After one bite of Thai Gourmet's stir-fried crystal noodles, I started to cough. A chile pepper must have gotten wedged in my throat or something. I took a gulp of beer and tried it again. The thin bean thread noodles, which were tossed with garlic, carrots, mushrooms and scrambled eggs, tasted sensational.
But after my second bite, tears came to my eyes. My lips, tongue and throat began to burn. I got up out of my chair and began to jump around the room, shaking my hands in the air, trying to take my mind off the pain until it subsided a little.
Luckily, I was eating at home rather than in a crowded restaurant. My dining companion and I had intended to enjoy some Thai takeout while watching television. For some reason we were tuned into Dancing with the Stars. And now I found myself dancing with the Thai food.
Thai Gourmet Restaurant
6324 Richmond, 713-780-7955.
Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner hours: 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays.
Hot and milky chicken soup: $4.95
Garlic shrimp: $21.95
Red curry duck: $14.95
Drunken noodles: $8.95
Yellow curry chicken: $9.95
She had dug into an order of drunken noodles and hadn't fared much better. She was sitting at the table with her mouth wide open trying to cool it off, taking sips of ice water and breathing rapidly in and out. When I could talk again, we compared notes. This, we agreed, was the hottest Thai food we had ever eaten.
A close examination of both noodle dishes revealed more than a dozen dried peppers in each, as well as an enormous amount of green chiles sliced diagonally and mixed throughout the sauce. Even after removing every visible chile, the food was beyond our tolerance.
Of course, we brought this on ourselves. We always order our Thai food "Thai hot" and make fun of wimps who can't stand the authentic heat. At restaurants that cater to the mainstream, like Thai Sticks and Sawadee, ordering the food "Thai hot" is the only way to get anything that resembles real Thai food. But this time we met our match.
I have eaten street food in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai, but I can't remember eating anything as hot as the "Thai hot" entrées we got at Thai Gourmet. My dining companion skipped the noodles and ate a lot of rice with a tiny bit of the sauce from our other entrée, the "red curry duck," poured over it.
Thai Gourmet's red curry duck was outstanding. It was made with big, boneless pieces of duck meat with the skin still attached, cooked in a rich coconut broth with lots of red curry paste. Like a true Thai curry, it was more of a soup than a meat-and-gravy dish. Along with the duck, there were tomatoes, curry leaves, Kaffir lime leaves, bamboo shoots and lots of green chiles in the soup.
I picked out as many chiles as I could find and poured some curry into a bowl. Then I added a generous portion of white rice in hopes of cooling things down. I would eat a few bites of duck curry until I couldn't stand the pain anymore and then I'd dance around the room until my mouth cooled off. Then I would circle back and eat some more. My dining companion thought I was being ridiculous, but I didn't know what else I could do. Yes, the food was too hot to eat -- but it was also too good to throw away.
The second time we ordered takeout from Thai Gourmet, we got just plain "hot." The "hot and milky chicken soup," made with boneless, skinless white meat chicken, lemongrass and coconut milk, was a little thin, but the heat level was perfect.
And so was the heat in the "yellow curry chicken," an awesome bowl of white-meat chicken and potato chunks in a turmeric-colored broth thickened with peanuts and seasoned with a heady mixture of ginger and garlic, balanced by the sweet aromas of coriander and cinnamon.
But while the chicken soup and chicken curry were just spicy enough, an order of "basil beef," loaded with green chile slices, was incendiary. I picked the tender beef slices out and ate them with the basil, avoiding the green chiles.
After dinner, my dining companion and I looked at each other in disbelief. We couldn't believe that there was such a thing as Thai food that was too hot for us.
I have always chosen Thai restaurants for the quality of the food and disregarded the décor. But Thai Gourmet is the rare Thai restaurant that ranks high on both counts. The interior is dominated by a black wall that runs down one side of the dining room. On it, a traditional Thai mural is drawn in white. "Do not touch, it's chalk!" reads a series of little cards posted below the mural at each table along the wall.
The elegant artwork depicts Thais in tall headdresses and flowing robes walking in a garden and reclining in a traditional Thai sala, which is a shaded gazebo-type structure. The artist's name, Chaiyong Krisananwat, is signed in Thai and printed in English along the bottom. The waiter told me the chalk mural has been there on the wall for almost a decade.
The floor is covered with a drab gray carpet that has seen better days, and the no-frills, exposed ceiling leaves the black-painted ductwork in plain view. But the tables in the dining room are elegantly covered with white linen tablecloths, and there's a raised area enclosed by hanging fabrics in the back for private parties. The effect is quite charming.
We sat at a picnic table in the outdoor seating area in the front of the restaurant. There are five picnic tables out there on a wooden deck decorated with lots of potted plants and a Buddhist shrine. Giant red clay pots full of water lilies and goldfish are connected to each other with bamboo pipes through which water flows from one pot to the other.
"Pretty nice, huh?" I asked my dining companion when we sat down outside.
"It's a picnic table with a hard bench overlooking a parking lot on Richmond," she pointed out.
I ordered the "garlic seafood" and she ordered "spicy chicken noodles." Then the waiter pointed to a part of the menu that said "Spicy Upon Request, Mild, Medium or Hot." I confessed that we had tried Thai Hot and it was too much for us. "We also have 'Thai Extra Hot,'" he said with a smile. We swallowed our chile-head pride and ordered the "medium" heat level.
The standouts in the "garlic seafood" were the big, juicy, perfectly cooked shrimp. Comparatively, the scallops and squid were tough and tasteless. The mixed garlic seafood is $14.95, but there's also an "all shrimp" option for $21.95. Next time, I'll pay the difference and get all shrimp.
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My tablemate's spicy chicken noodles featured chicken sautéed with garlic, tomatoes, yellow curry and onions tossed with pan-fried wide rice noodles and served over lettuce. At first I thought it was a salad. But in fact, the noodles and curried chicken were hot when they were spooned over the lettuce. The result was exceptionally tasty wilted lettuce that retained enough crunch to supply some textural contrast to the noodles. It was a unique dish that I can't wait to try again.
Both of our entrées were spicy enough to require two Singhas. Thailand's crisp and hoppy lager beer is very light-bodied and cuts the heat nicely. "I could have handled 'hot,' I suppose, but 'medium' was really about perfect," my dining companion said.
"What would 'Thai Extra Hot' be like?" I wondered in amazement.
"Remember the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis' faces melt off?" she asked. "That's 'Thai Extra Hot.'"