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An eating adventure

Vieng Thai gives daring diners plenty to talk about

By ALISON COOK
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 wings?"

"It's Sunday," shrugged the gentleman who was taking our order.

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 basil.

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 spicier dishes.

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 declared.

"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 wants?

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.

dine.features@chron.com

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