The Rise and Fall of Bangkokheimer
My dining companion asked for "three peppers" when we ordered the shrimp and pineapple curry at the new Thai Bistro location on Westheimer near Kirkwood. The restaurant employs a heat scale that starts with one pepper (mild) and goes to four peppers (Thai hot). The dish still wasn't all that spicy, but it came with lots of juicy shrimp and just enough fresh pineapple. The smooth, fragrant red curry sauce was so rich with coconut milk, it made up for the relatively mild heat level.
Another tablemate sampled an eggplant entrée with ground chicken that was pleasant, if unremarkable. I asked the waiter if the restaurant served kee mao noodles. He pointed to an item on the menu called "blazing noodles." I ordered the pork version and asked for "four peppers." The big, flat rice noodles were tossed with basil, garlic, Thai peppers and onions, and they were delicious, even if the spice level was too mild. Maybe if you want your food spicy here, you need to do a Spinal Tap thing. When the waiter asks if you want three or four, tell him you want 11.
If you have learned the Thai names of your favorite dishes, you will be confused by the menu. I looked all over for kee mao and som tum before I learned from the waiter they were called "blazing noodes" and "papaya salad." The salad was brightly seasoned and crunchy-fresh when we got it. They can call it whatever they want. Served over a bed of iceberg on a lovely china plate, it turned out to be one of the best versions I've had in Houston.
The service at Thai Bistro is outstanding, if a little more formal than you might be used to in a Thai restaurant. The Golden Room on Montrose recently reinvented itself as Khun Kay Thai and went from table service to the increasingly popular fast-casual format, in which diners order at the counter and get their own silverware. At V's Thai on Dairy Ashford, regulars eat at the bar so they can shoot the shit with the barmaid/chef/owner. Thai Bistro is a refreshing step in the other direction. The wait people wear starched white shirts and are exceedingly polite.
Like the mother ship Thai Bistro on the Southwest Freeway across from Lakewood Church, the new Westheimer location is elegantly appointed, with white-linen tablecloths, heavy china plates and ornate forks and knives. These are Thai restaurants that aspire to be considered fine-dining destinations.
I recently wrote a blog post about the new Thai Bistro joining all the other Thai restaurants between Beltway 8 and Dairy Ashford on the stretch I jokingly referred to as "Bangkokheimer." I was instantly updated by our well-informed readership.
It turns out that even with the addition of Thai Bistro, the number of Thai restaurants in this area is actually diminishing. There were seven Thai restaurants on the strip in December 2007 when I reviewed Thai Café. Today that restaurant is under new ownership and offering an Indian food buffet at lunch, so I am thinking it doesn't qualify as strictly Thai.
Red Basil Thai, Thai Lily and Singha Thai are all out of business. We are down to five Thai restaurants on the stretch — hardly enough to justify the Bangkokheimer moniker anymore.
I ordered the "basil inferno" with chicken at the original Southwest Freeway location of Thai Bistro last week. "That's our most popular lunch special," the waitress said. It's easy to see why. The heady blast of Thai basil and Thai chile is a jolt to the senses. The herbs and peppers are combined with garlic, onions, mushrooms, bell pepper and thin-sliced white meat chicken, and every bite is a thrill.
My tablemate got the Panang curry with chicken. Along with the traditional coconut milk, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, cumin and cilantro, Thai Bistro's version of this mild but complex curry sauce includes ground peanuts. Like all of Thai Bistro's curries, it was wonderfully rich and creamy smooth.
When the Panang curry was all gone, my tablemate still had a lot of rice left. So he ordered a bowl of yellow curry, just to give it a try. Generally the mildest of Thai curries, the yellow curry was colored with turmeric, flavored with a little fenugreek and lightly sweetened. I believe it had just a touch of cinnamon. It was a nice gravy for the leftover brown rice. But I am more of a fan of the super-spicy sauces called "jungle curries" in Thailand.
The only dish I didn't really like in three visits to Thai Bistro was the tamarind fish lunch special. The fish filet was fried nicely crispy, but the tamarind sauce was too sweet. I ordered it Thai hot, and it came with a little bowl of Thai fish sauce with lots of chopped chiles in it. I tried dunking the fish in the sauce and found that the saltiness helped. I ended up just dumping the whole bowl of salty fish sauce over my plate. The resulting mess was too wet and too salty, but it was still better than the sweet stuff.
With the English names on the menu, the mild spice levels and the formal service, Thai Bistro is obviously trying to appeal to the masses. I expected that would mean a lot of lame compromises and cheap ingredients. But I was wrong. Thai Bistro is a rare bird, a mainstream-oriented Thai restaurant that doesn't cut any corners.
The peppers aren't jalapeños; they are Thai peppers. The tart and sweet flavors come from expensive tamarind, not cheap limes and cane sugar. The curries are lovingly homemade from scratch, not whipped up from spice mixes. It's quality Thai food that both veteran Thai food lovers and novices can enjoy.
Which is probably why both Thai Bistro locations are packed, while other Thai restaurants in Houston are closing their doors. The Thai Bistro on Westheimer has set a new standard of excellence on the west end of Westheimer. We'll see how many other Thai restaurants on the stretch once known as Bangkokheimer can meet the challenge.
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