100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 24, Som Tam at Vieng Thai
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photo by Jenny Wang Cool, crisp, refreshing and SPICY.
I first encountered Vieng Thai during a trip to Long Point Road with Houston Culinary Tours, one led by Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd. The chefs first took the group to El Hidalguense, where, on a Sunday, the place is packed and there's live music and just about all the cabrito you could ever eat. Great, I thought. We hit up the best stop first. It's all downhill from here.
Next we walked a few doors down to a spot that, at the time, had a façade that was under construction. It looked like a little nothing of a restaurant, all plywood and cement and noisy traffic rushing by.
Inside, though, I found some of the best Thai food in Houston, and the best green papaya salad outside of Thailand--with the possible exception of what my buddy Louis makes, because he lives and breathes Thai food and culture. If you want som tam in Houston, Vieng Thai is the place.
Having made som tam with Louis, I know how difficult it is to prepare. He handed me an unripe papaya and some sort of peeler that looked like it had been around since the 18th century and told me to get to work. It takes a long time for untrained hands to peel a papaya. It takes a while, too, to mince the garlic, squeeze the limes, smush the garlic and chilies together until they become a paste, and then pound everything together until it's all bruised and soft and the flavors have marinated. Having made som tam before, I appreciate it even more when someone just sets down a bowl in front of me and it's perfect.
Photo via Google Earth Modest on the outside, delicious on the inside.
At Vieng Thai, the som tam is made pretty much the way I learned to make it, though I daresay the couple who own the place are better at peeling a green papaya than I am. For the record, a green papaya isn't anything like the sweet orange papayas of tropical islands. It's closer in texture to an uncooked potato, but with the juiciness of jicama. It's light green, almost white in color, and it's sour bordering on bitter, but refreshing at the same time.
All of the ingredients--papaya, lime juice, bird's eye chilies, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce, dried shrimp and peanuts--get pounded together and then tossed by hand, the juice of the pounded ingredients forming a sort of dressing for the salad. It's served cold or at room temperature, and unlike the average dinner salad that gives you your requisite greens while cleansing the palate, som tam is spicy. It's refreshing in the way cool salsa is refreshing, but it packs quite the punch.
Sitting inside unassuming Vieng Thai with the tour group shortly after I moved to Houston, I began to appreciate the eccentricities of our diverse food scene. On the outside, Vieng Thai looks like another run-down restaurant in a run-down strip mall on a rough patch of Long Point Road. But inside? Well, you might as well be in Thailand.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.