The bartender at V's Thai Restaurant & Bar on Dairy Ashford was a feisty Thai lady in a push-up bra. She asked me what I wanted and laughingly offered herself as one of the options. The assembled barflies howled. I turned red and asked for a beer and the spicy green bean dish called pad ka pow.
"That's V., she's the best Thai cook in town," said the gray-haired guy who opened my bottle of beer while the Thai lady was in the kitchen. "I'm her ex. This used to be my place, but I am going to my lawyer's office tomorrow. I'm going to sell it to her for a dollar."
I was interested in getting something to eat, not in hearing the details of a divorce settlement. But as soon as you sit down at the cozy little bar called V's, you become a part of the drama, whether you like it or not. Besides the ex, there were three other graying guys and a self-described sex kitten hanging out on the barstools that Monday evening at happy hour — and not a single customer sitting at the dozen or so tables in the humble little restaurant.
V. has been a bartender at various Houston establishments, and most of the patrons here are loyal customers who have followed her from bar to bar for many years, a guy at the bar explained, so they all seem like old friends. Unfortunately for V., nobody who comes here to drink seems to eat anything.
When V. came out of the kitchen, she shooed her ex out from behind the bar, and handed me my food. Then she lingered nearby and asked me a lot of questions. I gave her a fake name and told her I was unemployed and hiding from my wife, who was pissed at me. And then I stuffed my mouth with food so she wouldn't ask any more questions.
Pad ka pow is a curious dish. It's sort of like Thai noodles with green beans instead of noodles. Stir-fried green beans are tossed with onions and red and green bell peppers and seasoned with garlic, ginger, chile paste and pungent basil. You can add the meat of your choice — I went with shrimp.
I asked for it hot, and V. didn't skimp on the chile paste. I poured the tangy sauce over some rice and mopped up as much as I could. In V's exemplary version of the dish, the green beans, the bell peppers and even the onions tasted like they were barely cooked.
V. asked me what I thought. All eyes were on me as the crowd awaited my verdict. It was an awkward moment. I loved the crunchy vegetables, but I didn't like the tiger shrimp. I didn't want to lie, but I suspected it might get awfully tense if I started complaining. So I punted.
"How do you keep the vegetables so crunchy?" I asked. If restaurant critics had to perform in person, I am thinking we would all be much more diplomatic.
"You have to know when to stop cooking them," V. told me. A lot of people visit V's on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when she is in the kitchen, she said. "They say the other cook makes everything too mushy. I hate mushy."
V. is proud to serve farm-raised Thai tiger shrimp in all her shrimp dishes. Tiger shrimp are blander than Gulf shrimp. And as much as I hate to say it — they are also mushier. (For more about shrimp varieties, see "The Shrimp Wars" on the new Houston Press food blog, Eating...Our Words.)
In four visits to V's, I was amazed by the quality of the cooking. The first time I went for lunch, I sampled a sensational version of "drunken noodles" with pork. The slick, wide rice noodles were extremely spicy and tossed with a heavy dose of aromatic herbs. The heat level of the food at V's Thai Restaurant & Bar is full-on fiery if you ask for it hot. And all the flavors seemed more intense than what I have sampled at the other five Thai restaurants on this end of Westheimer.
I also sampled the pad Thai with chicken that day. Great Thai cooking balances four flavor components, sweet, sour, salty and hot. Most Thai restaurants in Houston cover sweet and sour the easy way with lime juice and sugar. V's goes the more authentic and expensive route by using tamarind paste. The difference in the complexity of flavor is astonishing.
On a dinnertime visit, our table of five adults and assorted rug rats were most enthralled by the thick slices of tender steak on a stick that came on the beef satay appetizer. The meat had a little char on the edges. The kids liked it plain, but it really tasted terrific dipped in the thick and spicy ground peanut dipping sauce.
Since the beef satay was so good, we expected V's version of "tiger cry" to shine. The dish is usually made with filet mignon topped with a perversely hot chile sauce. But oddly, it came with shriveled strips of sinewy beef that looked like fajita meat.
The dish we all fought over was the green curry with pork. There was plenty of thin-sliced pork in the dish, along with green beans and slivers of red and green peppers. The rich curry sauce smelled like coconut milk and was the color of split pea soup, with big basil leaves floating in it. Along with the ground fresh green chiles, I suspect there were some ground peanuts in the sauce and just enough sweetness to bring it all together.
I was shocked when the fish in chile sauce we ordered turned out to be little pieces of fried fish tossed with vegetables, herbs and spices. It was pretty good, but since I thought I was getting a whole fish, I was disappointed. Fish on the bone is juicier and more flavorful, but some of my tablemates who abhor bones and eyeballs in their fish dishes were delighted by the cut-up version.
The least interesting dish we tried was chicken in cashew sauce. I love roasted, salted cashew nuts, but cashews don't taste like much of anything when they're cooked until they're squishy. The garlic sauce and vegetables didn't add much either. The bland chicken dish was shunted off to the kiddy table.
We didn't have to worry about the kids misbehaving during dinner because there wasn't anybody else in the dining room. And at around seven-thirty on a Friday night when we wrapped up our leftovers and headed for the parking lot, there still weren't any customers in the restaurant except for a couple of guys who sat at the bar drinking.
There is no doubt that V. is a hell of a cook, and her Thai food stands head and shoulders above most of what's available nearby. But the atmosphere of her little joint is dominated by what feels like a private party at the bar, and therefore it isn't attracting much of a dinner crowd. Whether or not V's Thai Restaurant & Bar will survive its identity crisis is anybody's guess.