We're sitting in the alfresco dining area alongside Thai Sticks restaurant, looking out over Montrose Boulevard. In front of us, there's a gently bubbling, three-tiered fountain surrounded by bright red geraniums. We've opted to eat lunch at a picnic table on the deck both because it's a sunny afternoon and because, out here, nobody will hear us scream.
At Thai Sticks, you can order your food mild, medium, hot or Thai hot. The sole purpose of this, my fourth visit to the restaurant, is to see how serious Thai hot really is. So we order two soups and a noodle dish, all prepared Thai hot, and brace ourselves.
Tom yum koong, a hot-and-sour soup made with fresh shrimp, lemongrass and chiles, is tasty and plenty piquant. If I wanted it even hotter, I could bite into the large dried pepper floating around in the soup. Tom kra kai, a white coconut-milk soup made with chicken and the root called galanga, is richer and heartier than the shrimp soup, though not quite as spicy.
But the pad kee mao, or "drunkard's noodles," really takes my breath away. The dish, made with flat rice noodles and chicken, is boldly flavored with whole leaves of Thai basil and spiked with a dose of chiles so ferocious that my lips tingle, my nose runs and I feel a mild buzz. It's one of the best Thai noodle dishes I've eaten in Houston.
Sweet, sour, salty and hot are the four flavors central to Thai cooking. Catering to mainstream tastes, American Thai restaurants too often cut down on the hot and sour components so that nothing but sweetness remains. At Thai Sticks, they know how to keep the four flavors in balance, but only if you can summon the courage to order your food really hot.
But the truth is, what they call Thai hot at Thai Sticks isn't even close to the heat level you find in Thailand. At a luncheon I attended in the durian-growing district of Chanthaburi some years ago, I was served a curry that contained not only green chiles but the green bud tips of the black pepper plant. When I took my first big bite of this curry, I started hiccuping, and when I closed my eyes, I experienced a rush of exploding colors on the backs of my eyelids. That's Thai hot.
Since the name Thai Sticks is a not-so-subtle drug reference (it's a potent variety of Asian marijuana), how about developing a more accurate and useful heat scale in the same vernacular? The hallucinatory green curry I ate in Thailand might be described as "acid-flashback hot," while the pleasantly psychotropic pad kee mao at Thai Sticks could be rated "bong-hit hot."
When Thai Sticks first opened late last summer in the space formerly occupied by Monica Pope's Boulevard Bistrot, the food at the white-tablecloth Thai eatery was quickly dismissed by local wags as overpriced and underseasoned. Half a year later, the kitchen has found its stride and taken off.
While there are still some questionable fusion attempts on the menu, like "Thai cheese rolls," featuring cheddar cheese fried in egg roll skins, the kitchen seems to have realized that you don't have to bastardize Thai cuisine to fill chairs with butts.
The food here is at its best when the kitchen focuses on modernized Thai rather than fusion cooking. In the updated dishes, it's possible to combine authentic Thai tastes with presentations that American diners eagerly embrace.
Take yum neau, for instance, a grilled beef salad that's one of the best things on the menu. The four Thai elements are all present; there's sweet and sour in the dressing that coats the salad of tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, lettuce, red onion and mint. There's salt on the thin slices of hot grilled beef over the top. And, provided you order it hot or Thai hot, there are enough chiles mixed throughout to make the dish spicy. It's an astonishingly complex array of bright, refreshing flavors -- and yet it looks like that familiar Atkins Diet mainstay, the steak salad.
Thai Sticks also inherited its impressive dark wood bar from Boulevard Bistrot. And like the former inhabitant, the modern Thai restaurant is turning out some innovative cocktails.
I started off a previous lunch visit with an intriguing libation called a Thai tiger. The drink packs quite a punch. Made with pepper vodka and an aromatic syrup flavored with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, it's not only potent, it's also hot and spicy. (For the recipe, see "Mixing It Up," March 10.) My lunchmate got an "extreme passion" cocktail, made with cognac and passionfruit juice, which tasted sweet but watery.
Lunch comes with a little salad and an egg roll stuffed with vegetables and cellophane noodles. For an entrée, I ordered the basil duck, hot. She got beef with macadamia nuts, medium, and when it arrived, she wished she'd ordered it hot. After tasting both our entrées, she proposed switching cocktails, which was an excellent idea.
Without the balance of the chile-pepper heat, the beef with macadamia nuts tasted too sweet. But with the hot and spicy Thai tiger cocktail on the side, the flavors balanced out. The nuts tasted quite good with the beef, by the way, but they were worse than peas to get on a fork. They're too hard to spear, and they tend to roll off if you try to balance them between the tines.
Meanwhile, my basil duck, a plate of small chunks of medium-rare meat stir-fried with lots of chiles and Thai basil, was quite spicy and tasted great with the sweet passionfruit drink. Fruit and duck are a natural combination anyway.
The curries at Thai Sticks are mostly straightforward and authentic. The best one I tried was beef in massaman curry. This hearty red curry, made with chiles, spices and shrimp paste, is most popular among the Muslims of southern Thailand -- in fact, massaman means "Muslim" in Thai.
The Thai Sticks version of massaman curry with beef contained a touch of peanut butter, which gave it a wonderfully thick texture. Massaman curry and peanut butter are frequently combined; they are the two main ingredients in the dipping sauce served with Thai beef satay.
I also tried seafood in green curry, which was excellent, although I wished I had ordered it Thai hot. The basil and other herbal flavors in the curry were pronounced, but there weren't enough green chiles in it.
I was not very impressed by Thai Sticks' Americanized presentation of pad thai, the classic noodle dish. In Bangkok, pad thai is made by tossing together flat rice noodles, crushed peanuts, chiles, sprouts, herbs and other ingredients in a wok, then binding the mixture with some beaten egg. The result is a stunning package of complementary tastes and textures.
Like many Houston Thai restaurants, Thai Sticks serves pad thai with the noodles in the middle of a plate, surrounded by little piles of crushed peanuts, lime wedges and sprouts. You're supposed to mix up the noodles with the other stuff however you like it. But it doesn't work that way.
First of all, few people understand the need for audience participation. They simply eat the noodles and forget about the other stuff. And second, even if you do mix it up, it doesn't taste right. It's like ordering a western omelet and getting plain scrambled eggs with onions, peppers, ham and cheese in little piles around the plate -- not the same thing.
Luckily, I've discovered an uncompromised "pad" dish on the menu that's served with all of the ingredients properly incorporated -- and now that I know about "drunkard's noodles," I may never order pad thai again. But unluckily, pad kee mao is served only at lunch. Maybe if it's specially requested often enough, the management at Thai Sticks will put it on the evening menu.
For all of its attributes, this upscale Thai restaurant will always be a little too spiffy for the local bohemian element. "I'd rather sit in the dark and smoke at Mo Mong," one young hipster told me. But if you can stand the bright and cheerful decor, Thai Sticks is now offering some of the best modern Asian fare in Montrose.
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