I often struggle with the "A" word -- authenticity. Honestly, when it comes to food from places like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, I have no idea what is truly authentic. But sometimes a place just feels authentic.
Picture this: a small, grungy southeast Asian grocery store on Cavalcade between I-45 North and Heights Boulevard. The name Asia Market on an old weathered sign is barely visible. On the back wall of the store, a Thai woman is cooking. There is no menu. She does not speak much English. You have to guess at what dishes she makes and order with her by using a dish's Thai name. If you are lucky, you may get some translation help from the person at the front register. There are just three tables. A refrigerator has some Thai canned drinks and a few extra spices are served on a counter next to a TV.
The TV is showing a video of a Thai band, playing arena-style rock, replete with bad guitar solos. The singer sings in Thai, but is wearing a Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie t-shirt. And at some point, I could swear he sang something about "Jesus Christ." Could this be authentic Thai Christian hard rock?
I don't know with certainty that the food is authentic. But somehow, Asia Market just feels like the kind of place where the food is very real.
Learning to speak a little Thai to get great food
It is hard to order at Asia Market without knowing the Thai names for dishes. These are a few to learn:
Pad kee mao. These are wide, flat noodles stir fried with chicken and large clumps of pungent Thai basil. Order it Thai spicy. I have tried a number of similar Thai basil dishes around Houston, but Asia Market's version may be my favorite. The noodles have a slimy exterior, but a toothsome texture. The cook uses generous amounts of basil. It is classic comfort food with an exotic twist.
Som Tam (Thai or Lao). Som tam is a grated papaya salad. The Thai version has peanuts, dried shrimp, and sugar. The much spicier and unusual Laotian version includes chili, garlic, lime, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. If you get the Laotian version, you need to order some sticky rice to balance the heat. The two spiciest dishes I have ever eaten are the Laotian Som Tam at Asia Market and at Vieng Thai. Vieng Thai's version also adds small, crunchy crabs, which made the dish a little too wierd for me. Asia Market's version is just right - garlicky, sour, and extraordinarily spicy.
Pad Thai. This is the most popular Thai dish for Americans and may be the safest dish to start with at Asia Market. And it is quite good. I prefer Asia Market's version to most in town because it uses less sugar and more sour tamarind. The noodles are thinner than most. Somehow, this pad thai tastes less Americanized. I last ordered it with shrimp. Most shrimp in Houston restaurants has little or no flavor. But the shrimp in this little $6 dish was full of fresh shrimp flavor, like you can only get in the finest restaurants or the dives on the coast that buy directly from the trawlers.
I believe the oral menu at Asia Market may change daily. I saw one of the staff eating a meatball noodle soup. They explained that I can order the soup next time, but only if I come late in the week.
I adore Asia Market. Its food is without question the best Asian food in the Heights, and some of the best-tasting, least-Americanized Thai and Laotian food in Houston. But I must confess that my critical judgment is clouded by the funky setting, which seems so real, and so . . . foreign.
If you like traveling in another land where you can barely communicate and are served dishes with unusual flavors, it is worth the effort to eat at one of the three tables in front of the TV at Asia Market. If you want Thai food that is readily accessible, and a little on the sweet side, then you probably would do better at one of Houston's more mainstream Thai restaurants, like Nit Noi, Thai Pepper, and Thai Cottage.
Asia Market has changed a little. It now bears a new sign, "Asia Market and Thai Fast Food." And it now has a written menu.
One item from the menu is a soup called Ka Nom Jeen Nam Ya, rice stick noodle in fish curry sauce. The main component of the dish is a pile of toothsome thin noodles. I assume the sauce is made primarily from shrimp paste, fish sauce, ground bits of shrimp, ginger, garlic, and a little coconut milk. On Fridays, AM serves an off-the-menu dish that seems much like a Vietnamese Pho noodle soup with three types of beef -- meat balls, sliced flank, and delicious chunks that taste like slow-cooked brisket.
With its new printed menu, Asia Market may not seem quite so exotic, but at least English-speaking customers have an easier time ordering. Plus, I have a new goal - to try everything on the menu.