"The lunch buffet offered everything I was planning to order so I tried it. Wonderful. I'll be back. Inexpensive as well, the buffet is $5.50."
-Review of Vung Thai on www.b4-u-eat.com
Near northwest Houston is an interesting little corner of the city that has a lot of quirky, Mom and Pop, Americanized restaurants. The area has no fine dining, few chain restaurants, and almost no authentic ethnic restaurants. That is, none except Vung Thai.
Vung Thai fits the region in many respects. First, it is a quirky dump. The tables have bright yellow plastic tablecloths. The bottom half of the walls is tacky wood paneling, and the top half is painted bright lime green. There are some cheap decorations, an ugly fish tank, and metal and vinyl diner chairs. Some reviewers on www.b4-u-eat.com allege that it is "dirty." But it's not dirty, just cheap.
Second, this place feels like a Mom and Pop shop. It is the opposite of Nit Noi, a decent Thai restaurant that grew too big and opened too many locations with suspiciously upscale decor.
I have had a hard time deciding whether Vung Thai authentic or Americanized. Is it real Thai food? Or is it Americanized like so many other restaurants in the area that claim to be "Chinese", "Italian", and "Mexican"?
My favorite restaurant reviewer, Robb Walsh, discovered Vung Thai in 2001:
Robb said the restaurant was authentic: "The food tastes like the kind your Mom would make if she were Thai." He also said the spice was really hot: "I like my food pretty damn hot, but I still find this heat level a tad too high."
In the 6 years since Robb's review, Vung Thai has changed. First, they have toned down the spice. Recently, I have tried at least 8 dishes, and I even requested some of them extra spicy. None was very hot at all. In fact, the spice was milder than many Thai restaurants around Houston. For instance, the basil chicken had far less pepper and basil than the wonderful version at Nit Noi downtown. (But, strangely, Vung Thai's version is spicier and better than the mediocre version at Nit Noi in Rice Village). And of course the spice level here is nowhere close to my favorite Thai restaurant in town - Kanomwon.
Second, the Americanization has begun. At lunch Vung Thai now serves a quaint buffet. It only has six items: tom yum soup, two kinds of spring rolls, pad thai, a curry, and a tofu-based entree. The curry is very mild. The pad thai has very little of the fish sauce and tamarind flavors that I expect from a good pad thai. And the tofu dish is downright dull -- an afterthought with lots of cabbage that seems to be included to please vegetarian customers. The only thing exceptional about this little buffet is the very cheap price: $5.50. The buffets at Patu and Thai Spice are much more extensive and much more interesting, but they cost twice as much.
Vung Thai is still home cooking in the sense that the vegetables are sliced unevenly and there is no attempt at presentation. Unlike the food at Nit Noi, which resembles the highly produced sound of Britney Spears in the 90s, Vung Thai's food remains more like the sound of the Rolling Stones in the 70s -- sloppy, ugly, and tasty.
Vung Thai remains a quirky little restaurant with home cooking, but the food has been changed by its location. Ultimately, most restaurants -- even funky Mom and Pop restaurants -- cannot resist the pressures of their environment. A restaurant's cuisine is not just the product of an isolated chef. It also is the product of the customers, the surrounding culture, and even the local air and water. When it opened, Vung Thai may have resembled a real Thai home kitchen, but it is becoming more and more like near northwest Houston.
UPDATE (June 4, 2007): Vung Thai seems to have changed owners, changed its name, and changed the items on its lunch buffet. My verdict is still out on the new restaurant.