There was a red-scented candle on our table at Thai Café on Westheimer. I believe it was that festive cranberry scent that's so popular during the holiday season. Why anyone would want to sniff artificial candle aromas while eating curry is a mystery to me. But the candle didn't last long. One of my dining companions fanned her nose and cringed dramatically as she begged the waiter to remove it.
But without the candle, we were unable to read our menus. "Why is it so dark in here, anyway?" my tablemate asked no one in particular, raising the menu awkwardly to try and read it by the light of a bulb in the ceiling. In response to her obvious displeasure, an unseen hand turned up the dimmer that controlled the recessed lights above the booth where we were seated. It became easier to read the menu, but it also became apparent that the red carpeting on the dining room floor was dotted and striped with a long accumulation of food stains.
"Do you think they keep the lights low to save on carpet cleaning?" I asked. I wasn't worried about other diners overhearing our flippant remarks, because there wasn't anybody seated near us. In the course of two dinner visits on weekday nights, I think I saw six or seven other patrons in the restaurant.
10928 Westheimer, 713-780-3096.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Kee mao noodles: $8
Papaya salad: $6
Pad Thai: $9
Twice cooked duck: $13
Panang beef: $9
Thai Café, which opened in 1984, is one of the oldest Thai restaurants in Houston. It's hard to find since it sits in the back of a shopping center on Westheimer facing a side street. This was the first Thai restaurant on the stretch of Westheimer between the Beltway and Dairy-Ashford, an area which now supports seven of them. Judging by the empty dining room and the dirty carpet, I figured this old Thai warhorse was on its last legs. But the kitchen proved me wrong. Most of the food was great.
The menu at Thai Café is extensive compared to those at some of its competitors in the neighborhood. The lunch menu features 25 items ranging in price from $5.95 to $8.95. And there are 85 entrées on the dinner menu, starting at $7.95 for chicken dishes and going up to $12.95 for a seafood clay pot. There are also 15 vegetarian dishes available, including some elaborate curries and clay pots.
The entrées were uniformly excellent. When asked how spicy we wanted our food, we opted for "hot," but the seasonings were a bit on the timid side. If you like your Thai food fiery, you can order it "Thai hot" here without worrying about melting the enamel off of your teeth. There is also plenty of bright-red ground chile sauce served on the side for customers who really want to hurt themselves.
Crispy, garlicky and spicy "twice-cooked duck with basil" was my favorite dish of the evening. I also loved the kee mao noodles, wide and slippery rice noodles cooked with pork slivers, onions, green peppers, tomatoes and whole basil leaves. A bowl of chicken in green curry had just the right balance of green chiles and coconut milk. I was also quite taken with the olive fried rice, a dish I had never seen before. Along with black olives, the rice was stir-fried with ovals of Chinese sausage and thin-sliced broccoli stalks and seasoned with chile peppers.
Among the other unusual dishes on the menu was an appetizer called "Thai beef jerky" that turned out to be well-seasoned beef chunks grilled beyond well-done. They were as chewy and dried-out as the name promised. The tart and spicy green sauce served on the side helped; according to the waiter, it was made with vinegar and green chiles. Dipped in the green barbecue sauce and washed down with a Thai beer, the leathery spiced beef wasn't half bad.
We weren't terribly impressed with the pork and crabmeat dumplings. They tasted like soggy meatballs with too much filler wrapped in noodle dough. In fact, the 12-item appetizer menu, which includes cream cheese crab puffs, was the weakest part of the menu.
My advice is to look beyond Thai Café's appetizers to the 19 soups and salads that follow. The thom ka gai, chicken soup in a spicy broth flavored with galanga and lemongrass and fortified with coconut milk, was terrific. So was the papaya slaw known as som tum, which was made with finely shredded green papaya tossed with garlic, tomatoes, crunchy green beans, crushed peanuts and a spicy lime and chile vinaigrette.
Tempted by the green tea ice cream for dessert, we instead opted for sticky rice and mango. But the rice wasn't sticky or sweet enough, if you ask me.
When I walked into Thai Café at lunchtime on a recent weekday, I didn't recognize the place. The restaurant that had been so dark, empty and dismally quiet when I stopped by on weekday evenings was suddenly bright, full to capacity and loud with laughter and clanging pots. The waitstaff was racing around refilling iced tea glasses and trying to keep up with the orders.
In the bright daylight, the stained carpet was impossible to hide. When the waitress stopped by our table, I made the mistake of asking her how long the carpet had been there. I expected some kind of wisecrack about antique rugs or something, but instead her face got very grave.
"Is there a bad smell?" she asked in broken English. "I need to go tell my aunt." It turned out our waitress was the owner's niece, and she found my snarky comment mortifying. She said they usually cleaned the carpet every six months, but that it was overdue. I was afraid she was going to get down on her hands and knees and start scrubbing the damn thing. It took me five minutes of apologizing to calm her down.
Finally, we ordered our lunch. I got a sensational beef panang curry with lots of rich coconut milk in the thick brown sauce and not too much of that annoying peanut butter flavor. I ate it out of the bowl with a soup spoon, adding a little rice as I went.
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My lunchmate got a stellar shrimp pad Thai. The pile of noodles was covered with an omelet, like a version I once ate in Bangkok. The noodles were well tossed with sprouts and other ingredients, and the shrimp were perfectly cooked so they were still juicy.
The waitress hadn't asked what heat level we preferred, so the noodles tasted underseasoned to me. But that worked out okay because my companion was a wimp about peppers. She liked the noodles as they were, and I added a big dollop of red chile paste to a portion I prepared for myself on a side plate. And everyone was happy.
One night at Thai Café, I ran into a Thai woman who used to be a waitress at Red Basil Thai right down the street. When I asked her if Thai Café was her favorite Thai restaurant in the neighborhood, she told me that she actually preferred Singha Thai. She said she couldn't stand Nit Noi, but that Thai Café was a good compromise. When I looked puzzled, she nodded her head discreetly toward the bubba she was dating.
I guess the restaurant where Thai girls take their non-Asian boyfriends is probably a good bet for me.