Cooking with Myra: A Thai adventure in Victoria
May 24, 2011 at 12:24 a.m.
By Myra Starkey
I met this guy who had just moved to Victoria, and somehow the conversation turned to food. That really isn't all that unusual that we would start talking about food because if I have any control over the flow of conversation, then the topic will soon turn toward things and places to eat.
He told me of this new Thai restaurant that he had recently gone to. He said how incredible it was. I did not even know there was a Thai place here, and I do love that kind of food. In fact, when we are in one of the larger surrounding cities, I often seek out the best Thai restaurant I can find. He told me it was on Rio Grande and named Tru Thai. I was skeptical but made a mental note to try it before the end of the week.
Taylor and I went to this new restaurant on a Thursday evening. It is in the old Bud's Deli building. We were greeted by a young waitress who seated us at a table and gave us a Thai menu. I looked over the names of the various dishes, but was a little confused, since I cannot read Thai, and so she patiently went over each item explaining what each was and the ingredients it contained. Everything sounded so delicious it was difficult to decide.
Several tables over I noticed two couples who were getting their food, so I went over to look. Mickey and Pat were dining with friends and they had ordered a delicious soup that was not even listed on the menu. They offered a bowl to me to sample. Never one to pass up tasting anything, I eagerly accepted and carried it back to our table. The fragrance was divine. The soup Tom Yum has lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, chili peppers, mushrooms, cilantro and galangal root. The layers of flavors literally danced in my mouth.
We made our selections from the menu. I ordered Panang chicken curry and Pork Pad Thai. When the waitress was taking our order, she had asked if we liked spicy food, and we said yes. Since the cook makes each dish individually and can season it to taste, the person ordering has to choose the "hotness level" on a scale from one to five. Neither of us wanted to appear weak or unadventurous, so we chose a three. When we said three she raised her eyebrows and said, "Are you sure?" And that should have been my first clue. My second clue was when the guy at the next table crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair and said, "That number five is so hot you could light a dang cigarette off it." I thought he was only joking.
A while later, the dishes arrived served on blue pedestal platters. The presentation of the food was beautiful and looked like something one might see in a magazine. Each was served with a side of white rice. We dug in, and Taylor's eyes widened in surprise. He grabbed his glass of water and began to drink as fast as possible. I casually thought that he was joking and that the smoke coming out of his ears was just my imagination, so I took a bite of my curry. WOW! It was so hot that tears formed in my eyes, and my nose began to run. I excused myself from the table to blow my nose. Perhaps I should have asked her if she thought I was a three kind of gal. The dishes were so delicious, we felt like we had unearthed a culinary pearl of great value in our town and vowed to share this knowledge with friends.
I called the restaurant the following day and asked if they could cook for our supper club the following week. This group meets monthly and it was my turn to host. I stopped by and met with the waitress/manager who was the cook's daughter. Her mother, Van Paen Flores (pronounced Juan Pen . I think) was the chef, and she came out and helped me plan a menu. Van Paen and her husband, Robert Flores, have lived all over the world, but most recently, in California. Robert's family had come to Victoria from Spain by way of Mexico. While he was serving our country in the armed forces, he met Van Paen, and they've been married for many years. Surprisingly, "Penny" had been a beautician for most of her life, but had always enjoyed cooking for family and friends. While they lived in California, their house was known as a place of good food, and many people joined them at their table. Robert moved the family to Victoria to be close to relatives, and "Penny" opened her first restaurant.
The night of our supper club finally arrived, and we met at the restaurant. No one had been to this new place, so they did not know what to expect. I assured everyone that this food would exceed any expectation they had of Thai food. We took our seats and started visiting, and soon the waitress brought out trays of spring rolls, chicken satay, coconut crunchy shrimp and beef salad with cucumbers. And that was just the beginning. I had pre-ordered and asked them to keep the pepper level at a one. We passed around the food, and quiet filled our table for the first time. All I could hear was chewing. The satay was served with a velvety peanut sauce and cucumber relish while the fried coconut shrimp was served with a side of spicy red pepper glaze. Next, we were served Tom Yum soup, which was every bit as good as my first spoonful the week before. Then came the Panang Red Curry with chicken, Pork Pad Thai and whole fried fish with a vegetable confit of red and green peppers. As every dish arrived, we said that we were too full, and yet we were afraid to miss any of the culinary adventure. I felt as though we were dining at her home since so much care was given to each dish and its garnish. Van Paen had enlisted the help of two friends to serve the dishes, and one of the ladies brought out one of my favorite Thai desserts, Sweet Rice with Mangos. We began to push away from the table when Penny appeared with fried bananas, which looked like a Cajun beignets, but had an essence of coconut milk.
We all stood simultaneously to clap for Chef Penny and her staff. Robert, her husband, grinned from ear to ear so pleased with his wife and our enjoyment of the evening. We exclaimed that we were all so full that we might not be able to eat for a day or two, but as I left I was already making plans to return.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.