Restaurant Reviews

Thai and Thai Again

Nit Noi Thai restaurant's gracious atmosphere is so charming, it's easy to become a member of the restaurant's "family," a customer who returns often to exchange pleasantries and stories with the staff as well as to enjoy their excellent fare. Now they have opened Nit Noi Too in the Rice Village, literally right around the corner from the first, and though the customer base will no doubt widen, the same friendly inclusiveness will just as surely remain.

Starting another restaurant so close to the first may seem odd, but patrons who know the first Nit Noi as a sure choice for delicately spiced satay or raad na also know that even with the extra tables in its upstairs loft, it has been outgrowing its space for some time. Those same patrons may be glad to know that Nit Noi Too's kitchen is a scant breezeway apart from that of the first restaurant '-- which means that Alice Vongsvisith, executive chef and founder, can still make all of the sauces that serve as bases for entrees in both restaurants.

The concentration of Thai restaurants in and around Rice Village, and their popularity among the Med Center and artiste clientele, is itself a phenomenon: By my count, the opening of Nit Noi Too makes five Thai restaurants in a roughly two-mile-square area, and popularity-wise, none seem the worse for the competition. But even in an area already known for good Thai food, if you order a dish like Nit Noi's chicken or beef with sweet basil and hot peppers, you'll see how these sauces set this restaurant a notch above most others. Mixed in with the garlic Thai pepper and basil in each of these dishes, you'll taste the subtlly sweet flavor of kalanka, a root closely related to ginger, which adds a distinctive taste to many Thai dishes.

While most offerings at Nit Noi are spicy, even the hottest aren't of the "I can't taste the food" variety. In the same way, the broth in soups like Toam-yum-goong, the hot and spicy shrimp, makes the entire dish a delight; the peppers never muffle the lemon grass and other fresh herbs. Transfer that subtlety to a heartier dish, like the sweet-sour-salty crispy red snapper (a.k.a. Triple-Flavor Fish), and you have a meal to please the pickiest of connoisseurs. You can even order Triple-Flavor Tofu, and health-conscious diners will be pleased to find an assortment of tangy Thai salads.

The Thai ice tea is another pleasant find: a smooth tea sweetened with cream and poured over ice. It actually tastes a tiny bit like chocolate when first sipped, and then simply blends into one of the most wonderful dinner drinks I've ever ordered.

"Nit Noi" means "little bit" in Thai; it was also the name of Alice Vongsvisith's first restaurant, which she opened in the Philippines in 1975. But Vongsvisith says she never planned to wind up in the restaurant business. When she went to work for World Wide Travel in the Philippines after leaving her native Thailand, she wound up entertaining in her home almost every day.

"I'd tell them, 'I can do a nit noi,' " she says. "I started out with no menu. My oldest son ran back and forth telling me what people wanted." Pretty soon, she says, it was easier just to open a restaurant.

Arriving in Houston in the boom years of the early '80s, Alice met her husband-to-be, Sammi Vongsvisith, while sampling local restaurants -- and found out they both hailed from the same town in Thailand: Chaiyhphum.

"I told him I wanted to start a restaurant here," Alice says, laughing, "but that running a restaurant is like a full-time marriage: so he better not get jealous."

Instead, they found an extended family of returning customers. Alice and Sammi opened the first Houston Nit Noi in 1987; they, son Doi Heckler, and daughter-in-law Melissa now own and operate both restaurants. While Alice has in the past done all of the managing, Melissa has recently moved to Houston to help with Nit Noi Too. That frees Alice to take occasional trips back to Thailand to research new dishes. (Nice work if you can get it!) Several new items appeared on the menu as part of Nit Noi Too's opening: papaya salad served with Thai-style fried chicken and sticky rice, vegetable and pork dumplings similar to those found in Chinese dim sums, and crispy sea rolls with fresh herbs and lettuces.

"My mother-in-law can go into a restaurant, order a dish, and come home and spice it exactly the same way, only better," says Melissa Heckler. "She has a kind of gift."

The patrons of Nit Noi and Nit Noi Too seem to agree. And if the popularity of this jewel of Thai restaurants is any indication, they want more than just a "little bit."

Nit Noi and Nit Noi Too, 2462 Bolsover, 5211 Kelvin, 524-8114. Dinner entrees $6.95-11.95; appetizers $l.95-$4.95; lunch special $5.99.