Everyone else knew about Vieng Thai before me. Food goddess Allison Cook knew in 2005 when she described it as "authentic" and an "adventure." Robb Walsh also knew in 2005 when he called it Houston’s "most authentic" Thai restaurant. The Houston Press knew as far back as 2000 when gave it the award for Houston’s "Best Thai."
All these years, I have missed Vieng Thai because of a simple mistake. I thought Vieng Thai was the same restaurant as nearby Vung Thai. So I have been going to Vung, thinking that it is Vieng, and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Like a lot of other people, I finally found Vieng Thai. In fact, it is one of those places that everyone takes credit for discovering. The trip out to a strip center in an economically challenged part of Long Point near Northwest Mall feels like a pilgrimage. Most people would not come here if it were not for some really good food. This feeling is reflected in the clientele. I noticed some adventurous Inner-City twenty somethings, as well as some older died-blonde women who looked like Memorial housewives slumming. Everyone in the restaurant seems proud that they "found" this place.
The critics all say Vieng Thai is unique for two reasons. First, it has a big menu with a lot of dishes you can’t find anywhere else in Houston. Second, unlike most Thai restaurants in Houston, the food here isn’t dumbed down. It doesn’t use too much sugar. And it refuses to compromise traditional Thai flavors for the timid American palate.
Inevitably, my first trip did not live up to the hype. I order hot tea. "Sorry, we’re out," says the waitress. Then I order Yen Tar 4, described as "authentic flat noodle soup with pork, fish balls, squids, ong choy and home-made red sauce." "Sorry, we’re out," says the waitress. No tea, no soup – I am beginning to wonder if they are out of hot water.
I then order the cheapest item on the menu – soft spring rolls. These are fairly standard and completely bland. They come with a peanut dipping sauce that has less oil and sugar than usual, but also less flavor. The texture is like a bernaise sauce which has curdled. It may be different, but I am not that impressed.
Then I get Pad See Ewe, described as "Stir-fried flat noodles with black bean sauce, egg and Chinese broccoli." The noodles are great - thick, chewy, and slightly browned – but not unusual. I have had this kind of noodle elsewhere. The sauce is subtle, and only slightly sweet. It has the smell of old shrimp, but in a good way. I don’t see any black beans, or black sauce, but the old shrimp smell probably means that it is flavored by fermented black beans. The dish is good – not strongly flavored, not particularly complex – but satisfying and slightly exotic.
On later visits, I ordered the strange stuff and discovered why Vieng Thai is so great. Pad Grapaow with mixed seafood is a spicy, basil-flavored dish with shrimp, mussels, squid, and long beans. Long beans look like thin green beans, but they have a more herbal, brighter flavor. The dish is spicy and different.
But the really strange dish is Som Tum, Laotian Style with salted crab. This is a papaya salad with strong garlic and lime flavors, tomatoes, long beans, cucumber, and a lot of spicy chilis. The strangeness come from fermented crab sauce and small purple crab claws that you eat whole in their shell. The claws make the salad very crunchy. The fermented craw sauce has a similar flavor to Vietnamese fish sauce, but is a much stronger and funkier. To the American palate, this flavor is very bizarre. After getting excited by the strangeness of the dish in my first few bites, I realize that the peppers are extremely spicy, so hot that I had to stop and wait for 30 minutes before I can eat more. It seems I finally have found Thai food extreme -- extremely wierd, extremely funky tasting, and extremely spicy.
The critics are right. The food at Vieng Thai is strange and uncompromising. The trip there is adventurous. And if you like that sort of experience, it probably will become one of your favorite Thai restaurants too.