Good Food and Good People Keep Folks Coming Back to Morningside Thai
Want a behind the scenes look at Morningside Thai? Check out our slideshow.
I've always considered it a good sign when, shortly after sitting down to dine in a small, family-run establishment, I'm welcomed into the fold with a special dish or a visit from the matriarch, who's been cooking in the back. That's precisely what happened during my first meal at Morningside Thai.
I had already devoured the first course — crispy fried fish cakes and steamed pork dumplings — when a diminutive Thai woman wearing an apron hustled out of the kitchen area, winked at me and set down a few chafing dishes full of noodles and stir fry and curry on an empty table. The next time she emerged from the back, she was carrying helium balloons, which she then arranged around a few tables, tying them to chairs so they wouldn't escape toward the ceiling. By the time I'd finished my heavenly bowl of red curry with roasted duck and was contemplating dessert, the tiny restaurant had clearly become a party venue.
My server explained to me that she and two other servers shared a birthday, so they were having a joint party in celebration. The tiny aproned woman who had been bringing tray after tray of food out from the back stopped by my table to see how I was doing, but before I could answer, she gestured to the buffet lined up against one wall for the party guests. "You eat!" she demanded, and the servers echoed her invitation. In spite of how much I'd already eaten, I contemplated staying and celebrating with these kind, welcoming folks at the strange little restaurant that I found myself liking more and more every minute.
At first glance, though, I wasn't sure that I would like the place. From looking at the modest interior and overwhelming menu, you'd never guess that this unassuming Thai restaurant makes some of the best red curry — if not the best — in town.
Morningside Thai's red curry is richer, silkier and more dimensional than any I've had in a long time. The aromatic mixture of herbs and spices and coconut milk is dotted with chunks of pineapple and tomatoes and long strands of wilted green basil leaves that sneak up on you with a rush of herbal heat every other bite. It isn't so spicy hot that I can no longer discern the individual flavors of fresh red chiles, tomato puree and lemongrass, but it packs enough heat that no additional spices are needed to make my cheeks flush and cool my sinuses. It's hot with the dull burn of smoked chile paste and ground coriander, and it's sweet and creamy with rich coconut milk, fragrant cardamom and shrimp paste. The addition of duck is not traditional in Thailand except for very special occasions, but it's become popular on menus in the U.S., and it's clear why. Sweet, fatty duck meat lends itself to fragrant red curry better than any other protein I can imagine.
As I left that evening, the celebration was in full swing, and I was smitten with the hole-in-the-wall joint's thoughtfully prepared food and charming staff. I would have liked Morningside Thai even if there had not been a party slowly building throughout the course of my meal, but the low-key nature of the celebration, the convivial chef and birthday girls and the sinfully good classic Thai food made me like it all the more.
Morningside Thai is so named because it used to be located in a quaint converted cottage on Morningside Drive in the Rice Village area. The owners, Jim and Ying Roberts, were forced to move in November 2012 after a disagreement with the cottage's landlord. They reopened in their new, not-quite-as-cute place this past June, and though there was a crowd there on one night for the birthday celebration, the times that I've been back since, I've noticed more people getting takeout and more orders headed out the door in Jim's hands for delivery than I have full tables.
The restaurant is in a strange little spot, nestled in a corner of a largely empty strip center next to an outpatient surgery center and a delivery pizza place. When I initially went looking for it, I drove right by, thinking it was closed. Inside I found an austere space more reminiscent of a sparsely furnished office than a restaurant with such lively proprietors. The white walls are nearly bare save for a few plain mirrors and a single gilded carving, and the gray-blue carpet and harsh overhead lighting don't seem reflective of the inviting nature of the staff and the addictive and reasonable traditional Thai eats.
After the first round of food (two appetizers and half of four entrées) was eaten, my dining companions were so full that they began clutching their bellies and groaning in mock pain. They chuckled about how much they were eating and how wonderful the spread was, and then they dove back in, forks first, for round two. It was all too good to let anything go to waste.
