At the Golden Room, lunch and dinner are served twice -- once for the diners inside, and once for the ghosts who live in the graceful little red pagoda that stands, birdhouse-like, atop a head-high wooden pillar near the entrance. Here, the Golden Room's owners prepare a colorful table: a doll-sized cup of tea shares a delicate china plate with an unblemished fresh orange, a perfectly shaped serving of white rice and a tiny bowl of very yellow, very hot mustard.
This isn't a case of clever advertising, even though it works well enough in that regard. Rather, it's a case of honoring tradition. Siamese-Buddhist teaching has it that the spirits of those who once lived where an establishment now stands need a place to stay -- and, of course, they need to eat. It's not surprising that the Golden Room's owners take care to house and feed the former residents; as anyone who's dined there can testify, at the Golden Room, being true to all things Thai counts for a lot; it's one of the characteristics that helps make it a standout. Tending to the spirits is simply a reflection of Buddhist-influenced harmony that also can be found on the restaurant's menu.
That harmony can even be found in the design of the Pompeiian-red bungalow-style building that's home to the Golden Room. Once an undistinguished Houston frame house, the structure's been given a Southeast Asian flavor by a roofline graced with flamelike projections. Banana trees and hibiscus front the louvered faux-French windows, transmogrifying the building into something tropical.
Interestingly enough in a place so dedicated to tradition, the one dish that to Western minds has become the traditional Thai food is among the weakest items available. That would be pad Thai, a noodle creation that many people use to rank Thai cafes; if pad Thai were the only thing you ate at the Golden Room, you'd probably give the place a B minus. It's not that it's badly done; it isn't. But there isn't much to it. The Golden Room serves its pad Thai stripped down to the essentials: lightly sauteed flat rice noodles, deep-fried dry tofu, tiny rounds of incendiary chiles and crisp, fresh bean sprouts in a kind of melange topped with ground peanuts. Unfortunately, the culinary "degree of difficulty points" come with the add-ons, and here, the add-ons are missing. No little bowls of chile-vinegar, fish sauce, fresh mint, dry ground chile peppers or palm sugar are to be seen. And without them, the pad Thai seems pretty dull.
All that means, though, is that diners here need to branch out to discover Thailand's other traditions, and on that front, the Golden Room's offerings are infinitely more interesting. For starters, there are appetizers of satay and mee krob. Satay, which should be of interest to barbecue aficionados, offers bits of meat grilled on slender wooden skewers; it's a true standout here. The white-meat chicken, served with tiny dipping bowls of savory peanut sauce and a mixture of incendiary peppers and cool, fresh cucumber in a sweet vinegary sauce, is a treat. So is the pork version, though both could have been served at a bit warmer temperature. FYI: attempting to pry the meat off its wooden holders often gives Americans fits. Thai quite rightly eat satay directly off the skewer after dipping it in the sauces. In this instance, tradition is simply good sense.
In Thailand, mee krob is considered a "court" dish. It's so delicate and difficult to do well, that it was once a preserve of the royal Siamese court. The Golden Room version is enough to satisfy Yul Brynner's king himself. This mass of fiber-optic-fine rice noodles is whisked rapidly through boiling oil, which puffs up the robin's-nest-sized result into an airy, crispy knot that's then combined with fresh bean sprouts and slivers of fresh green onion; then, the whole thing is tossed with a sweet and sour sauce. As insubstantial as cotton candy, it tastes great, though the flavor doesn't linger.
The flavor of tom yum gai does. This rich, spicy chicken dish -- to call it a mere soup is to do it an injustice -- is pungent with the citrusy-exotic flavors of lemongrass and tantalizingly sharp with hints of kaffir lime leaves and galanga, a relative of ginger with much the same type of taste. True to Thai-Buddhist traditions that emphasize the harmony of opposites, the soup is also substantial with large wafers of perfectly poached chicken breast; subtle with the just-picked taste of perfectly sliced fresh mushrooms; silky with the velvet-sweet richness of coconut milk; and surprising with the freshness of a last-second addition -- cilantro.
Tom yum goong, a related soup featuring fresh shrimp, is equally well done. At the Golden Room, this fine, pungent dish is served, as is traditional, with the shrimp tails left on. In Thailand, it's considered polite to spoon the shrimp into your mouth and remove the tails with your fingers; as Thai table settings don't include knives, you might consider doing likewise. No matter how you resolve the shrimp tail dilemma, you can appreciate the subtle, earthy taste of tom yum goong's straw mushrooms and the pleasantly sour bite of its fresh lime juice.
Whether you choose the chicken version or the shrimp, beware the Golden Room menu's definition of cup: anyplace other than Texas, this would be considered a bowl. Those with smaller appetites could make do with one as a meal. If used as a prelude to other dishes, one "cup" easily serves two. In keeping with Siamese culinary tradition, you could share samples family-style with the entire table. This is what co-owner Supapra Yooto and her cousin, Kay Soodjai, had in mind when they founded the restaurant 14 years ago. At the time, both women were Houston college students. Neither had business experience, though Soodjai's family was in the restaurant trade back in Bangkok, and she'd worked in restaurant kitchens here to help pay for school. But through luck and pluck, the cousins succeeded. With the help of family and friends in the kitchen, and the support of neighbors who happily spread the word, Yooto and Soodjai beat the jinx that closes more than eight out of ten new restaurants. Now Yooto, the graceful woman who greets Golden Room guests, is happy to offer suggestions to those wishing to try unfamiliar dishes.
Watch for stellar special entrees on the board that lists her featured items. The hand-written menu, located on a board just inside the entrance, often features strong, savory dishes with especially complex mixtures of flavors. One such is the King Pork, rich with well-trimmed meat that contrasts marvelously with the crunch of fresh snow peas and red peppers, and dressed with a savory sauce that features the anislike taste of Italian basil and the sharp-sweet taste of crisp shredded onion. I love spicy food, but the medium temperature King Pork was plenty hot for me. I found the hot version, ordered by a New Orleans-born friend with asbestos taste buds, to be so scorching that it obscured all flavor.
While they aren't featured specials, the Golden Room's splendid curries should carry a special warning that, if eaten, rapture might ensue. The green curry (which is actually pale yellow) starts off gently with the silky sweet taste of coconut milk and the surprising crunch of crisp bok choy. Then comes a hint of something pleasantly smoky. It's only when you swallow that the fresh green chiles manifest themselves in a delayed-action explosion of heat and flavor. Wow! Once again, medium is just about right. The hotter version is too hot; and the milder version lessens the complex effect by defusing the chile bomb.
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The red curry is much less flammable. Built on a paste of dried red chiles instead of on the more powerful fresh peppers, it is more subtle as well as sweeter than the green, but still splendid with contrasting tastes and textures. It's a good transitional dish for those first venturing out from the safety of pad Thai.
Either curry shared with a table of friends on a stormy afternoon can be an unforgettable experience. I stand as witness. One rainy lunchtime recently, I watched a large table filled with oil-patchers, Brits and Aussies among them by the accents, who were downing Tsingtao beer and trashing the ways of Chinese government bureaucrats while they passed various entrees around the table. Suddenly, from amid the general racket of their overlapping conversations, came a clear West Texas twang: "Here. Try some of this curry with a shot of rice. It's damn good."
The Golden Room, 1209 Montrose Boulevard, 524-9614.
The Golden Room:
pad Thai, $7.95;
King Pork, $13.95;
mee krob, $4.95;
tom yum gai, $6.95;
red curry and green curry, $9.95 (beef or chicken), $11.95 (shrimp).