Thai restaurants in Houston can be hit or miss. “Pretty good,” is how I describe most the dozens of places I’ve tried. “Over-priced” is another adjective I frequently apply to these establishments.
Among the few exceptions is Thai Spice, which never ceases to amaze me with its varied dishes of consistent high quality. With ten locations in Houston, Thai Spice is technically a chain, though I’m loathe to lump it in with other lackluster joints that so often comprise the multi-site restaurant category. For the past six years I’ve been somewhat of a regular at the Rice Village location, which was in the past convenient to my place of study and now dangerously close to my gym. (Trust me, having a restaurant that does terrific takeout immediately available after you finish a hard workout is a surefire way to bloat your belly and empty your bank account.)
Compared to eating at its neighbor Benjy’s, dining at Thai Spice is a quieter, more low-key experience. However, if you’re looking for a meal that will facilitate spending hours at a restaurant, don’t go to Thai Spice, where the food is delivered in a hot and very timely fashion. This is not to say the friendly staff will edge you out the door if you stay longer than an hour, for I’ve definitely lingered over my chicken lard nar during some more intense dinners during grad school. They just don’t want you to sit around hungry. An admirable desire, I think.
Over the years, I have also come to appreciate that Thai Spice offers a wide range of dishes in terms of price point as well as variety. In economically leaner periods, I have relished the tom kha gai soup ($5.25), which boasts a terrific balance of citrus and coconut in a broth that’s simultaneously tart yet creamy. Containing an ample portion of white-meat chicken and straw mushrooms, the soup on its own serves as a perfect lunch; add a scoop of white rice and you have a filling dinner for under $10.
Classic thai dishes such as massaman curry, pad kee mao (drunken noodles), and spring rolls benefit from straight-forward preparation and fresh ingredients. Most are under $12 and therefore decent bargains for non “fast-food Asian food” (re: Pei-Wei) as I’ve come to call it. If you’re willing to invest just a few dollars more, however, the options for transcendent (as opposed to just very good) entrees abound. Some of the best soft-shell crabs in town can be had at Thai Spice, which offers the crustaceans pan-fried with a spicy sauce or sautéed with green curry. The former preparation wins by a hair because of its amazing layers of texture from the crispy exterior and interior soft shell and the flavor combination of brine and earthy spice. Also worth the extra shekels is the duck, whose already rich dark meat goes to another level of decadence via its fatty roasted skin and sweet plum sauce accompaniment.
What most impresses me about Thai Spice is that a $6 takeout order of dumplings garners the same care and attention as $40 dinner of multiple rounds of drinks, appetizers, and main courses. Perhaps this is why Thai Spice has quietly but successfully expanded all over Houston. I may have to rethink my stereotypes about chains.
5117 Kelvin Drive
Houston, TX 77005