We had started with basic pork dumplings and fish cakes, a common street food in Thailand that I had to assure my companions would be delicious. After a bite or two of the fish, they began thanking me for doing the ordering instead of leaving them to their own devices. The fish cakes are pan-fried, but there's no batter involved, allowing the subtle fish, onions and chiles to come through without any unnecessary hindrance. Rather than combining cucumbers with the fish, as many recipes do, small cucumbers were sliced and mixed with a sweet and sour dipping sauce so alluring that we all agreed we could use a second helping of sauce to eat on its own.
When the charming waitress brought out the main courses on intricate blue and white china, we all gasped and exclaimed how beautiful the heaping plates of food were.
"Who, me?" said the waitress, giggling, in broken English. "Yes, I'm beautiful. Thank you!" She walked away, leaving us highly amused by her quick wit and more eager than ever to see what this odd little place had up its sleeves.
The duck curry immediately sent us into a tizzy with its thick, fragrant, creamy sauce and juicy dark duck meat, as did a simple platter of roasted eggplant stewed in a spicy basil sauce. The pad Thai, which I treat as a sort of litmus test to assess the quality of a Thai restaurant, was a better version of the classic dish than I'm accustomed to, if a little on the greasy side. The noodles weren't gummy or overcooked, and were coated in a delightfully salty mixture of rice wine vinegar, tamarind paste and fish sauce that gave the dish an ideal brown color dotted with flecks of yellow egg, green onion and red pepper.
Even dessert — a course I often find lackluster in Asian restaurants because of my insatiable sweet tooth — was unexpectedly appealing. Light reddish-brown Thai tea ice cream is better even than Thai tea itself, and homemade coconut ice cream with small chewy shreds of real coconut is an ideal complement to bite-size balls of crunchy fried banana.
The only slightly disappointing dish I've had at Morningside Thai is a crispy fish in basil sauce. It wasn't bad, but didn't impress next to the curry, pad Thai, fish cakes and a few other vegetarian stir-fry dishes full of flavor. The primary issue was that the delicate white fish had been fried — an attempt to make it crispy — and had taken on the flavor of the frying oil. When the crispy fish was doused in the somewhat nondescript and thin basil sauce, it ceased to be crispy and instead became a soggy fish dumpling of sorts.
My disappointment in the fish was brief, however, because by this point my ever-giggling waitress had offered to pose with my food while I photographed it, and chef Ying continued to wink slyly at me every time she brought out a new platter for the party. I've never seen an entire staff (though this is a small one) so giddy while taking orders and bringing out dishes. It's difficult to be surrounded by such charming people and not allow a little of their mirth to rub off on you. Better than that, though, I think you can taste it in the food. Unhappy people could never make such lively, flavorful meals.
The mood is more subdued at Morningside Thai during lunch on a weekday. Diners shuffle in from nearby businesses and discuss the latest books they've read over steaming plates of fried rice, chicken curry and stir-fried beef. Jim rushes in and out of the kitchen with delivery orders while the servers bring a steady flow of full dishes from the kitchen. Sunlight streaming in through the windows makes the small space feel more open, while shadows dance across the white walls, adding interest to the plain surfaces.
And then, in the midst of the calm and quiet, Ying will emerge from the kitchen chatting and laughing, a tiny powerhouse in an apron, eager to make sure everyone in the dining room is enjoying the fruits of her labor. The whole place becomes more animated when she takes a moment to leave her workspace and play hostess.
Moments like these demonstrate that it's the people (almost) as much as the food that bring the party at Morningside Thai. When the restaurant closed temporarily while searching for a new location, fans of Morningside rallied around Jim and Ying, not just because they missed the food — for Houston has no shortage of fine Thai food — but because they missed the atmosphere created by the owners and staff of the small family business. When you're among them, with a warm bowl of spicy red curry in front of you, you'll feel it, too.
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