Where the Home Fires Really Burn
Bangkok and the Bayou City have something in common. There, as here, the best Thai food can be found in humble mom-and-pop restaurants where they aren't afraid to let bold flavors shine bright. In Bangkok, I ate the best pad thai of my life at a little stall on a city street choked with motorbike fumes. And in Houston, I found the city's most exciting Thai curry at an 18-table restaurant wedged in between a Whataburger and a pool hall on a West Loop access road.
The minute you walk in the door, you know there is something eccentric about Vung Thai Cafe. The walls are painted lime, and the tables are decked out with lemon-colored linens and flanked by green-vinyl-and-aluminum diner chairs, circa 1950s. A large aquarium on the bar holds a single goldfish enormous enough to merit its name, Red Diver. This is not a restaurant that's trying to please everybody, but rather a shrine to an individual taste.
When we sit down for dinner on our first visit, my girlfriend isn't very enthusiastic. She loves Thai food, but she just had it for lunch. So we gravitate toward the unusual items that you don't find on every Thai menu. Like "shrimp in the blanket," which is five individual shrimp tucked into egg-roll wrappers and deep-fried. You pick up these hot, crisp tidbits by the tail and dunk them into a spicy dipping sauce. It's a simple but tantalizing appetizer, and two of them seem to wake up my dining companion's appetite; we flip a coin for the fifth.
The other appetizer is a plate of chicken-and-shrimp-stuffed Thai dumplings, six of which arrive soggy, in tattered wrappers. They look like they have been boiled more than once. The dumplings would be the only mediocre dish we were served.
The waiter is a young Asian man who doesn't speak much English. We get into a familiar dilemma when he asks how hot we want our entrées. Vung Thai Cafe caters to Thai people, he tells us, so if we ask for our dishes hot, they're going to be extremely hot. I defer to the sage judgment of the other side of the table and go with medium hot.
We order an intriguing-sounding house specialty called duck pineapple curry, as well as the waiter's recommendation of pla lard prik, deep-fried fish fillets covered with sweet Thai chile sauce. (Pla means "fish," and prik means "chile.") Actually, his first recommendation was pad prik king, fresh Gulf shrimp with curry and green beans, but we had just eaten the shrimp appetizers, so we went with his second choice. The hot, crispy fish came in big pieces, and the sweet and hot chile sauce made a sensational topping. But it was the curry that really got our attention.
The cafe's duck pineapple curry is served in a large soup bowl that's decorated with a yellow flower pattern and looks vaguely Mexican. The curry is pale orange and soupy, and the meat is heaped in a big pile with a basil sprig on top as a garnish. I spoon some over steamed rice. The sweet pineapple chunks and full-flavored wedges of duck meat are an awesome combination. The rich flavor of sweetened coconut milk balances the considerable heat in the curry sauce, and the sharp aroma of pungent basil lingers in my mouth long after I bite into it.
Too often Thai dishes taste the same from restaurant to restaurant. But this curry is different. Like the decor, it makes a unique statement. And beyond that, the dish has another quality that has become rare in Thai food: Vung Thai Cafe's duck pineapple curry tastes like home cooking.
Cooking at home is, more or less, a thing of the past in Bangkok, explained Dr. Foo Swasdee, my guide when I visited there nearly two years ago. You can get a meal from one of the city's ubiquitous street stalls more cheaply than you could buy the ingredients at a grocery store. Middle-class dwellers don't even bother to build kitchens in their homes, which saves on the a/c bill in a city whose weather makes Houston seem positively polar. Swasdee grew up in Thailand, earned a Ph.D. in food chemistry from Texas A&M, owns a restaurant in Austin and leads culinary tours to Thailand.
I told her that I wanted to visit the best food stalls in Bangkok, so she introduced me to a well-to-do architect who was also a devout foodie. Listening to him rhapsodize about his favorite place to eat fried chicken while we drove around in his Mercedes, I was struck by how much he sounded like an American boasting about Mom's apple pie. Which made me realize that in Bangkok, the food-stall owners and street vendors are the home cooks.
