In the first spoonful of khao soi gai at Baan Thai in Washington D.C., I tasted muscle. Not actual flesh, though chicken stock certainly mingled in the broth of this curry noodle soup native to northern Thailand. I tasted brawn. Someone in the kitchen had pounded the hell out of lemongrass, ginger, fresh turmeric, and other spices to create a curry paste imbued with supernatural strength. It was electrical and alive. It infused every atom in the fiery liquid, layered with a pungent whomp of shrimp paste against the soothing sweetness of coconut milk. Braised chicken rested in a shallow pool of broth atop ropy noodles, garnished with sliced shallots (also an ingredient in the paste) and pickled mustard greens. One spritz of lime quickened every flavor. Fried noodles, a traditional adornment, rose from the far corner of the bowl like a tangle of wintry branches. Every other element of the dish instantly conjured the tropics.
My friend and I took alternate bites, marveling, and showered the server with so many questions that he eventually brought out the chef, Jeeraporn Poksupthong. She patiently fielded our guesses at ingredients ("Yes, there’s cardamom") and offered up a few more insights. She seemed reluctant to disclose all her secrets, but pride twinkled in her eyes.
Baan Thai began as an alternate menu introduced last fall at a Japanese place known as Tsunami Sushi & Lounge. The same owners run a stalwart below it called Thai Tanic that offers the kinds of Americanized diminutions — the mild noodles, the coddling over-creamed curries — served in mass-appeal Thai restaurants for decades. Noticing a shift in tastes among younger generations of restaurant goers, the owners wanted to try an experiment: They enlisted Poksupthong to compose a menu of truer Thai standards, with the stratums of heat and complexity in tact. Word spread and customers soon swooned over chile-blazed sticky tapioca spheres stuffed with ground chicken and cradled in a romaine leaf, or herbaceous green curry bathing fish balls (spiced, ground mackerel) with eggplant and a nest of rice vermicelli. Astounded by the response, the owners officially renamed the restaurant Baan Thai earlier this year.
Washington D.C. is the East Coast epicenter for more genuine-minded Thai cuisine
Boasting Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok empire in Portland, and the street-food pyrotechnics at Kris Yenbamroon’s Night + Market restaurants in Los Angeles, the West Coast can claim most of the credit for slowly shifting the country’s predilections around Thai cooking over the last fifteen years. Washington D.C., though, is the East Coast epicenter for more genuine-minded Thai cuisine. That holds especially true when including its suburb: At Thai Taste by Kob above Silver Spring, Maryland, for example, even the fried rice scorches with chiles and shrimp paste, though folding in a shredded omelet helps mitigate the burn.
In fact, for food lovers not intimate with our capital’s dining scene, the abundance of distinguished Southeast Asian restaurants in general might surprise. Restaurants opened by non-European immigrants have long been an unusually rich part of the mix in D.C. Growing up in Maryland in the eighties, I had my first experience of doro wat scooped by hand with squishy injera at one of the Ethiopian restaurants in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Recently the Asian population has particularly grown throughout the metro area, up by sixty percent in the last decade. The ever-expanding options for faithful renditions of Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and Filipino cuisines cooked by natives as well as non-native devotees reflect it.
To dive in, I headed to the most hyped of the lot: Little Serow, the basement family-style Thai restaurant run by Johnny Monis, whose fine-dining Komi resides upstairs in the same building. Little Serow holds 28 seats and doesn’t take reservations. I was warned to arrive well ahead of its 5:30 p.m. opening time if I wanted a table right away. It turns out that joining the queue at 5:10 didn’t qualify as early enough. "Ooh, we just filled," said the hostess, smiling sympathetically at my two colleagues and me. "We’ll call you when we have your table, but it’s looking like 7:30?"
Right, then: a detour. We grabbed the nearest cab and walked right into Thip Khao, a newcomer that spun off late last year from a Thai restaurant in Falls Church called Bangkok Golden that's often singled out for its auxiliary Lao menu. Thip Khao’s dapper setting (celery walls, dark hardwoods, woven baskets as objet d’art) doesn’t mean the food is diluted. On the contrary: Chef/owner Seng Luangrath, who hails from Laos, turns the flame thrower on her food. The cuisine shares many of the bright, herbal, aggressive qualities of Issan (northern Thai) cooking. Look for the menu that says "Let’s go to the jungle!" for the most extreme pleasures. The papaya salad looked innocent enough, but it went beyond hot: It was arson. Its juicy crunch satisfied against the darker savor of things like laab kai tok (a mix of poultry liver, heart, and skin with rice powder, cilantro, mint, chile, and lime) and awk, a dryer-style curry brambly with mustard greens and dill and loaded with vegetables.
It is a testament to the stamina of the human tastebuds that we could return to Little Serow and still appreciate our meal there. The drink list tempted in several unusual but uniformly successful directions: Rieslings, vermouths, hoppy and sour ales. Snakehead fish with tamarind and shrimp paste lashed out, but not with the venom of Thip Khao. It was easy to see why this place gets so much love. The staff engaged full. The food thrummed with Issan bluster but its highlight flavors stayed distinct and clarion: potent cilantro root added character to tofu; the sunny twang of lemongrass softened the murkiness of catfish. Mild pork ribs soaked in rum-like mekhong whiskey, the signature finale, felt like a relief. Who knew that gnawing on bones could effectively dampen capsicum’s fire?
