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Chile-basil chicken with garlic and gree

Thais That Bind

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | August 1, 2014

Chef Jett—aka Junnajett Hurapan—has cooked many different ways in 26 years of doing Italian, Greek, French and modern Asian in New York and Houston. But tonight, as the crowd fills his new Songkran Thai Kitchen in Uptown Park, he’s cooking the foods of his homeland in a restaurant for the first time. And he looks pretty happy about it.

Three years after leaving his high-profile chef gig at the recently shuttered Gigi’s in the Galleria to open a restaurant-nightclub called BLU in Sugar Land, Hurapan is back inside the Loop. He and his partners from BLU—Amy Karnani and her husband, Jaiten—have taken over the the former 1252 Tapas across a pleasant courtyard from yet another Café Express and set out to give Houston what it has not had: an exciting, modestly hip yet mostly traditional Thai restaurant.

“I made this menu for me,” the chef laughs quietly, brushing his hand across the golden-fried tod mun shrimp cakes, the satay gai skewered chicken and the tow hou tod bean curd in coconut green curry that fill my table—and those are only the appetizers. “A lot of these are family recipes. I’m not expediting at the window, and I’m not walking around the dining room. I’m in there cooking each item because this is the food I grew up with, the food I really like.”

Yes, this is his food, he insists, both his and his wife, Jira’s. She is officially beside him in the Songkran kitchen as pastry chef, but during a busy service, she’s just as likely as he is to be cooking anything on the latest ticket. After working together doing hundreds of covers per meal at huge restaurants, the two are enjoying dishing up what is essentially mom-and-pop Thai, except made with better ingredients and a lifetime of culinary skill.

To take on the project, the owners brought in local artist Robert Gutierrez—presumably not the least bit Thai—and told him what they were after. The result is a dramatic makeover from the tapas place, all royal red and gold and old brick awash in natural light from the courtyard. The artist covered the drop ceiling above the bar with a stenciled trellis and even added a Thai temple decoration to the exterior wall around the kitchen window. The equating of kitchen and temple is not inappropriate.

Still, the interior of Songkran (named after a major Thai holiday) is a tale of two faces. The first is a female angel painted by Gutierrez on a mirror behind the podium to welcome each guest, and the second is an altogether serene-looking Buddha seeming to bless every meal from a place of honor on the back wall.

Like the entire menu here, the appetizer list is skillfully divided between things everybody who’s ever been to any Thai (or Vietnamese) restaurant has tried—starting with the crispy vegetable spring roll and a variation featuring both chicken and shrimp—and less familiar items. The satay, too, is familiar, with its peanut dipping sauce, as is Chef Jett’s Heavenly Beef, a greatest hit from his Gigi’s days that I and every other customer is sure to demand, both for its tender strips of meat and its bright-red underpinning of spicy Sriracha. Still, there are certainly more exotic starters at Songkran, from the pad hoi mussels ladled from a wok with red curry and Thai basil, to the crispy wrap with crabmeat and pork with chipotle plum sauce.

At any Thai restaurant—I don’t care how many appetizers fill the table—I have to have a bowl of tom yum goong, the lemongrass-kissed broth with prawn and cilantro. Hurapan’s is clearer, less red, than many in other Thai restaurants; he says it’s more traditional that way, though maybe he’s speaking only from central Thailand around Bangkok, which he and his family call home. Either way, this peppery soup will make you sweat a little. In a good way.

Entrees at Songkran are freeform, a good thing after starters that might incorporate shrimp, crabmeat, mussels, chicken, pork or beef. They fall into three basic menu categories: Main (generally a version of Thai stir-fry but also wandering afield with the pia sam ros whole red snapper or even the neua Siam braised wagyu short rib), Curry (traditional gravy-driven stews that can be red, yellow or green, my favorite being the kang phet ped yang clay-pot crispy duck with chunks of pineapple), and Rice & Noodles.

Dessert, not surprisingly, nods to the West while embracing the East. Chef Jira is capable of making sweet finales like triple mousse and molten chocolate cakes with the best of her pastry counterparts around town. But you might just gather your sense of adventure and try the amazing coconut sticky rice topped with sweet fresh mango and coconut milk ice cream, or the even more exotic taro pearls immersed in coconut syrup.

Returning to the main stage in Houston is a major step for Chef Jett and his wife. I expect we’ll be hearing a lot from them in the months and years ahead. And with their new commitment to cooking Thai, after years of wandering through the most popular world cuisines, Songkran strikes me as a particularly joyous homecoming, indeed.

Songkran Thai Kitchen
1101-08 Uptown Park Blvd.
713.993.9096

Prices: appetizers $6-$10, soups and salads $6-$13, entrees $14-$28, desserts $3-$8, plate lunches $11-$16

Hours: 11AM-10PM Mon.-Thu., 11AM-11PM Fri.-Sat., closed Sun.

Why Go?
After gaining a following at high-profile Gigi’s and opening a posh night spot in Sugar Land, Chef Jett Hurapan returns to Houston with a hip mom-and-pop restaurant all his own, featuring the foods of his homeland.

Thai One On
Many Thais drink beer with their meals, which is an option here. But so are some refreshing and tropical cocktails that are certain to satisfy, from the orange-kissed Mekong Margarita to the cranberry-lychee vodka drink called Red Lotus.

American Dream
One of the lunch menu’s curiosities is called American fried rice, developed in Thailand during the Vietnam War for GIs craving a taste of home. Yes, those are hot dogs on the plate, with fried chicken, a fried egg and ketchup.