An eating adventure
Vieng Thai gives daring diners plenty to talk aboutBy
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
There is a breed of intrepid ethnic-restaurant hound who expects
the road to good eats to be studded with potholes. Nay, who prefers
it that way, the better to regale friends and neighbors with tales
of culinary derring-do peppered by misadventure.
Bill Olive : For the Chronicle
Vieng Thai blends green papaya, garlic, tomatoes and
chile with lime dressing for som tum. In the background is
chicken satay with peanut sauce.
If you or someone you love fits that description, then I've got a
swell Thai restaurant for you. Vieng Thai, housed in a supremely
modest strip center on a scruffy stretch of Long Point, began life
as a Thai grocery store.
It's still pretty much run that way, with a card game often in
progress at the corner staff table, charge slips that have no line
for the tip and official hours 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily that
turn out to be not so official.
The first time I swung by for supper, vivacious proprietress
Jenny Vimuttikool hastened into the parking lot as I craned my neck
from the car. "We're closed for a private party," she said
apologetically. Thai regulars often book the place, which has a
festivity-friendly karaoke setup. A friend who popped in over
Memorial Day found the place closing shop at 6 p.m., but at least
she was able to snag takeout.
The menu can be equally unreliable. One Sunday evening I ordered
three appetizers in succession, only to be told, "We're out. We're
out. We're out."
"How can you be out of chicken satay?" I protested. "Or chicken
"It's Sunday," shrugged the gentleman who was taking our
The very next day, one of my guests newly besotted with the
place found the restaurant out of a whole new slate of dishes.
Prompt restocking of the pantry is not a huge priority here.
Bill Olive : For the Chronicle
A spicy green curry with coconut milk, eggplant and
Authentic Thai cookery is. In fact, Vieng Thai is as close to
eating in Thailand as I have come in Houston from its
wild-and-woolly home-style dishes to its quirky d้cor, in a funky
Thai living-room mode. I could not shake the feeling, as I scarfed
up hollow-stemmed, red-chile-laced water spinach, blew steam out my
ears and gazed at a big-screen music video of Thai cowboys gone
Sergio Leone, that I was dining in a section of Bangkok seldom
frequented by tourists.
Vieng Thai's menu is a rarity, not edited for Americans who are
used to seeing the same 40 Thai dishes over and over and over again,
no matter the restaurant. Chile fish balls, fried pilot fish or Thai
slick sausage, anyone? There's even a homely Thai omelet, frizzled
brown and stuffed with ground pork and green herbs, of a sort I
haven't tasted in many years. It was met with great enthusiasm at
our table, where it made a gentle counterpoint to the hotter and
It has been many years, too, since I encountered anything like
the E-sarn sausage platter, piled with crisp-skinned savory pork
links sliced on a slight diagonal and garnished with all the right
stuff peanuts, red onion, cilantro, toasted red chiles. Brave
palates can chase a bite of sausage with a cautious nip from the end
of a toasty pod. Fans of Texas barbecue will feel a particular
kinship with the E-sarn plate, and the sausage goes so well with all
manner of other dishes on the menu that it's a must-order.
Some dishes, for American customers, apparently are
must-not-orders. Curious about pad sar-tor described on the menu
as shrimp saut้ed with a special, very cleansing Thai herb I was
strongly discouraged by our waiter. "You won't like," he
"Why not?" I wanted to know.
"Smells bad," he offered in dire tones.
Bill Olive : For the Chronicle
Pad Thai with shrimp.
Now, that sort of thing is catnip to the ethnic-restaurant fiend,
but I blush to confess I passed. I gave up, too, on Vieng Thai's
slick sausage platter, which two different waitresses informed me
was raw. (One of them volunteered that the roasted chiles
traditionally eaten with it would kill anything.) There was
adventure enough in a dish of pad ga prow with crispy pork, an
exhilarating green hash of long beans and basil, flecked with
incendiary red chile and flavored by a quantity of what looked to be
fried belly bacon. With the delicious crispy bits pried from the
soft fat, the pork proved to be one of those alien experiences that
grows on you and one that will make a good story later.
A word about heat levels. The serious, short-coifed woman who
runs this kitchen (who I happen to think is a genius) is sensitive
to the requirements of non-Thai guests. Requests for mild or medium
heat will be honored. When I've ordered dishes cooked as they would
be for Thai customers, the chile index has been serious and
thrill-inducing, but not lethal.
Some of the best items are the many lime-dressed salad dishes,
including a spectacular calamari version that achieves its green,
herbal depth by the brilliant addition of flat parsley. But the
shrimp version (pla goong), the classic cellophane noodle version
(yum vun sen) and the heartier, sausage-spiked eggplant version all
exhibit their own bracing delicacy and character.
Over yum vun sen and a wonderfully simple panang red curry, its
thin chicken slices almost velvety and just a cling of sauce, I was
struck by the elegance Vieng Thai's food often achieves. It is an
elegance of balance and delineation that owes nothing to prettified
garnishes, luxurious ingredients or a grand setting.
Or to price, either. Vieng Thai is hearteningly inexpensive, and
if you bring your own wine, you can entertain guests in a highly
satisfactory way at minimal cost. Of course, you may end up wielding
the house corkscrew yourself (our very new waitress appeared
terrified of both corkscrew and bottle) or wrestling to insert your
bottle of white into a plastic water pitcher commandeered as a
makeshift ice bucket.
It's all part of the adventure, as is the occasional dish that
fails to please. My sole candidates: overfried whole tilapia in a
less-than-gripping, orangey sweet-and-sour sauce and pedestrian
skewers of grilled pork or chicken satay with dull, sludgy peanut
sauce. Should your guests lament that the Tiger Cries is more like
gray brisket than slices of rosy grilled steak, just point them
toward the accompanying brick-red sauce I think of as the Dip of
Death. It is profound stuff, the salty edge of fish sauce playing
against sweet, tart and hot chile. It will definitely give them
something to talk about around the water cooler.
After all, isn't that exactly what the ethnic-restaurant hound
Vieng Thai: 6929 Long Point
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $2.99-$6.99; entrees
$5.99-$12.99; desserts $2.99-$3.99
Reservations: not required
Noise level: quiet to moderate
Smoking: set-aside section
Hot tip: BYOB, no corkage.
Call first; hours are not firm.
Call 713-688-9910 for information.