100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 24, Som Tam at Vieng Thai

This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

I first encountered Vieng Thai during a trip to Long Point Road with Houston Culinary Tours, one led by Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd. The chefs first took the group to El Hidalguense, where, on a Sunday, the place is packed and there's live music and just about all the cabrito you could ever eat. Great, I thought. We hit up the best stop first. It's all downhill from here.

Next we walked a few doors down to a spot that, at the time, had a façade that was under construction. It looked like a little nothing of a restaurant, all plywood and cement and noisy traffic rushing by.

Inside, though, I found some of the best Thai food in Houston, and the best green papaya salad outside of Thailand--with the possible exception of what my buddy Louis makes, because he lives and breathes Thai food and culture. If you want som tam in Houston, Vieng Thai is the place.

Having made som tam with Louis, I know how difficult it is to prepare. He handed me an unripe papaya and some sort of peeler that looked like it had been around since the 18th century and told me to get to work. It takes a long time for untrained hands to peel a papaya. It takes a while, too, to mince the garlic, squeeze the limes, smush the garlic and chilies together until they become a paste, and then pound everything together until it's all bruised and soft and the flavors have marinated. Having made som tam before, I appreciate it even more when someone just sets down a bowl in front of me and it's perfect.

At Vieng Thai, the som tam is made pretty much the way I learned to make it, though I daresay the couple who own the place are better at peeling a green papaya than I am. For the record, a green papaya isn't anything like the sweet orange papayas of tropical islands. It's closer in texture to an uncooked potato, but with the juiciness of jicama. It's light green, almost white in color, and it's sour bordering on bitter, but refreshing at the same time.

All of the ingredients--papaya, lime juice, bird's eye chilies, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce, dried shrimp and peanuts--get pounded together and then tossed by hand, the juice of the pounded ingredients forming a sort of dressing for the salad. It's served cold or at room temperature, and unlike the average dinner salad that gives you your requisite greens while cleansing the palate, som tam is spicy. It's refreshing in the way cool salsa is refreshing, but it packs quite the punch.

Sitting inside unassuming Vieng Thai with the tour group shortly after I moved to Houston, I began to appreciate the eccentricities of our diverse food scene. On the outside, Vieng Thai looks like another run-down restaurant in a run-down strip mall on a rough patch of Long Point Road. But inside? Well, you might as well be in Thailand.

See the full list of favorites on the next page.

The list so far: No. 25: Chips and Queso at Fusion Taco No. 26: Spicy Miso Ramen at Soma Sushi No. 27: Kim Cheese Fries at Coreanos No. 28: Fried Cauliflower at Roost No. 29: Caesar Wedge Salad at Provisions No. 30: Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone at Fat Cat Creamery No. 31: Cochito con Mole Xico at Hugo's No. 32: Carnitas at Molina's Cantina No. 33: Taleggio Pizza at Dolce Vita No. 34: Chiles de Padron Asados at Caracol No. 35: Morning Thali at Pondicheri No. 36: Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls No. 37: Trompo Tacos at Taqueria La Macro No. 38: Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana No. 39: Mum's Chicken Curry At The Queen Vic Pub No. 40: Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's No. 41: Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith No. 42: Fried Oyster Po'Boy at Goode Company Seafood No. 43: Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai No. 44: BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 45: Guanciale Burger at Plonk No. 46: Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario No. 47: CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar No. 48: The El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme

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