Houston’s unofficial civic sport is “Who can eat the hottest?” This game of one-upmanship is played in restaurant arenas all over our sprawling city landscape, in venues Sichuan, Hunan, Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, African and Thai. Don’t forget Thai.
In particular, don’t forget Thai Gourmet, a big, bustling place tucked way back into a strip mall on the forlorn stretch of Richmond Avenue, west of the West Loop, that was once a magnet for Houston club goers. The clubs are mostly gone, but Thai Gourmet, fitted out with a pretty front garden, has stuck for nearly two decades now.
Any night of the week — and at lunchtimes, when it is filled with the Galleria-area work crowd — the softly lit, wood-paneled room is filled with a wild mix of Houstonians weeping capsaicin tears and sniffling into their Kleenexes, which the experienced among them will have brought from home. BYOK is the unwritten watchword here.
The written watchword appears at the bottom of the menu pages, and it concerns the level of spiciness. They aren’t kidding around: dishes ordered “medium” spicy have been semi-fiercely hot every time I have visited, as in sniffle- and tear-inducing. I’m afraid to imagine how ferocious the “hot” and “Thai hot” levels of spiciness must be.
The menu disclaimer warns that “because we prepare your spiciness upon your request, if your order is too spicy you will be responsible for your order and will have to pay for new item.” Diners who don’t want to compete in the how-hot-can-you-stand sweepstakes had best order “mild,” however mortifying that may be. Everyone else: Let the games begin.
My first taste of Thai Gourmet lulled me into a false sense of security. I love tod mun, the little fried cakes of smooth fish mousse perfumed with Kaffir lime leaves, and they were innocent creatures here, a tad too greasy but accompanied by a fine fresh cucumber relish.
Then came my shrimp pad thai, a skinny-noodle version with a sweet-tart bite, a crunchy burst of bean sprouts and a keen chile heat that grew. And grew. And grew, until I found myself dabbing at the corner of my eyes, cleaning off my glasses and trying to blow my nose inconspicuously. It was that happy kind of capsaicin crying that hot-food chasers relish.
I’m picky about pad thai, and I found this version splendidly textured even though I prefer the wider, flat rice noodles. The dish was only slightly too sweet for me, but when I asked for some fresh lime to squeeze over it — the classic Thai accompaniment — I was told that “we don’t have lime, only lemon.”
A Thai restaurant that doesn’t have limes in the kitchen? I don’t think so. I’m still wondering what that was about.
I’m wondering, too, how a restaurant where the cooking can be so spirited can also be so slapdash about the details that can make or break a dish. Time and again, I found promising dishes sabotaged by easily avoided flaws.
Cilantro garnishes were almost invariably wilted — and so was the inexplicable bough of curly parsley I found upon my plate one night. Aside from that pad thai, noodles and noodle wrappers had textural problems. In an otherwise likeable pad kee mao (drunken noodles) stir-fry, the broad rice noodles had clumped together, weighing down the lively counterpoints of basil and garlic and hot chile against big, thin flaps of pleasantly chewy beef.
Thai dumplings filled with ground pork and showered with too-bitter bits of browned garlic were woeful little bonnets that seemed to have been made considerably beforehand and briefly rewarmed, so that their wrappers were stodgy and shriveled.
The over-browned garlic chips made an appearance another night on a dish of “our famous stir-fried fresh okra,” which turned out to be so unrelentingly bitter that even a bitterness connoisseur like me was put off. Give me Amaros, bitter winter greens — I can’t get enough. But Thai Gourmet’s Garlic Okra made me cry uncle.
I wanted to like the red-curried duck that bristled with Kaffir lime leaves, but the coconut curry seemed one-dimensionally sweet, despite its red-chile heat, and the skin-on duck pieces were hacked so small I never quite got the full, earthy duck flavor and texture I wanted from the dish.
Unfortunately, I was spoiled by a long-ago month in Thailand, and by the ground-in-house curry pastes of Houston’s first Thai restaurant, Renu’s, so that curries without a certain depth and resonance just don’t move me. That’s the case more often than not in Houston’s Thai restaurants, and it was certainly the case here.
The green chicken curry came off a little better: It still read very sweet and coconutty and Kaffir-limey under its green-chile heat, but its big, thin slices of chicken were nicely cooked and big enough to show that off. I wanted to like a stir-fry of Basil Duck, but a surfeit of sticky brown sauce muted the herbal effect too much for me, and the small hacked duck pieces failed to grab my attention.
What I did like was an unusual appetizer of Crispy Rice cakes like savory, puffed Rice Krispies treats. An impressive pile of these aerated crackers came with a bowlful of mild, yellow-curried ground-chicken laced with red onion, and you spoon on this topping at will. It’s a great appetizer to share, especially if you add a jot of the bird-pepper-and-fish-sauce dip that is set on each table, or a tiny dab of the crimson chile-and-garlic paste in the ceramic pot right alongside.
A stir-fry of Cashew Tofu had a nutty undertone to go with its red-chile heat, and a savory depth that carried along the nicely fried tofu cubes. That’s the kind of balance I’m looking for in my Thai food, when the sweet isn’t allowed to win the day. I’m betting I’d like the other iterations of cashew here, too: Cashew Chicken, Cashew Duck, etcetera.
I loved the tart heat of the Nam Tok, a lime-dressed salad of resilient beef slices strewn with crunchy ground-rice bits and kicked up with piercing cilantro and basil leaves. But a lime-dressed salad of glass noodles fared less well: Nobody had bothered to toss the transparent threads together with the herbs, red onions and pieces of chicken and pearly shrimp that would have leavened and lightened the dour mass of noodles at the bottom of the bowl. The big leaves of lettuce lining that bowl had seen better days.
Like too many dishes during my three visits here, that glass noodle salad fell short. Yet it produced those happy capsaicin tears I prize, and I admired the shrimp as much as I had the ones in the pad thai — enough to speculate on what other shrimp dishes I might be tempted to try. Buoyed on my hot-chile high, I reveled in the restaurant life all around me, beguiled by the billing and cooing young Vietnamese couple on my left and a huge party of animated Sikhs just up the riser from me, in an elevated section of the long dining room.
The young, harried servers bustled. I sipped a glass of suitable five-buck Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and decided I’d spring for a bottle of Trimbach Gewurztraminer when I came back. I wondered who had chalked the murals of classical Thai scenes on the blackboard walls, and whether the owners — who run the next door Thai kickboxing studio — sold a lot of the Thai bas-reliefs mounted in the entryway, where stained-glass lotuses welcome the diners who are often lined up for tables.
I ate housemade coconut ice cream (really an ice milk) from a goblet with a Southwestern-style cactus base, amused at how the cultural cues swirl in this splendidly unruly city of ours.
Before I left, the young man who had waited on me stopped by my table with a professional tip. I had been teasing him about how inconceivably fiery “Thai hot” must be at Thai Gourmet, and he pointed out the dish he liked to order that way. There was a secret to eating it, he told me: You just have to keep eating and eating and eating, and whatever you do, don’t stop.
Try that one next time you’re in a friendly face-off over who can eat the hottest.