Start your dinner with a chunky dip of roasted tomatoes and chilies. A flash of deep, salty funk cuts through sweet, acidic tomato, whose fruity richness is punched up by fragrant garlic. It’s bright and clean, all garden and ocean and umami oomph. A creeping heat insinuates itself, insistent but not overwhelming. In a different guise, this could be proto-puttanesca, here turned on its head. The insistent flavors work wonders with the adjoining crudité. In particular, the anise notes of sliced fennel sheaves are an evocative foil for the rich, heady dip.
This is dinner at Foreign Correspondents, the restaurant whose chef, PJ Stoops, has given us every reason to believe that he has the knowledge to speak meaningfully about the foods and foodways of northern and northeastern Thailand. He lived there for several years, cooking and eating the food, and ingraining what he learned to such an extent that he would tell you it’s a part of him, a part of the way he approaches food, whether or not he is “cooking Thai.”
A tumble of battered and fried herbs — water spinach, Thai basil and a handful of other herbs you’ve never heard of that Stoops receives from a Cambodian farmer named Sameth Nget, whose greenhouses in nearby Rosharon supply much of Foreign Correspondents’ specialty produce — should definitely grace your table. Brilliantly crisp, greaseless slivers of aromatic intensity disappear as soon as they shatter under tooth, leaving behind a pungent and arresting salve of ground shrimp and pork, garlic, and fish sauce. A lot of the same players, but an entirely different song.
All those herbs will likely come to your table without much fuss if you choose one of Foreign Correspondents’ handy family dinners. Especially for those overwhelmed, either by unfamiliar items or the simple paradox of choice, the family dinners offer a way to sample the menu in smart fashion. Dinner for four brings 11 dishes (don’t be afraid of the duck blood-infused garlic oil rice) cascading across your table, knocking a few bucks off the combined menu price in the process.
It’s a great way to settle into the pace of dinner at FC, bringing food to the table the way a family might be served in Thailand, spreading the meal across a tumble of shared plates covering a range of menu categories. It’s one unexpected hit after another, with leftovers a likely (happy) ending to the meal.
Stoops met his wife, Apple, while in Thailand, and he gladly gives her and her family much of the credit for what he knows about the cuisine. Apple is a regular presence in the Foreign Correspondents kitchens, often arriving long before Stoops himself does, Stoops told me during a post-review phone conversation, referring to his wife as “the ultimate arbiter of bullshit.” She’s there to keep the kitchen, and her husband, on the straight and narrow.
“Unexpected” perfectly describes both the stir-fried pumpkin with Thai basil and the isaan grilled chicken. Neither sounds terribly exciting on paper, and each over-delivers on the plate. That stir-fry comes to the table an intensely aromatic tumble of gently translucent cubes of squash, swaddled in velvety slivers of pork and slips of eggs scrambled so gently the word seems entirely too harsh. Little crispy bits accentuate all those suave textures, and the licorice hit of Thai basil snakes through every forkful. It is intense, rich, gentle and comforting all at once.
The same goes for that grilled chicken, immensely satisfying in its simplicity. A quartered chicken, aggressively grilled to the point of significant char, boasts crisp and smoky skin wrapping chicken whose flavor seems to take the Spinal Tap approach, reaching heights of chicken-ness that almost defy the volume knob on that particular poultry. Stoops serves the bird with both a sweet chile sauce and a tamarind sauce, but you’ll likely find the bones bare before you’ve bothered. It’s that good.
This is almost true of the fried chicken that turns up on Foreign Correspondents’ brunch menu. There, too, is the chicken a magnified version of itself. There’s a richness, particularly to the dark meat, that recalls turkey in temperament if not in particulars. You’ll want to wait a moment before grabbing a leg, though. It will be hard to do, as you can practically see how crunchy that chicken’s coat is, but worth it to avoid scalding yourself. Or perhaps scalding yourself is worth the moment when those intensely chicken-y juices flood your mouth once you’ve crunched your way through the coating. Either way, you won’t want to skip the roasted green chile dip that comes alongside. It is lush and fragrant, and far less spicy than you’ll think, with a whisper of savory punch underneath, a top note of sweetness, with a dusky and earthy chile bass line throughout. It’s no exaggeration to say that I want every piece of fried chicken I eat to come with a dish of the stuff, so beguilingly does it pair.
There is, perhaps, something more immediately gratifying about the brunch offerings, which hinge on a lot of comforting flavors and textures. Come for brunch and slurp up a bowl of khao soi, arresting in the simplicity of its sweet and nutty-rich curried coconut broth base. Or amplify all those easygoing notes with a tumble of shallot and pickled mustard greens and a good dose of lime, jumping up both the flavors and textures.
