Restaurant Reviews

All You Need Is Larb

Domestic beers for $1 and imports for $2 -- that was enough to get me to visit Sabai Thai, a new restaurant in the Metropole Center on Bellaire. They were running the beer special Mondays through Thursdays for happy hour. When we got there on a Monday night in early November, it turned out the offer was good only through the end of October. But thanks to a complete lack of business, the owner agreed to extend the special to the two Tsingtaos I had with dinner.

I drank the first brew with an order of fish cakes. The appetizer consists of four little patties of fried fish paste seasoned with green chiles. I wrapped mine in romaine lettuce and dunked them into the cucumber-and-fish sauce served on the side. We also got some fried dumplings, which were of the slightly greasy, wrinkled, oblong variety.

One of my dining companions ordered sweet sausage-fried rice for her entrée. She asked for it to be seasoned "extra hot, Thai hot, very hot." What came to the table wasn't hot at all. The sausage was seasoned with oranges and tasted fabulous in the mélange of rice, scallions, onions and scrambled egg. (And even better refried for breakfast the following morning.) To liven it up, we added some crushed chiles from a jar on the table.

Maybe sweet sausage-fried rice isn't supposed to be spicy. But in three visits to Sabai Thai, communications to the waiter regarding the spice level of the food have yielded absolutely zero response. Although we begged for very spicy Thai cooking, we never got any.

The chef, Fende Foon, comes from a restaurant family in Thailand, and evidently she has her own way of doing things. Her cooking can be excellent, but it's not exactly the Thai cuisine that Houstonians are used to eating. For instance, take her magnificent Thai-style roasted pork leg, which I ate with my second Chinese beer. The word "award-winning" appears alongside this item on the menu, so I asked the waiter what award it won. "Back in Thailand at the chef's other restaurant," he said.

I can see why the dish caused a sensation in Bangkok. It's a huge plate of falling-apart pork braised in a sweet sauce spiked with Chinese five-spice powder. There's plenty of cooking sauce and some chopped Chinese broccoli to spoon over rice. It might remind you of other popular combinations, like ham and pineapple or pork roast and apple sauce. But it won't remind you much of the Thai food we eat in the United States.

Of course, there's plenty of the usual stuff on the Sabai Thai menu, too. The pad thai is typically Americanized, with bland noodles in the middle of the plate surrounded by chopped peanuts, sprouts and lime wedges so you can customize it to your taste. We ordered the green-curry-with-chicken lunch special one day, and while it was quite good, it wasn't hot enough for our tastes. It did, however, come with a vegetable roll and soup for a paltry $4.95.

There are some hot and spicy items on the menu at Sabai Thai, but good luck trying to find them. A legend at the bottom of the menu indicates that one star equals mild, two stars equals medium, and three stars equals spicy. Three quarters of the dishes on the menu have no stars at all (milder than mild?), and about a quarter have one star, but there are no dishes with two or three stars. The hottest thing I've tried on the menu so far is the unstarred pad kee mao noodle dish.

Kee mao noodles (the name means "drunkard's noodles") have replaced pad thai on my Thai hit parade. When you order kee mao noodles, you get thick, glossy noodles tossed together in the wok with egg, mushroom, tomato, onion, basil and chile peppers. The first time I ate the dish at Sabai Thai, it was fairly spicy. The second time, I requested it "Thai hot, very hot," and it tasted exactly the same. I suspect the waiter is afraid of the chef and doesn't want to bother her with lame requests from stupid customers. So you get the heat level the chef feels like putting out there. Which isn't unlike dining at any other restaurant; it's just that Thai chefs generally hold back on the chile peppers when they cook for Americans. When we ask for our food Thai hot, we aren't disrespecting the chef; we're trying to set her spice cabinet free.

The bland, Americanized entrées on the Sabai Thai menu like "sweet and sour with your choice of meat" and "mixed vegetables in brown sauce with your choice of meat" lead me to believe that Foon doesn't have a lot of confidence in Houston diners, either. Please, Ms. Foon, give us a chance to eat the real thing before you start compromising!

But Sabai Thai is only a year old, and it has a lot of things going for it. For starters, it's one of the cleanest and best-looking Thai restaurants in the city. The decor is quite modern, with blond wood tables and chairs against mustard-colored walls. A series of large framed photographs hanging on the wall depicts Thai dishes in partial focus at sexy angles. And in preparation for Christmas, the fake palm trees have been decorated with strings of lights.

The food can be great too; it's just a matter of finding the right dishes.

On our first visit to Sabai Thai, five of us descended on the place like an invading army, ordered way too much food and then loudly devoured an impressive amount of the smorgasbord. Standouts included the larb gai, a salad of cold minced chicken tossed with lemongrass, scallions, lime juice and chile peppers that's marked with one star on the menu. If you ask me, it was three-star hot and my favorite of the Thai salads. Fried fish tofu was the mystery dish -- no one could figure out what made the aromatic but plain-looking fried tofu cubes taste fishy. My editor ordered her favorite, tofu basil, a dish of soy cubes and herbs tossed with onion, bell pepper and spices. She liked the tofu, but she really went nuts for the kee mao noodles. I finally had to take them away from her for her own good.

Our slightly inebriated cocktail correspondent also approved of the drunkard's noodles. He ordered tiger cry, which is supposed to be a salad of chargrilled steak strips served with a screamingly hot sauce. But he wasn't impressed by what we actually got: a plain steak with a none-too-spicy dipping sauce on the side. Bored with his entrée, the Stirred and Shaken man ended up in the kitchen supervising the efforts of Ms. Foon.

We ate ourselves silly, took home cartons upon cartons of leftovers, and still the bill came to less than $80. Which makes me think this could be just the place for a low-rent holiday party. And they've already decorated the fake palm trees!

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh