See more photos from Njoy's pleasant dining room and cozy kitchen in our slideshow.
Montrose is lousy with Thai restaurants. There's old-guard establishments like Nidda Thai, turning out plate after endless plate of slightly overpriced chu chee eggplant for diners who lovingly regard the restaurant as if it were their own well-worn living room. Then there's Americanized spots like Khun Kay, where pumpkin specials run during the fall months and the menu aims to please a broad range of palates by offering Chinese food and even french fries alongside Thai standards. And don't forget tony restaurants like Thai Sticks, where Greek influences are blended into classic Thai dishes and a beautiful patio helps ease some of the sting left by high prices.
So what makes newcomer Njoy Thai stand out in the crowd? The fact that it takes all the best of its neighboring Thai restaurants and blends them into one: The food is accessible and inexpensive but doesn't skimp on quality; the service is welcoming and friendly; and the atmosphere is nice enough for a date night but casual enough for a quick meal — it's clean and cute, with minor hints of elegance in the form of white tablecloths (albeit covered by glass tops) and the kind of beaded napkin rings your mother would love. There are linen towels in the bathroom, not paper ones, and an inviting bar — although there's no alcohol served as of yet.
It doesn't hurt that Njoy encourages you to BYOB, however, which further reduces your total bill and allows you to customize your wine or beer as you see fit. (Most Thai restaurants in Houston, after all, have a pretty limited selection of both.) In the front corner of Njoy's recently remodeled dining room is a raised, curtain-covered cabana — perfect for a group — where I'm currently planning to gather friends over a few good bottles of wine and some lovely, above-average Thai food.
And that's what Njoy is, in the end: pleasantly above average. It doesn't try to be the most authentic Thai food in the city (that's best left to Vieng Thai) or disintegrate your tastebuds with spice, but it certainly does try to elevate your standard dishes of pad thai or massamun curry into something more elegant, more cultivated and simply more pleasant overall.
A plate of pad kee mao — those so-called "drunken noodles" — is served with a colorful array of vegetables amidst its angel hair-like strands of smoky, stir-fried rice noodles: pops of red from tomatoes and chile flakes, bright green from basil, softly sautéed onions and tawny mushrooms rounding out the plate under a gentle blanket of garlic and fish sauce that are never too pungent or overpowering. Too often, I've seen this dish arrive at other restaurants looking like a drunk person's handiwork, the noodles sloppily piled on a plate with frozen vegetables hidden under the beige mess. Not at Njoy.
The same effort goes into its pad thai, which is served inside of an omelet — a charming and enjoyably different way to incorporate the standard scrambled eggs into the dish — that must be broken into like a giant soup dumpling to reveal the wonderfully nutty, scallion-laced noodles inside. I asked for my pad thai spicy and was pleased to see that Njoy delivered a heat level comparable to that at another recent Thai favorite: Little Serow in Washington, D.C.
Comparing the two places would be otherwise unfair — Little Serow is one of the country's best new restaurants and serves a very specific subset of Northern Thai food — except for one thing: Over a recent lunch, my boyfriend admitted something surprising to me.
"After going to Little Serow, I thought I'd be disappointed in Njoy," he said. "But I'm not." Neither was I. Because other than the heat level (which only comes on request), comparing the two is like apples and oranges. Little Serow offers an eye-opening, mind-broadening Thai experience.
Njoy, on the other hand, offers the kind of "comfort" Thai food that many of us grew up with, made with care and obviously fresh ingredients. The spring rolls are clearly rolled to order, never sticky or tough, and served with a peanut sauce that's laced with a maddeningly sweet-and-tangy spice I can't place. Tod mun pla, fried fish cakes, use a crispy batter that's light and airy around the curry- and kaffir-infused cakes, held together with only the barest bit of egg. And som tum salad comes heaped high with julienned slices of tart green papaya and sweet, earthy carrot over crunchy peanuts, fat little tomatoes and tiny dried shrimp that are as beautifully preserved as museum pieces.
And although the service can sometimes be a little harried, it's always friendly and warm. The servers — including Francisco, whom many Montrose residents may recognize from Thai Spice and Khun Kay — go to extra lengths to make sure you're happy. Francisco is good at picking up on subtleties, wordlessly bringing tofu-filled spring rolls instead of the chicken-filled versions when you order a vegetarian lunch special or bringing an extra side of spicy sauce when he rightly determines from afar that the larb wasn't quite hot enough.
Perhaps the reason the service is so friendly is that the restaurant itself is a close-knit Thai family: Belle, who runs the front of the house; her daughter, Awoon, who waits tables; Belle's brother, Patrick, who makes the food — all are present every day, with big smiles waiting for each customer.
That not-quite-spicy-enough larb was the only thing that let me down recently at an otherwise great lunch, which is the most inexpensive time to visit what's already a pretty inexpensive restaurant. Lunch specials are between $6.95 and $7.95 and — as with any good Thai place — come with spring rolls and soup. In this case, the soup is a wonderfully tangy-and-sour example of tom yum with vibrant punches of galangal and ginger. The broth is thick with pert oyster mushrooms, pieces of chicken and lime leaves that infuse a bright citrus flavor into the whole thing.
Massamun curry comes in a large, deep bowl, brimming with the velvety curry and its peanut-laced sweetness that's almost too rich to eat without large spoonfuls of jasmine rice. And a beautiful dish of pad prik king is festively adorned with dark green and ruby-red bell peppers amid slices of green beans and gently sautéed onions.
The ground chicken in the pad prik king is the same as you'll find in the larb but seasoned far more aggressively, the striking tell-tale notes of red curry throughout: musky cumin, punchy galangal and lemongrass, briny shrimp paste, sharp garlic and shallots. I think — although I'm not certain — that Njoy may make their curries from scratch, too, because I always catch flavors I wouldn't expect in them. In the case of the red curry, it's a flowering hint of anise or fennel that adds a final deft note to the dish.
And although I hadn't saved room in previous visits for dessert, I was glad that lunchtime visit that I did: Sticky rice was topped with thickened coconut milk, barely sugary, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. And draped on top were a few fat slices of caramel-sweet custard, bringing just the right lift to the dessert without making it overly saccharine — my ideal way to end a meal. Also ideal: the to-go boxes that Francisco had carefully packed for me, the rest of the smooth, nutty massamun curry and vegetable-laden pad prik king destined to make yet another comforting meal at home.
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