That said, I think that just serves to highlight the range of experiences possible at Foreign Correspondents. Regardless of which experience you’re after, you’d be well served to chase it with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Both Travis Hinkle’s wine selections and Leslie Ross’s cocktails focus on playing well with the intense flavors of the food. The wines favor aromatic whites, veering gently sweet on many occasions, in a play that works well with the fiery punch and assertive flavors on offer. The cocktails work on sympathetic notes, tending toward bright and spiced-up quaffs.
Come for dinner and tuck crisp-skinned, dewy-fleshed chunks of whole fried tilapia into the lettuces arranged underneath. A credit to the fish, here the mild mineral tang butts nicely up against the ginger, lemongrass rings, tiny triangles of lime, buttery fried cashews and Thai chilies scattered festively on top. As with many dishes here, the flavors are as sunny and celebratory as the colors, like a string of Christmas lights blinking in madcap succession. (Be aware: Fish offerings change frequently — the tilapia has already be replaced by black drum.)
It’s worth noting that, at Foreign Correspondents, if a dish comes with something that seems wrap-able or dip-able, wrap or dip away. There’s always a wicker basket of sticky rice at hand. Grab a hunk of rice, form it into a ball and dip it into soups and sauces as you will, including the array of laap offerings. Essentially salads of minced meat or seafood tossed with herbs and chile powder, laap is served here in a number of guises. Between the lanna chicken laap served on the set dinner menu for four and the fried shrimp laap on offer at brunch, the shrimp version might find stronger interest. Both come bathed in a jumble of rubbly chopped herbs, toasted rice powder and chile. The shrimp version may have a brighter, jumpier character, owing to a punch of lime. In conjunction with the shout-y chile and herbs, the sweetness and mild iodine of the shrimp shine all the more. The shrimp, chopped into nubby bits, come off a bit chewy at first blush. If you’re expecting Southern fried shrimp, you may be momentarily disappointed. Give it another go and the texture becomes an interesting asset.
Texture shines, too, in a warm brunch salad of crispy rice. Shot through with peanuts, shallots, green onions and more of those herb stems, it’s a minefield of warring elements that get along quite nicely. Crispy, chewy, salty, spicy, tart, fresh. Lime, cilantro, funk of fish sauce. Wonderful stuff.
There are quibbles here, though they are few. Those with a sweet tooth may be a bit disappointed. Thai meals don’t tend toward set courses, and sweets are a bit sparse as is. That said, a simple-looking dish of coconut ice cream, one of a brief handful of after-dinner offerings, holds its own unexpected pleasures. Garnished with tamarind caramel, basil seed, white bread croutons, strawberries and peanuts, it follows the savory menu’s tendency to ping-pong between flavors and textures in a way that can set your head spinning. Cool, creamy, lush, nutty, toasty, tart, gelatinous, crunchy. Tiny black seeds, aromatic like soil after a rain. It’s a rush. For my money, I’d like to see kanom krok move from the brunch menu to a more permanent fixture. Coconut and rice-based sweets, they show up as small white disks, rimmed with crispy brown edges and dotted with overlapping rings of green onion. They are both runny and chewy, each in three or four different ways. The flavor is nutty and milky and gently sweet, beguiling in its timidity and offset by the unexpectedly great punch of green onion. It’s a bit like underset pudding cupped in gently toothy mochi, and yet not like that at all. They vary in their doneness, but you’ll scrabble for the most loosely set specimens, the better to savor the contrasting textures.
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SHOW ME HOW
There seems to be a tendency to leave diners to their own devices; across a couple of visits, the staff hasn’t offered much in the way of explanation, either of what the dishes are or how you’re meant to eat them. Depending on your level of comfort with the food, and your need to “do it correctly,” this may or may not be a problem. They’ll explain if asked, though, and in friendly and capable tones. To me, it’s almost one of the charms of the place. While the kitchen is turning out serious takes on lesser-known Thai dishes, it’s with a strong sense of casual fun, mirrored in the riotous 3-D space-monster mural lining one wall, the bright and cheery color-ringed white enamel plates, and the flashy neon signage. Nobody is going to look at you funny if you dip or wrap the wrong thing.
Order more food than you need and share it with a bunch of friends; have a glass of wine or a cocktail; when in doubt, dip or wrap; ask if you have questions. Be prepared to be surprised, but don’t be surprised at how familiar some of the food feels. While the menu speaks Thai, PJ and Apple Stoops have a way of making you feel like you do, too.
4721 North Main, 713-864-8424, treadsack.com/foreigncorrespondents. Hours: lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Closed Mondays.
Crispy fried herbs $9
Roasted tomato chili dip $9
Garlic oil rice $8
Lanna chicken laap $15
Stir fried squash with Thai basil $14
Isaan grilled chicken $16
Whole fried Texas tilapia $30
Khao soi $15
Fried shrimp laap $15
Crispy rice salad $11
Kanom krok $9
Set menu for 2/4/6 $75/$140/$175