor — that would be so cliché, right?” asked Oscar rhetorically.
Foreign Correspondents, the newest restaurant in The Heights by Treadsack (Down House, D &T Drive Inn, Hunky Dory, Johnny’s Gold Brick), is a northern Thai food concept helmed by PJ Stoops. He's known among food circles as the local crusader who championed bycatch fish in the Houston area, and his experience in the kitchen included stints as a chef in northern Thailand. His wife, Apple, is also of Thai descent. And his menu — meant to be shared family style — is a distinctive regional Thai cuisine that we really haven’t seen in Houston until now, at least not in any permanent form (a recent Thai pop-up featured similar food from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand).
That translates into a menu of dishes that veers off the beaten path. As in you won’t find pad Thai on the menu here. Instead, there are dishes like the khao soi, a traditional noodle dish in a light coconut curry broth, topped with a braised chicken drumstick and crispy noodles. Though we found it a bit bland to the taste, we later found out that a side sauce of chile and a side bowl of pickles (which arrived with a bunch of dishes but without an explanation) were meant to be added to the bowl for customization and more flavor.
For appetizers, you get interesting items like the khao bai banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice stuffed with dried mackerel — sweet and salty, and reminiscent of the Cantonese dim sum dish known as hor yip but with a stronger seafood flavor.
A nam prik ong pork and tomato dip, served with cucumber, carrot and squash crudités, is tasty and full of umami, with a deep seafood flavor that you can find only in Southeast Asian countries where ingredients like fermented fish paste and fish sauce are used.
One of the standout dishes of the night was a tham thai central-style papaya salad. This is probably more familiar to connoisseurs of Thai cuisine. It's a very popular dish throughout Thailand, and the menu offers two versions, one that's more pungent, known as tam bak hoong, and one that's lighter on the palate. We went with the lighter one, which was not only beautifully presented but perfectly flavored, showing a goodly amount of acid and sweetness punctuated by an earthy dose of peanuts, a good counterbalance for the mild tartness of the crisp green papaya noodles.
Another standout for the night was the tom saep lemongrass and tamarind fish soup, which tasted very homemade. The sour tamarind was strong here, but the addition of herbs softened it, and several two-inch chunks of snapper gave the broth depth. People who are familiar with the northern Vietnamese canh chua (sour soup) would appreciate this soup, which bristled with authenticity.
A surprising hit of the night, something that really captured the fall flavors well, was a phat fak tong pumpkin sauté with pork, eggs and Thai basil. Homey and simple, it was on the whole very enjoyable. “The pumpkin makes it feel like such a fall dish,” said my dining companion.
For entrées, there were four dishes from which to choose — all of them sounding interesting and appetizing enough that we would have loved to order all of them: Isaan grilled chicken (gai yang khao suan kwang); spicy blue crab (phat phet bpuu); frogs fried with lemongrass (gop tawd samunphrai); and a fried Gulf snapper (miang pla). We saw the charcoal-grilled chicken waft across the room in a large rectangular dish a few times, and it looked incredible. However, because Stoops’s specialty is fish, we chose the fried snapper.
The miang pla was served in a large round platter, with sides of large lettuce and betel leaves, rice vermicelli noodle, and a brown sauce. Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine is full of dishes like this, which require assembly at the table like lettuce wraps. This dish was all about the sauce, which was very hard to put a finger on in terms of flavor. It seemed to be composed of peanuts with fermented shrimp paste and hoisin, strong flavors that complemented the fish and herbs well. But it needed a little more something — some crunch, perhaps? The beauty of eating family style is that you can ad lib as you go. We found that taking peanuts from the papaya salad and adding them to the fish wrap worked really well, creating a dimension of complexity in each bite.
The cocktail and wine list is probably the most sophisticated you’ll find at a Thai food establishment in Houston.
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In the cocktail list created by Bar Director Leslie Ross, you get well-crafted, eminently drinkable libations such as the namesake Foreign Correspondent, a gin and tonic made with Thai green chile chartreuse, lemongrass, cucumber and bitter lemon tonic (other drinks sound intriguing as well, including a “Tears of the Black Tiger” made with makrut lime-infused tequila and vanilla rose syrup).
As to the wine list overseen by Beverage Director Travis Hinkle, there are 15 by the glass (in the $9-to-$15 range), with options ranging from sparkling wine to Garnacha, Pinot Noir, Rose and several types of white wines (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, etc). Like the by-the-glass selection, the list covers sparkling, whites, rosés and light reds, with an emphasis on whites from Germany. Surprisingly, the bottle price average seemed to be a bit on the high side. The median price range landed somewhere around $55. Bottle prices were $36 for a non-vintage Müller-Thurgau “Secco” from Rheinhessen, Germany, and topped out at $380 for a 2007 Trimbach “Clos Ste. Hune” Riesling from Alsace, France.