The Thais That Bind
Dalat Vietnamese Bistro recently changed its name to Mekong River (3241 Southwest Freeway, 713-669-9375) and expanded its menu to include Thai food. (The Mekong separates Vietnam from Thailand.) We asked new partners Kevin Tran, who will help manage the restaurant, and his wife, chef Pirin Kunviboon, who will prepare the Thai food, about the changes.
Q. So how did this idea of changing Dalat Vietnamese Bistro to Mekong River, a Vietnamese-Thai restaurant, come about?
Kevin: Janet Nguyen thought that Pirin and I could add a lot to what she was doing here at Dalat Vietnamese Bistro, and so she invited us to become her partners. Janet and I are old friends; we went to grade school together.
Q. Grade school? Where?
Kevin: In Oklahoma City. That's where Janet and I both grew up -- although I haven't been there in years.
Q. So how have you changed the menu?
Kevin: A lot of Dalat's loyal customers have said: "Don't change the menu!" So first of all, I have to say that everything from Dalat's old menu is still there, and so is Janet Nguyen. We have added some Thai dishes; we haven't subtracted anything!
Q. How many Thai dishes have you added?
Kevin: The old menu was about 34 items. We have added 32 Thai items.
Q. So what are the distinguishing characteristics of Thai and Vietnamese food? Let's start with the basics -- which one is hotter?
Pirin: Thais use more chiles. Real Thai food is hotter than Vietnamese food, but both are hotter than what people are used to in Texas.
Q. What are the other differences in seasonings?
Pirin: Thai flavors are very bold; they use more galanga, lemongrass, lime and lots of herbs. Vietnamese cooking is a little lighter; you find more fresh lettuce, mint, bean sprouts and shredded carrots in their dishes.
Q. And what are the similarities?
Pirin: Both cuisines use lots of basil and ginger, and both use fermented fish sauce as opposed to the soy sauces that are common in China and Japan.
Q. What are the standouts on the new Thai menu?
Kevin: Pirin is from Bangkok, and she is a very talented chef, so all of her dishes are worth trying. But maybe her very best are the two Thai curries on our menu. There's a red and a green curry, and she makes them from scratch. They are just wonderful. All the Thai food we do is very authentic.
Q. I've eaten Pirin's Red Sea curry with pineapple and shrimp, and I must say it is spectacular.
Kevin: You have already been to the restaurant? You should have introduced yourself!
Q. Sorry, but I always visit anonymously. But as long as you have brought up the subject of authenticity, I must say, I didn't notice any tamarind in Pirin's pad Thai. I once did a pad Thai tour of Bangkok, and the Thai food experts I was traveling with told me that a top-quality pad Thai gets its sweet and sour flavors from tamarind -- not from the cheaper substitution of lime and sugar.
Kevin: We do use tamarind flavor in our pad Thai, but maybe not as much as you like. Pirin has tried to come up with a version of pad Thai that combines several different cooking styles. Some people in Bangkok like the heavy tamarind style; some like lime juice. Personally, I think too much tamarind overpowers the dish.
Q. The whole striped bass I had at your restaurant was also very good. Any Thai seafood dishes planned?
Kevin: Pirin has introduced a striped bass fillet in Thai seasonings that I think will be very popular.
Q. Especially with people who never order fish if it comes with the head on...
Q. Bangkok and Houston have a lot in common climate-wise. What Thai dishes do you have on the menu for the hot summer months?
Pirin: We have some specialty salads that I think will be very popular in the summer. Especially Thai beef salad, Thai squid salad, and our glass noodle salad with shrimp, peanuts and fresh herbs. The salads are cold, but the meat is freshly cooked, so you get a nice variation in temperatures as well as textures.
Q. Have the two of you worked in a restaurant together before?
Kevin: Yes. Before we came here, we were running a Thai restaurant in Santa Monica.
Q. Did your restaurant cater to Asians or Anglos?
Kevin: Our clientele was mainly Anglo.
Q. So have you noticed any difference between the tastes of Houston Anglos and L.A. Anglos?
Kevin: There's a big difference. The L.A. clientele is less discriminating. They are more interested in how much it costs than in what it tastes like. In L.A., people go to Asian restaurants looking for a cheap meal. Here in Houston, people really care about Asian food, and they have more refined tastes. They demand quality ingredients, and they're much pickier.
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