Overt spice can be found on the Thai and Vietnamese menu at Doi Moi — which, like Baan Thai and Khip Tao, sits on 14th Street, one of D.C.’s most bustling restaurant rows — but the cooking is more restrained, friendlier to a wider audience. Doi Moi’s space revels in textures: white tiles and occasionally colorful ones, grainy woods, pebbly-looking floors. The most notable dishes, too, exulted in texture: fluffy fried rice sweet with crab, toothy sour Issan sausage surrounded by peanuts and cucumber slices, kee mao (stir-fried rice noodles) with a nice chew and a smoky whiff from the wok. Thai dishes leaned slightly stronger than the Vietnamese ones. Cha ca la vong for instance, a fish dish revved with turmeric, dill, fish sauce, and shrimp paste that’s named for a century-old restaurant in Hanoi, needed a silkier sauce and bolder hand with the spices. (For memorable Vietnamese in the metro area, try Rice Paper in Falls Church, Virginia.) Doi Moi certainly does right by vegetarians and vegans, who have a separate menu available on request.
As far as restaurants with mixed-culture menus go, I found brand-new Maketto in the city’s Atlas District more exhilarating. Erik Bruner-Yang made his local and national reputation on the bowls of silky tonkotsu ramen at Toki Underground; for three years he and his partners have been working on a project that houses a restaurant, retail shop, lounge, and coffee shop in one setting. The flow of Maketto’s sleek, Japanese-inspired space encourages lingering, if even just to wander to the second floor to scope out the coffee bar and the most popular design feature: a vending machine with entertainingly random items that include aspirin, black sharpies, phone chargers, cinnamon toothpaste, and magnum condoms.
Despite the many diversions, the food managed to pull focus. Bruner-Yang’s menu combines dishes from Cambodia and his native Taiwan. Pungent Khmer beef sausage hit the table with flaky scallion pancakes and an intriguing oyster omelet with gooey pockets created by arrowroot, a traditional Taiwanese addition that didn’t thrill the texture sensitive at my table. Best were the dishes engineered for sharing — a wagyu bao platter with greens, pickles, and hoisin for stuffing the spongy buns and flavoring the meat and, an early favorite, peppery Taiwanese fried chicken cutlets scattered with peppers and soaked in syrup, with milk bread underneath to absorb all the goodness.
The Southeast Asian culinary culture with the most rapidly emerging profile in D.C. looks to be Filipino.
Maketto’s magnetism is nudging two lesser-known cuisines into the mainstream, but the Southeast Asian culinary culture with the most rapidly emerging profile in D.C. looks to be Filipino. Few prominent restaurants in the U.S. spotlight the cooking of the Philippines; Qui in Austin is one important exception. Filipinos represent the largest Asian populations in Maryland’s Prince Georges and Charles counties that neighbor D.C., and at least five restaurants homing in on Pinoy cooking have recently opened or are in the works.
Among them is Purple Patch, in the eclectic Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which just launched in March. The restaurant slid in a burger and Caesar salad to their repertoire, but Filipino classics dominate the menu. They serve as the gentlest possible introduction to the Philippine’s slow-simmering amalgam of Chinese, colonial Spanish, and indigenous flavors. (The country spans 6,000 islands; pinning down one sweeping definition of its food is untenable.) Start with gratifying lumpia, the cigarillo-thin spring rolls stuffed with pork and beef and served with banana ketchup, a catchall Filipino condiment. Co-owner Patrice Cleary’s Filipino mother makes them for the restaurant. Cane vinegar gave the chicken adobo, arguably the cuisine’s most famous dish, a sweet-and-sour ping that American palates will appreciate. Another easygoing introduction: sinigang, a tender hunk of pork belly over rice in a lemony broth.
I trekked to Alexandria, Virginia, about 20 minutes outside of D.C., for bolder Filipino flavors in an unexpected location: the restored nineteenth-century warehouse that shelters elegant Restaurant Eve. Executive chef Cathal Armstrong owns the restaurant with his Filipino wife, Meshelle, and the couple has been slowly incorporating the foods of her heritage into the New American menu. In January, as an experiment, the kitchen switched solely to Filipino-focused prix fixe for a month. It was enough of a success that an Asian tasting menu is now a standard option.
Mine started with a slate board displaying Filipino surf and turf: a lacquered hunk of pork belly, a radish-strewn hamachi kinilaw zinged with puckery calamansi citrus, and a timbale of rice with a poached egg atop. Then the fiercer flavors: callos, a tripe stew, and a take on dinuguan, one of the more infamous Filipino dishes made with pork blood, here modified by using blood sausage (an Irish favorite, winking to Cathal Armstrong’s background) that pulled back on the funk but still delivered plenty of wallop. Shrimp in feisty Thai green curry traipsed into the mix. A coconut sorbet with rasberry granita and strawberries channeled the Filipino sundae called halo-halo and cooled the senses.
Mastering Eastern culinary traditions without debasing them with Western cleverness takes perception and discipline, but this kitchen seems capable of it. The Armstrongs recently announced they’d be opening an Asian restaurant in Southwest Washington D.C. in the next few years. Their flagship should make for elegant testing grounds in the meanwhile.
Baan Thai: 1326 14th Street NW (2nd floor), Washington, D.C., baanthaidc.com
Little Serow: 1511 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C., littleserow.com
Thip Khao: 3462 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C., (202) 387-5426, thipkhao.com
Doi Moi: 1800 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 733-5131, doimoidc.com
Maketto: 1351 H Street NE, Washington, D.C., (202) 838-9972, maketto1351.com
Purple Patch: 3155 Mount Pleasant Street, Washington, D.C., (202) 299-0022, purplepatchdc.com
Restaurant Eve: 110 South Pitt Street, Alexandria, Virginia, (703) 706-0450, restauranteve.com