Plenty of diverse eaters in Houston know their ways around mochi, red bean buns and halo-halo. But to most of us, the desserts of Thailand pretty much begin and end with mango sticky rice. At Asian Market Thai Lao Food on West Cavalcade in the Heights, though, tables and fridges fairly burst with sweet treats ripe for discovery.
The prettiest are made from moulded gelatin. The woon kra-ti above are firm, flower-shaped jellies flavored with coconut milk. What to compare them to in the western food encyclopedia? Nothing.
Luk chup, on the other hand, have a slightly granular, pasty texture that reminds me of marzipan, but with coconut flavor in the place of almonds. Also like marzipan, the mung bean-based filling is highly malleable and takes well to shaping.
They're typically made to look like fruits (they were originally a royal Thai treasure, not allowed outside the palace), but Thai Lao's colorful, gelatin-coated version includes sweets shaped like carrots and what look like fava beans, but presumably are the mungs themselves. Each time I've had the sweets, packed with pandan leaves, the combination has been slightly different.
On a table at the counter, desserts that don't require refrigeration await customers alongside bottles of homemade shrimp paste. In the category of kanom Thai chao wung (chao wung refers to the king's palace, so this denotes another royal delicacy), kaow neaw dang are basically sticky Thai rice crispy treats that use palm sugar to hold together grains of (un-puffed) rice. A coconut cake, labeled kanom ba bet, looks like American coffee cake, but its chewy, coconut-heavy texture makes it more like a big, soft macaroon.
Of course, there is far more than sugar to recommend Thai Lao. It's hard to stop eating the "signature lemongrass chicken nuggets," popcorn-sized chunks of poultry coated in crispy strands of lemongrass and makrut lime leaf. Plain, old Thai pad see ew is uncommonly full-flavored and packed with tender Chinese broccoli.
But my favorite savory discovery thus far is Laotian kao nam tod. Imagine a rice plate comprised entirely of the soccarat at the bottom of a paella pan or the crispy stuff that adheres to the edges of a dolsot bibimbap. Woven in with those crispy rice nuggets is homemade fermented sausage, scallions, cilantro and peanuts. It is a glorious symphony of texture and flavor. And after all, we all occasionally need to eat something other than dessert.