With Hunky Dory off to a solid start at the Treadsack "mothership" at 18th and Shepherd, the rapidly expanding Heights-based restaurant unleashed the second of its three fall openings on Tuesday. Led by celebrity fishmonger/chef PJ Stoops and his wife Apple, Foreign Correspondents brings a farm-to-table ethos to the traditional foods of northern and northeastern Thailand.
Originally slated to be Hunky Dory's companion, Foreign Correspondents now anchors the North Main strip center that will also be home to Morningstar, the coffee and donut shop from Blacksmith owners David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto, as well as Camella Clements's boutique Iko Iko.
The restaurant doesn't look like a typical Thai restaurant — diners will not see any images of Buddha, for example — and the menu presents dishes that may not be familiar to most diners. Rather than draw from all parts of the country, Stoops has focused on the dishes from the regions of Isaan and Chiang Mai that he encountered when he lived there for three-and-a-half years. That trip offered Stoops his first taste of Thai cuisine, and it shaped what he knew about the country.
"What I learned about the food was the boring food where I was living. Then I met Apple, and Apple is from the northeast. Whenever we go visit her mom and dad, it’s the same thing," Stoops tells CultureMap. "To me, that’s what Thai food is. I’m not saying that’s all Thai food is, obviously, but, from my exposure, what I knew about it, that’s it. We’ve kind of just tried to reproduce what I know and love."
Texas fresh bamboo
The farm-to-table aspect stems from a partnership Foreign Correspondents has entered into with Sameth Nget, a Cambodian farmer whose business in Rosasharon, Texas, is growing plants like tumeric, galangal and water spinach for the restaurant. Those ingredients grow well here, because the climate is similar to Thailand's. Stoops also expresses particular enthusiasm for the fresh bamboo that Nget is growing.
"When I was a kid going to American Chinese restaurants and had canned bamboo in stuff, I hated it," Stoops says emphatically. "I moved to Thailand, and oh my god this is what fresh bamboo is like: a little asparagus, a little artichoke-y. It’s absolutely amazing stuff. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to eat, and it’s not something you can find of quality in Houston."
Nget has also crossbred Southeast Asian chickens with the American heritage breed Rhode Island Reds to provide Foreign Correspondents with birds of a similar style to those found in Thailand. The chickens are skinnier than traditional American breeds and grow to full maturity in 12 to 20 weeks instead of four to seven, which Stoops says gives them a flavor that closely matches those found in Issan.
On the opening menu, Stoops uses these local ingredients in a variety of ways. Highlights include an appetizer where mackerel is wrapped with coconut sticky rice and an entree that mixes stir fried pumpkin with ground pork. Even the housemade charcuterie gets a bit of a twist, as one sausage uses water buffalo. Papaya salad, a signature dish from Isaan that's a staple at most Thai restaurants, gets two presentations on the menu as well as two variations: one made with fresh fruit and another with green beans.
If the specific dishes are unfamiliar to diners, Treadsack co-owner Chris Cusack thinks people will understand the restaurant's culinary perspective once they taste it.
"As an outsider, I sat down last night, as I hope many thousands of people will at Foreign Correspondents over time. I saw something familiar in terms of 'cool, I get the idea of the world of Thai food. I have some idea of what this is: it’s fresh, it’s tasty, there’s some sense of spice to it,'" Cusack says.
Even knowing those things about Thai food from a trip to Thailand and having tasted Stoops's food during menu development, Cusack says his meal during the restaurant's friends and family surprised him. "It’s so far exceeded what I thought it ever could be and how we can bring people into some understanding of what this food is."
Riffs on classic cocktails
On the beverage side, bar director Leslie Ross has developed Thai-inspired riffs of classic cocktails like a cream soda made with vodka and hibiscus syrup and a namesake cocktail with Thai chili-infused green chartreuse. Beverage director Travis Hinkle's wine list follows the direction of award-winning Thai restaurants like Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas that feature Riesling and sparkling varietals designed to complement the cuisine.
Finally, no discussion of Foreign Correspondents would be complete without considering the mural that runs along the restaurant's back wall. It's a brightly-colored, psychedelic affair of aliens and space ships that doesn't seem "Thai" at all, which is exactly the point. The food may be designed to be authentic, but it's being presented by an American chef cooking for Texans.
"All of the conversations we had about how this place should feel and be went like this. How many Thai restaurants have we been to and seen? You can recreate the restaurants we saw in northern Thailand, and it would still be bullshit. You’re copying something that someone else is doing," Cusack says. "I feel like making this place the way that it is here is an effort to make it our own. To do something that is genuinely us, but it was also representative of something we love and we care about and we feel really great about."
Stoops offers a similar opinion about trying to avoid stereotypical images and focus on the authentic affection he has for the cuisine and the country.
"We’re trying to bypass some of the stereotypes. If it was Thai owned and had a Thai staff — look, Apple’s a really observant Buddhist — it would make sense and it would be boring," he says. "So go as far opposite as you can go. To me, that’s why I’ve always loved it, because it’s not that. It doesn’t even fit into any restaurant. That’s just it. There’s no theme there besides something really awesome to look at with beautiful colors."
Familiar or not, the anticipation diners have for the restaurant is undeniable. Reservations for a three-night soft opening booked out in under two hours. With the restaurant ready to welcome diners, all Houstonians need to do is embrace Stoops' culinary perspective and prepare to travel to a delicious destination they likely haven't experienced before.
Foreign Correspondents is open for dinner every day from 5 to 11 pm and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm. Lunch will follow soon.