Almost exactly a year ago, I left a job downtown to start a more exciting one in Northwest Houston. While it may have been a good career move, it killed the fun I used to have at lunchtime. I went from getting to see and dine with my spouse and my friends every day to driving around, alone, in search of something good. I wasn't happy and wondered if I had really made a good decision. (Since then, I've learned there's some good stuff in Northwest Houston, but you've got to know where to look.)
A zip code search online turned up Mango Tree Thai Bistro, and it was only five minutes away from my office. Both the pad Thai and the green curry were quite pleasing, and I was overjoyed to find some food worth having.
They don't hit it out of the ballpark with every single dish, though. Some are just good, not great. A recent family meal at Mango Tree emphasized this maddening problem. Mango Tree perpetually dances right up to the precipice of greatness. Someone really needs to push it over the edge.
Tom Kha Gai, the coconut milk-based soup that often has the hallmarks of the earthy flavor of galangal and the tang of lime, was too milky on the two occasions that we ordered it. Galangal and lime might have been there, but who could tell? (Indeed, the "Kha" part of the name means galangal; it's a required ingredient.)
While I've always enjoyed the green curry, the panang we ordered on our family's night out also was too milky, throwing a curtain over the curry paste intricacies that lurked underneath.
A few duck dishes are offered here, and they're winners. The Mango Tree Duck Curry has found favor with us before, but the Mango Tree Tamarind Duck was a little too salty. But as my husband put it, the duck breast "still tasted like duck" and retained its rich layer of fat at the top. The fresh vegetables that were part of the dish included snow peas. Good vegetables are hard to find, but these were absolutely perfect; crisp, but not overly so. They were cooked just right.
Shrimp Mor Din, a dish of shrimp on top of a mix of vegetables and crystal noodles, was another "almost there" conundrum. The shrimp were perfect; firm, but not over-cooked, and very fresh. However, the noodle part of the concoction was too salty (although also flavorful... perhaps it was an overdose of fish sauce), while the cabbage mysteriously seemed too bland.
The pad Thai that I normally rave about was too sweet this time around, although again, full of flavor.
One of only two parts of the meal that were deemed perfect were the fish cakes appetizer. These cakes, doused in red curry sauce before cooking, included green beans sliced so thinly that at first I thought they were scant amounts of some type of mild green pepper. Kaffir lime was there to steal the show, and I am positive I detected the presence of my beloved, earthy galangal. A slightly sweet sauce with bits of red pepper and chunks of cucumber did exactly what a sauce should do; it made the fish cakes taste even better.
So, what was last part that actually hit the mark of greatness? Unbelievably, it was deep-fried "cheesecake." Sure, before desserts came out, we were joking amongst ourselves how the Thai obviously have been perfecting cheesecake for centuries, but when it came out, we shut our mouths except to nibble on our shares. It was an oblong, fried turnover that included not only a cream cheese mixture, but banana as well. Essentially, it was a fried-banana-cheesecake-handpie. Bits of crust flaked off as we dove through the crunchy exterior. If I ever find out they don't make these from scratch in-house, I'm going to be crushed.
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But overall, I suspect Mango Tree has dumbed down its cuisine somewhat. The first time I went in to pick up a to-go order, I was offered chopsticks. I was a little taken aback; the Thai do not traditionally use chopsticks. Why offer them? It has to be because people don't understand the difference between Thai and Chinese, and they want their chopsticks.
As much as I want Mango Tree Thai Bistro to bring it on with the flavor, I also understand that as a business, they have to please their client base and make money. I'd appreciate a choice, though, even if I have to use a special codeword. Make a leap of faith and give those of us who love true Thai cuisine a chance to can see what you can really do.