Why is it somehow preferable to be abused than ignored? Or is that just me? Well, it can't just be me, judging by the dozens of people who crowd into Kanomwan -- known to those who love it as "Telephone Thai" -- every day for lunch. These are people with jobs, cars, and plenty lunch options; why would they drive out of their way to be abused by a scowling Thai fellow in a sleeveless dress shirt?
In a word: S1. That's why. Kanomwan's tom yum goong (or "S1" to aficianados) is worth significant mistreatment. The first tom yum goong I'd ever had was at a little Vietnamese/Thai restaurant on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn called The Lemongrass. It was (I thought) spicy, intense, and intensely hot, with exactly two shrimp and a heady fish-sauce reek. I thought it was one of the best soups I'd ever tasted. I hadn't had S1 yet, obviously. Telephone Thai's version puts all others -- in America, at least -- to shame. S1 is garnet-red with pepper flakes and riddled with inedible aromatics like kaffir lime leaf, galangal root, and something strongly resembling tree bark. Shove past all of that to get the fresh, impeccably-cooked shrimp and the tiny mushrooms that have absorbed the broth. Fresh rice is served (and consumed) with the S1 as a matter of necessity; whereas weaker tom yum goongs, like those at Nit Noi and Morningside Thai, are served without rice, S1 is barely edible without it. (It's like ordering cafe at Cafe de Monde without the au lait -- it might well kill you.) S1 is a, if not the, Platonic Thai dish in Houston. It's particularly good if you get there for the second lunch seating (i.e., after 12:30), when it's been simmering and reducing steadily and achieves a ragu-like thickness and intensity. We arrived at 1:15 once, and my boss began to sweat so profusely that he had to stand up and walk around the restaurant in mid-S1, as the other customers mocked him.
The rest of the menu is nearly as good. Gai pad prik, or H6, is a spicy stir-fry of chicken with cashews in a sweet chili paste. A little sweet for some tastes, H6 is a much-loved standard at Telephone Thai and, with S1, probably constitutes 50% of the dishes ordered at lunch. The curries are very good, particularly S10, the green chicken curry with bamboo shoots, which has a slow-building but intense burn that leaves your lips tingling. For the geuninely brave, H1 -- available with beef, chicken, or pork -- offers an adulterated chili experience: simply ground meat, Thai basil, fish sauce and chilis (as many as you can stand). Order it "Thai-hot" if you want to make Ute, the owner, crack a smile. Please note it isn't a particularly friendly smile.
There are a couple of missteps. The pad thai is bland, colorless, and unloved -- the Governor Perry of Thai food. The spring rolls and egg rolls are just okay, and the tom khai gai (chicken and coconut milk soup) needs more zing (i.e., more lime juice and fish sauce). But overall, Kanomwan stands tall among Houston Thai restaurants for its bright, vibrant flavors.
So why does the owner apparently hate it so much? Why is he so grouchy all the time, despite hundreds of lawyers, businessmen, judges, and engineers trekking out into Eastwood every day to buy his food? Is it just a shtick? Maybe so.
(Aside: On the old Comedy Central show, "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist," there was a Catskills-type comic who complained that every time he auditioned for a TV pilot, the studio execs told him that his routine was "too shticky." "You know what I hear, when someone says my routine is 'too shticky'?" he said. "I hear, 'We hate the Jews.'")
To be fair, the owner is borderline polite to most women, and downright friendly to children. But those of us who know and love him recognize that that's just an act designed to make the rest of us feel even worse, as though he were specifically scorning us. And we love it.
Kanomwan: 736 Telephone Road, Houston, Texas 77023.