Hot Hot Heat

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

Thai food in Houston is about to get a whole lot hotter, as a sea change sweeps in.

By Katharine Shilcutt September 5, 2013

Little Serow in Washington D.C., where I had my first encounter with nose-clearing Northern Thai food.

Last year, I had the privilege of eating at Little Serow in Washington D.C. with a group of fellow journalists at the annual Association of Food Journalists conference. I say "privilege" because I know just how lucky I was to get a seat at the subterranean restaurant that seats only 28 people at a time, all of whom line up on the street above by at least 4 p.m. every day in hopes of snagging an elusive spot. The Northern Thai restaurant run by award-winning chef Johnny Monis and wife Anne Marler doesn't take reservations, and the meals aren't quick affairs. They're egalitarian in this way—even more so when you consider that each night's seven-course dinner is only $45.

Little Serow afforded some of the best service, beer, and—most importantly—food I'd ever had, in Houston or D.C. or anywhere else. It was one of those meals that sticks with you, seared into your memory—thanks in no small part to the fiery dishes themselves. I'd never tasted heat applied in such broad yet masterful strokes; I'd never been in such pain yet keen for more. Every successive layer of spice was different, and it accomplished what much spicy food does not: the molten Northern Thai spices actually managed to enhance the flavors of the crispy rice salad called khao tod and the corn-based com tam. It certainly wasn't the overly sweet pad see ew or red curry I was accustomed to back home.

Som tam with corn and catfish tom kha with galangal and kaffir lime served family-style at Little Serow.

Back home in Houston, my boyfriend and I lamented our lack of dining options when it came to aggressively spiced and flavored Thai food. He'd fallen ass over teakettle for Little Serow too, and the closest we were able to get was Vieng Thai, long respected as Houston's best Thai restaurant. Even then, though, I'd have to constantly prod the wait staff to stop holding back on the heat. My boyfriend eventually gave up and went back to ordering sweet, peanut-laced massamun curry.

Then, a silver lining emerged: a pop-up dinner a few weeks ago at D&T Drive Inn called "Midnight Sticky Rice," a portend of things to come. Fishmonger P.J. Stoops, famous for promoting bycatch—previously known as simply "trash fish"—in local restaurants and markets had teamed up with Down House executive chef Benjy Mason and former Feast chef Richard Knight for a two-night Northern Thai dinner service at the icehouse. The three cooked curried pork shank, marinated raw shrimp in a spicy peanut dressing, fried fish and topped it with Thai herbs, and wrapped curried goat brains in banana leaves for huge crowds both nights. Each night, the brains sold out first.

Spicy fried catfish at Vieng Thai, tied with Asia Market as the best place to set your tongue on fire in Houston.

On the first night of the dinner, one of my dining buddies—the normally quiet Alex Vassilakidis from the Eatsie Boys—put his fork down between bites of a spicy fried egg salad and said, "You know, this never would have happened in Houston a few years ago." This meal of fiery Northern Thai dishes in a modern icehouse in a solidly working-class Hispanic neighborhood, with the brains as the first item to go. We weren't surrounded by the tightly-knit bubble of foodies who were once omnipresent at every pop-up dinner or adventurous restaurant; we were surrounded by average Joe Houstonians of every stripe, and no one was wondering where the pad thai was on the menu. It was one of those sea change moments that gives you pause for the briefest moment to appreciate how far we've come and ponder where we're headed.

P.J. Stoops, Benjy Mason, and Richard Knight must certainly appreciate how far we've come as well, as the trio announced yesterday that they're opening their own Northern Thai restaurant next door to the previously reported Hunky Dory in the Heights. Foreign Correspondents, as the new restaurant will be called, may or may not be Houston's answer to Little Serow, but it hardly matters either way. It's not a response to a restaurant in another city; Foreign Correspondents is an organic outgrowth of our own changing palates and broadening interests. It's a response to the way in which Houston continues to evolve as a dining scene and a response to those—chefs and diners both—who demand to be challenged.

Crispy pig ears (rear) and Thai sausage at the Midnight Sticky Rice pop-up dinner.

And most importantly, Foreign Correspondents will seat nearly 10 times more people than Little Serow. Because if there's one possible thing that will never change about Houston, it's our refusal to queue up for anything other than barbecue.


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