I ate my first som tam at Vieng Thai, long considered the city's best Thai restaurant, and nothing since has ever measured up to that definitive version of the spicy, crunchy, tangy green papaya salad with pungent dried shrimp and fish sauce, sour lime juice, fiery chiles, salty peanuts, and sweet palm sugar. No doubt a trip to Thailand or even just to Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas could likely change my mind, but as long as I'm here in Houston there's just no equal.
Perhaps it's in this spirit that I've been pleased to run into riffs on som tam across town lately, in decidedly non-Thai restaurants. These places aren't trying to make the classic version of a dish—they're creating their own interpretations, albeit with differing degrees of success. Two of my favorite som tam takeoffs right now are at Holley's Seafood and True Food Kitchen, both in Midtown. Here's how they stack up.
Chef Mark Holley is rightly renowned for his, well, seafood, which is what made it so odd to me that he'd remove the dried shrimp garnish entirely from his version of som tam...and replace it with a confit duck leg, of all things. (To be fair, som tam is often served with grilled chicken, so I suppose this is a sort of play on that?) Thankfully, the soul of the dish was otherwise intact, with plenty of snappy long beans and juicy tomatoes tossed into the strands of green papaya that make up the base of the salad.
Crispy duck and green papaya salad: $14
3201 Louisiana St.
The five-fold flavor profile that makes som tam so admired—sour, spicy, salty, savory, and sweet—was wholly present in the salad itself, which is why I was so surprised to find the duck entirely underseasoned. It desperately needed salt, and even eating it with acidic bites of salad didn't help it along. A shame, too, as the flesh was otherwise perfectly rendered and could have knocked this entire dish out of the park if it just had a few pinches of salt. (It's worth noting that Holley's is one of those precious restaurants that doesn't put salt or pepper on the table for its customers.) My kingdom for a few pinches of salt...
True Food Kitchen
This California import has been permanently packed since opening near the Galleria last summer, chiefly because it's one of the few area restaurants to focus on healthy eating in a cute, chic atmosphere. You've got to admire the way the chain plays on our neurotic, First World food idiosyncrasies, offering an entire menu, drinks and all, that adheres to Andrew Weil's famous anti-inflammatory diet. I would probably never stop making fun of this place except for one fact: everything I've had there has been delicious. Well played, True Food Kitchen.
True Food Kitchen
Thai green papaya salad: $11
1700 Post Oak Blvd.
Its version of som tam mostly eliminates the green papaya base—even though the menu lists it as "Thai green papaya salad"—and replaces the shredded papaya with kelp noodles. Okay.... Regardless of this swap (which seems unnecessary, as green papaya is full of the phytonutrients and vitamins that Dr. Weil recommends in his diet, but oh well), the salad is still quite good, with lots of snappy crunch from the raw vegetables—carrots, radishes—and a nice flavor profile of mint, cashews in place of peanuts, and a chile-sesame dressing. A final garnish of avocado is lots of fun to stir into the salad to give it a rich creaminess. Is it tasty? Yes. Is it som tam? No.
Strictly speaking, I expect a bunch of shredded papaya when I order a Thai-style green papaya salad. I also expect that five-fold punch of flavor—even if the restaurant is doing its own spin on som tam. For that reason, True Food Kitchen's version doesn't quite cut it. Holley's, with its more faithful rendition that still bears the marks of its own creativity, wins this battle. But seriously, when a salad this delicious (and this healthy, when served without a confit duck leg...) is cropping up on menus all over town, we're all winners.