On my first trip to Rim Tanon, I hate to admit it, but I think the idea of Thai street food was completely lost on me. It was lunchtime and I was starving, having flown past a couple of taco trucks serving food on the actual street in the process. Or maybe it’s because when I arrived, The Beatles were blasting at an ear-bleeding decibel on the front porch, but inside the restaurant it seemed so quiet, so clean, so unlived-in, albeit in a very cheery and casual way, that to conjure images of street food vendors in Bangkok — only as I have experienced them via the wonderful world of YouTube and in my dreams — would take, for me anyway, at least one headless chicken running through the dining room and a swift blow to the foot from a rogue motorcycle. I guess that’s where the term "modern" comes into play.
Modern often insinuates refined and elevated at a price point that skims the fat off your bank account without sucking the well dry and a dining experience composed of cloth napkins and loud noise. At Rim Tanon, modern also means flat-screen televisions, photos consisting of Bangkok street food vendors, lots of throw pillows, kitschy quilted plaid textiles, a bent for Midcentury Modern furniture, a pink accent wall, craft cocktails, colorful plates hung as art, and a bathroom sink that looks like some sort of fancy bowl you can buy at Anthropologie. Thankfully it’s not the type of restaurant that’s like hey, want to buy our sink that looks like a fancy bowl at Anthropologie? Because there’s already enough of that in Houston.
In that respect, Rim Tanon comes off as a more humble, if not sleek, affair with servers who are sweeter than the dipping sauces and a propensity for classic rock to be played at all hours of the night and day.
In a world where everything can be bought and sold, street food has long been commodified. It is, in essence, an integral part of the contemporary American lexicon when it comes to all things trendy. The way a Goorin Bros. hat is to a hipster’s club look. The street food trend cuts across cultures. There is nothing personal about it. The newest rage seems to be Hawaiian street food. You’ll be happy to know there’s no poké on the menu at Rim Tanon. What you will find: skewers of meat, soup, salads, curries, rice and noodle-based bowls, and Thai staples.
Because I’ve spent the past decade in New Orleans, a city where everyone crosses the river to eat at this one no-frills hole in the wall that does spicy clams better than anywhere else in town or perhaps the entire South, I was looking forward to trying some new Thai dishes.
I started with the ma hor, a signature appetizer, the server informed me, composed of fruit and proteins for $6. Served four to a plate, these are essentially pork and peanut balls that are speared to a pineapple wedge with a thin slice of jalapeño on top. Ma hor is perfect wedding (or party) food, downed in a single bite and spicy, but not let-me-drink-this-entire-bottle-of-Riesling spicy, though there is a passable bottle on the wine list for $25. Since the menu describes the dish as having “fruit,” it was unclear to me if the pineapple is sometimes changed out for a different fruit. I should’ve asked, but after a few bites, I was distracted by a skewer of grilled pork that took flight from the porch, accidentally flung by a member of a three top while trying to free the meat from its stick. And then the onslaught of Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is on the loud speaker.
Next up, the Pad Thai: A $14 looker that’s kind of boring when you get to know it well. Its saving grace is its presentation; it arrives inside an omelette-like "egg sheet" that’s artfully arranged around the dish like an edible gift wrap, served in a metal bowl on top of a banana leaf on top of a wooden cutting board. The dish holds up well the next day for leftovers, always a testament to good pad thai, in my opinion, but it’s not bringing anything new to the table flavor-wise.
The winners here seem to dwell on the starter side of things. Simple grilled skewers of chicken satey were plump and tender, served with peanut sauce and a dipping sauce composed of vinegar, sugar, onion and cucumber that really did enhance the flavors of the meat. Toast points, if you want to make toasted white bread sound as nice as it's presented here, also accompany the $6 serving. The classic tom yum soup is a sure bet at $5/$6 as well, with a vibrant lemon note that cuts at the sweet and spicy broth, tender shrimp (though you can order vegetarian, chicken or beef versions) and mushrooms bobbing throughout.
Naturally, I had to try a drink called Phuket Island, the next best thing to ordering the restaurant's signature shot, unfortunately named the Blow Job. Phuket Island is the very same color of the water where people die of shark attacks. Or of a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher, which is exactly what the drink tastes like thanks to a heavy dose of Blue Curaçao and whatever "Peach Melon Apple Watermelon" means, despite the addition of Maker’s Mark. Whiskey and Blue Curaçao, you ask? Not since my college-aged Zima years have I felt so ashamed.
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SHOW ME HOW
Though it’s not Rim Tanon’s fault, this is a restaurant with a knife stabbed through its heart. Well, not a knife, but an oak tree, which penetrates the building’s front porch satey-style right where it counts. A sign out front indicates that the Hobbit Cafe dwells somewhere on the Middle Earth side of the parking lot. Also sharing the lot is Capone’s, where there always seems to be a very bored, very Road House-looking valet on a stool outside, rising every few minutes to retrieve another large, white SUV for a new elderly man. That all being said, on my second visit to the restaurant, a crew was putting down new pavement for a front parking lot that will face Richmond, and despite a bit of a lunch scene on a nice day, the porch was closed and seemingly soaked from endless rain the day before.
Before I headed to Rim Tanon, a colleague had told me how Thai and sushi had become sort of intertwined here in Houston. If that’s the norm for Thai cuisine in Houston, then Rim Tanon, which is a pretty solid little bet for lunch, is a vast departure from that mold, even breaking with its own restaurant group’s fellow holdings, including nine locations of Thai Cottage, two locations of Time For Thai, and the sushi concept Blue Fish House. This new restaurant does seem like a concept primed to expand away, but for now, I will take it as it is, with the Foreigner cranked up and the food served beautifully but not yet to its full potential. I want to know what Thai street food is. I want Rim Tanon to show me.