Yum's the Word
Lying on the couch, watching an Astros game on television and waiting for the air conditioner to catch up with the afternoon heat, I was wondering what was for dinner. Firing up the stove was not an option.
So I reached for the phone and called Sawadee Thai Restaurant on Weslayan and ordered a shrimp salad, a chicken salad and two orders of soft spring rolls. Then I cajoled another resident of the house into picking up the order. And when we gathered round the table and cracked open the Styrofoam, everybody congratulated me on my great dining wisdom.
The cold, soft rice paper rolls were filled with shredded chicken, thin noodles, julienned cucumber and carrot, chopped cabbage, cilantro and other herbs. We dunked them in little plastic containers of spicy dipping sauce for a starter.
The praa goong, or shrimp salad, came with lots of large grilled shrimp on top of a cold salad made of crystal noodles, cucumbers, red onion and tomato slices tossed with a spectacular hot-and-sour dressing and served on a bed of green-leaf lettuce.
I'd guess the dressing contained lime juice, sesame oil, fish sauce, palm sugar, chile peppers and lemongrass. It was hot, but I added some Rooster brand Thai sriracha sauce (the stuff in the red squirt bottle) for extra fire.
The chicken salad had a lot of chopped white meat combined with the same cucumber, red onion, tomato and hot-and-sour dressing served over lettuce. There were also some mint leaves, cilantro and other herbs minced up with the chicken.
Three of us ate the two salads, four rolls and the steamed rice that came with our order, and we still had a little food left over. We were pleasantly stuffed, the Astros were winning, and I was back on the couch in no time, having provided an excellent dinner with little effort.
My take-out companions were especially amazed at my ordering prowess because none of us had really liked Sawadee Thai Restaurant when we had gone there a few weeks before.
The interior of Sawadee looks oddly Early American. The walls are aqua, the trim bright white. The lintels over the doorways are the broken-pediment design of the American Federal period. Perhaps the space was previously occupied by a colonial-themed pancake parlor?
On the wall, beside a portrait of the Thai king, is a 1994 Houston Press review written by Alison Cook, which raves about the food. Of course, at the time it was written, Sawadee was one of few Thai restaurants in town. There is also an "Adventurous Palate" column from the Houston Chronicle hanging there to remind us that a decade ago, only the most daring of diners ate exotica like Thai food.
Times have changed, but for the most part, Sawadee Thai Restaurant hasn't. The kitchen is still pandering to the mainstream tastes of the mid-'90s with a watered-down version of Thai food, trying too hard not to offend.
On our first visit, I sampled a boring tom yum gung, a watery shrimp soup without the promised hot and spicy flavors. My dining companions ordered chicken with massaman curry and beef with yellow curry. The two curry sauces seemed to contain exactly the same combination of ground spices and peanuts. They tasted like the peanut-butter dipping sauce you get with satay. Along with the beef and chicken, these curries contained some mealy boiled potato chunks and little else. We left them uneaten.
Luckily, I ordered yum woon-sen, a spicy crystal noodle salad with cucumber, red onion, tomato and spicy dressing and an assortment of grilled meats on top. We asked for everything "Thai hot," but nothing was very spicy. After requesting some more hot sauce, we hastily devoured the cold and spicy salad. It was, after all, the only thing on the table worth eating.
Sawadee's hot and spicy Thai salads are grouped together under a section of the menu titled "Yum." At $12 to $14 each, the salads aren't cheap, but they are huge -- enough to feed two easily. After we finished, I made a mental note to explore the rest of the yum section of Sawadee's menu. Since then, I have sampled five of the six items listed there. (I skipped the tofu salad.)
"Sawadee Thai Restaurant? Sure, I know it. It's overpriced and mediocre," said my friend George, who lives just down the street from the place. But the promise of a free lunch persuaded him to come along and give it another try.
There is a lengthy menu of lunch specials at Sawadee, most priced at around $8. But I steered my two companions away from those. Instead, I ordered the last two items from the yum menu that I had yet to try: the squid salad and the beef salad. George was put off by the $13 and $14 prices, but I assured him that the two salads would feed three of us.
"There's a $15 prix fixe lunch at Tony's," he said. "With iced tea and a tip, you're out of there for 20 bucks. So why bother with bad Thai food at these prices?"
After the two salads arrived and he ate a few bites, George recanted. "This is really good," he said with his mouth full. "The seasonings are just wonderful."
The squid strips were incredibly tender. The squid came on top of tossed crystal noodles, just like the shrimp salad. The beef salad had some chopped peanuts added to the dressing. It was made with a flavorful but chewy cut -- maybe London broil? We all agreed that the squid was more tender than the beef. We also agreed that the salads were outstanding.
Of the six, I prefer the three I tried with crystal noodles; the yum woon-sen with mixed meats; the yum pla-merg, or squid salad; and the praa goong, the one with shrimp. The beef in the yum neua is tasty but tough, and the laab gai, or chicken salad, is a very good second choice if you've already ordered a noodle salad.
Just for fun, we also ordered a bizarre dessert on the daily special menu called "tropical delight." In a clear plastic bowl decorated with bright cartoon illustrations was a pile of shaved ice colored bright green with some sort of syrup. Sprinkled over the ice were tiny fruit cocktail chunks and some sweetened red beans. By itself, this would have been a typical Thai shaved-ice dessert. But on top of the Asian shaved ice concoction, a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with maraschino cherries had been added.
"It looks like a Japanese cartoon," George said when the confection arrived. "The kind of dessert you'd eat if you carried a Hello Kitty handbag." My other dining companion, a woman in her sixth month of pregnancy, chuckled at George's jokes while she consumed almost all of the cartoonish East-West sundae.
Maybe our lunch changed George's mind about Sawadee, or maybe he was just humoring me. For the most part, I have to agree with his original "mediocre and overpriced" assessment. The restaurant serves the same Americanized Asian food you find in typical shopping-center Chinese restaurants, but at much higher prices. As bad as the Thai soup and curries are, I shudder to imagine what the sweet-and-sour chicken, beef and broccoli, and orange beef taste like. There's no special reason to hang around in the dull dining room, either.
And yet I keep Sawadee's phone number handy. With the heat of the summer and the rest of baseball season upon us, I suspect Sawadee's hot and spicy, cold and crunchy Thai salads are going to become a habit at my house. You won't regret calling them for takeout -- as long as you remember the only thing worth ordering is yum.
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