It may not be entirely surprising that Bon Appetit named Foreign Correspondents one of America’s 50 Best New Restaurants 2016 this month. Not even a year old, the Heights restaurant has already earned the praise of Houston diners and critics for its interpretation of Thai food and fun, modern atmosphere.
Chef PJ Stoops, who spent some time cooking in Thailand, and his Thai wife Apple, have created a menu that highlights the cuisine of northeastern and northern Thailand. Many of the ingredients, including herbs and greens typical in Thai cooking, are grown locally. The result is vibrant, fresh food unlike what you’ll find at most Houston Thai restaurants.
We reached out to Stoops to talk about the restaurant, Thai cuisine and where he goes to eat in Houston (when he has some free time).
What was your reaction to being named as one of America’s Best New Restaurants?
Shock and surprise. I was taking the trash out, saw the list, and thought I'd see if I knew anybody on it. And there we were.
How did the idea for opening a restaurant focused on Northern Thai cuisine come about?
An Asian restaurant was completely a Chris Cusack and Treadsack concept. When my name came up, it was in the context of certain kinds of Thai cookery. Which is all I can claim to know about Asian food. It kind of went from there. Of course, the fact that Apple and I were a team from the start helped to solidify the idea. Apple is my co-chef. Also I am lucky enough to be her husband.
What made you feel that a Thai restaurant that was completely different from what people are accustomed to would work in Houston?
When I first moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, what amazed about the food was not necessarily how bizarre it was, but rather how it somehow felt so familiar. Ingredients I had never eaten, in combinations I had never imagined, cooked in completely unfamiliar ways… and yet. Later, over the many many meals at Apple's mom’s house in the northeast, I felt the same sensation. Perhaps my experience was unique, but I doubt it. Time and time again, guests have told us they have felt the same thing even though we don’t offer most of the Thai food that may be had elsewhere in town.
What are some of the defining characteristics of the cuisine?
First, I want to be clear that our restaurant is focused on northeast, then northern, then central foods. Isaan (northeast) and Lanna (north) are cousins. Both cuisines revolve, traditionally, around sticky rice and more temperate staples. More broadly, the cuisines emphasize vegetables over meat (in terms of proportions on the plate), lots of rice, quite a bit of chili, and a lot of rice.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic, in my opinion, is a relatively limited number of techniques applied to a vast spectrum of foodstuffs -- much vaster than that encountered anywhere in the US. This means almost any fresh ingredient could be used to produce a genuinely Thai (or Lao or Lanna) meal.
Your menu features many locally grown Asian ingredients. Tell me about the sourcing you do for the restaurant.
As for our Asian ingredients, just about all of them, from the lemongrass to the turmeric to the array of herbs, greens, gourds, fruits, etc., come from Sameth and Lee Nget, who have a small water spinach farm halfway between Rosharon and Alvin. The farm is located in the Village- a small and informal community of Khmer immigrants and their families which has been around since the first refugees starting arriving decades ago. The Village is one of the only legal sources of commercial water spinach in the country. Sameth and Lee (and neighbors) grow about 4 dozen crops for us.
Why was it important to keep it local?
To us, it is a matter first and foremost of quality. We don't claim sustainability, don't care about organic or natural designations, and have no problems with transgenic organisms, because those words impart good feelings, but no information otherwise. We care about the best quality and keeping the money in the local economy when at all possible.
For those visiting Foreign Correspondents for the first time, what are the dishes they shouldn’t miss?
I've probably eaten our Isaan Grilled Chicken a hundred times, and I look forward to eating another hundred times. Aside from that, we make lots of Laap, and I would hope everyone tries them all. Of course we sell a whole lot of Crispy Herbs and Stuffed Sticky Rice, and those are probably pretty typical of our fare.
What are some of your favorite places to eat and drink in Houston?
With two kids and Apple and I at the restaurant all the time, we rarely go anywhere to eat. When we do eat out, it’s with our kids. Hori at Kata Robata loves fish more than any human I have ever met, and his is always, no question, the best raw fish in town. Aim (pronounced "eem") is a newish Thai place on Montgomery at Gulf Bank. Great stuff there. Al-Aseel and Afghan Village always satisfy.
Is there anything else you would like people to know?
Thanks to Houston for a great start. We are always working to get better and serve more good food.