I thought about my tour of Bangkok's street vendors as soon as I tasted the cooking at Vung Thai Cafe. The restaurant seems to be following in that proud hole-in-the-wall tradition. The food tastes like the kind your mom would make if she were Thai.
On our second visit to Vung Thai Cafe, my girlfriend and I sample dishes from all over the menu. Some of them are wonderful; some taste like Thai food found elsewhere. But don't construe this as a complaint about uneven quality. Consider it a suggestion of what to order. In Bangkok, you have to know what an eatery specializes in and order accordingly. It's the same here.
For appetizers, we try the larb nur appetizer and tom yum shrimp soup. Emboldened by our tolerance of heat on our previous visit, we tell the waitress, a young woman who speaks little English, to make the dishes really hot. Unless you have recently emigrated from Thailand or have an asbestos palate, I would recommend you not repeat this mistake. I like my food pretty damn hot, but I still find this heat level a tad too high. The blond across the table gets wide-eyed and starts mopping her nose after two or three bites.
"Well, at least the pain makes you eat slower," she says with a laugh. The shrimp soup is thin and unremarkable, but the larb is a winner. Essentially larb is a pile of sautéed ground beef blended with onion, scallions, fish sauce and crunchy peanuts, then mixed with salad greens and cilantro with a sweet-and-sour dressing; think of it as a Thai hamburger salad. "It's pretty sweet, but you need the sweetness to balance the heat," my dining partner observes.
Almost every Thai dish is a balance of four flavors: sweet, hot, sour and salt. Palm sugar is the traditional Thai sweetener; regular cane sugar is used here. Thai peppers supply the heat. Fermented fish sauce, soy sauce and salted peanuts are the sources of the salty flavor. The sourness comes from a wide variety of ingredients such as limes, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and tamarind. "Americans are always asking me to leave out the sugar or leave out the salt," a Thai cooking instructor told me. "But you can't do that. It wouldn't be Thai."
In Bangkok, I was told that the sweet-and-sour flavor of a great pad thai should come from tamarind. Food stands that substitute lime juice and sugar for the more expensive tamarind are held in lower esteem. As wonderful as Vung's pad thai tastes, I find myself missing the tamarind in this moist and spicy noodle dish. "Sometimes we use a little tamarind, but today we're using lime juice and sugar instead," the waitress confirms. I hope this is owing to a seasonal shortage, because otherwise it is an excellent dish.
The biggest disappointment at Vung Thai Cafe comes when I order from the section of the menu marked "Curry." So impressed was I with the duck pineapple curry on my first visit, I want to try some other varieties. There is plenty from which to choose: red and green curry with your choice of chicken, pork or beef; yellow curry cooked with chicken and potatoes; masaman beef and masaman shrimp curry; even a panang curry.
Masaman (also spelled "mussaman") means "Muslim" in Thai and refers to curries with cinnamon and cardamom, spices brought to Thailand by Muslim traders from India. Panang refers to a southern Thai style, with kaffir lime leaves, a style also originally inspired by Indian curry.
I order red curry with pork. This turns out to be thin squares of pork quick-fried and then unceremoniously dropped into a red curry sauce. The result is hard to reconcile: a dish of delightful sauce with some tough pieces of tasteless pork added. When I go back to Vung Thai Cafe, which will be soon, I will stick with curries in which the meat has been cooked with the sauce. The yellow curry with chicken and potatoes sounds particularly promising.
Perhaps you already have a favorite Thai restaurant and feel a loyalty to the cooking there. If so, I salute you. But if there is a hole in your culinary life where home-cooked Thai food is supposed to be, I recommend you go to Vung Thai Cafe immediately. Sure, the menu has a few clunkers, but the standout dishes blow away typical Thai fare. Try the shrimp in the blanket, the larb nur and especially the duck pineapple curry. But be forewarned: You will never be satisfied with boring commercial Thai food again.
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