- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Our senses of taste and smell dull as we grow older. That may be why the pungent food we found difficult to stomach as children has greater appeal as we slog into adulthood. The cured anchovies I devour in middle-age would have made me crawl under the bed at the ringing of the dinner bell in my youth.
Or maybe we just grow accustomed to flavors and smells as we get older, making us more easily adaptable to them. “It’s an acquired taste,” I heard so often in my youth about so many things. (I’m still waiting to acquire a love for olives.)
Whether it’s my age or my adaptability, over the past decade Thai food has become one of my great joys in dining. Even when you don’t understand precisely what’s going on in a dish, you can still appreciate the flavors and smells that come on in a psychedelic rush. I don’t need to understand physics or geometry to enjoy staring into a kaleidoscope, just like I don’t need someone to break down every ingredient of a Thai dish to marvel at the abundance of flavors. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, savory, toasty, floral, herbaceous … a joyful culinary racket that finds harmony. Turn on, dip in and rock out.
That’s what I did recently at the Thai food truck Dee Dee with a dish of om gai ($10), tender hunks of chicken swimming in an herbaceous broth fragrant with lemongrass, spring onion and fish sauce and livened with Thai chili, dill and basil. It’s the dish that most reminds trailer co-owner Lakana Trubiana of home. And it’s exactly the kind of cooking Austin could use more of: dishes rooted in family and tradition from a chef with a story to share.
While I may have been a little late to the culinary party, Trubiana has spent her entire life immersed in Thai traditions. She was born and raised in the Nong Khai province of northeastern Thailand (an area known as Issan) along the Mekong River and started helping family with culinary prep work in the dark hours of morning before school at the age of 5. The food would feed the family and be sold at market later that day.
Her husband, Justin Trubiana, an Austin native who met Lakana while volunteering in Thailand after a period in New York City’s financial industry, knew when the couple moved to the United States several years ago that his wife’s cooking, which he had been spoiled by for years, should be shared with people outside of their house.
They opened Dee Dee in March 2016, with Justin working the window and Lakana tending to the food. The truck’s moniker, which is a nod to the couple’s favorite restaurant in Thailand, translates from Thai to “good good.” The name is apt.
Lakana Trubiana prepares all the dishes from scratch inside the impressive kitchen of the handsome black trailer that sits on a lot with La Barbecue, and she cooks the food she’s known since birth. That means wonderful laab moo ($10), a dish full of minced pork that hits you with a sour blast of lime juice and fish sauce before the late arrival of smoky chili powder. You fold the traditional sticky rice around the mixture to ensnare bites and reach for the abundant herbs and cucumber slices for cooling. As with several dishes, you can order the laab moo at one of three levels of spice (I opted for the middle tier).
The heat in Issan cuisine even creeps into dishes that may seem benign, as with the colorful som tom ($9), a jumble of firm shredded papaya, green beans and carrots sweetened with palm sugar and dotted with roasted peanuts and bright cherry tomatoes. The dish comes as a “two-chili baseline,” but the bold can eat it with ten chilies, like Lakana does, and gird themselves for the fiery assault. Even a seemingly tame vegetarian stir fry ($9) that features a bed of perfumed jasmine rice studded with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes and laced with zucchini, snow peas and tender tofu will jump on you with its hidden heat.
Two of my favorite dishes are different plays on pork. The grill caramelizes the glistening edges of the sweet and salty moo ping ($5 for two skewers) that are sadly only served Wednesday through Friday, though I think the Trubianas could make a mint with a downtown street cart serving only moo ping. And the homemade chili paste of the pad ka pow ($10) lends toasty sweetness to a dish colored and calmed with Thai basil and topped with a fried egg. The dish offers layers of complexity that warm your soul even as you go about the cold calculus of discerning all of the varying flavor components.
The good news is I’m only going to get older, so I can expect this mysterious love affair to last a lifetime.