Aroy Thai

 

Aroy ThaiWith quite a few blogs on Thai cuisine on my site, it is hard to justify writing another one on this Southeast Asian cuisine.  However, when I heard that there was a new restaurant not far from my neighborhood serving this Asian cuisine, I knew I had to check it out after getting over my initial surprise  (“What? In Prince George’s county?”)  Reading my previous blog on another Thai establishment (see blog), you sense my frustration that my county is not as “blessed” as the neighboring ones when it comes to international cuisine, especially Thai.  Furthermore, it is located in the heart of College Park, MD  (aka Party Town) which is known for mediocre cheap eats,  drinking holes, and rambunctious fraternities – I graduated from there more than 20 years ago, so I know.  With these thoughts in mind, I knew I had to check this new place out and see whether the positive online reviews (100% on one site) were written by reviewers in a sober state.

Located just off the main drag Route 1,  Aroy is squeezed into a narrow building in a short block lined with metered parking on both sides of the street. The window is displayed with plastic rendition of their dishes that brings to mind Japanese sushi models popular in the 90’s.  Walking into the narrow building, you notice that it is a small 7-table establishment with a counter separating the dining room from the kitchen.  The bright orange walls and the long wood banquette makes the place welcoming and warm.  Having a lifetime experience with this cuisine since I was a child, I recognized many dishes on the menu and I decided to check-out their offerings by ordering some standard dishes.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Tom Yum GaiAs part of their lunch menu, the main dishes come with Thai Spring Rolls or Tom Yum Chicken Soup.  I must say I did not expect much from these appetizers since they were part of the lunch deal, but I was proven wrong.  The spring rolls were crispy and nearly greaseless, light from the thin wrapper, and delicious from a filling made with bean thread noodle, fine cabbage, and a surprisingly flavorful ingredient, oaky shiitake mushrooms, which elevated these bites to another level beyond its pedestrian flavor.  The soup was unexpected for me also.  Instead of an insipid sip, it was flavor packed with aromatics like lemongrass, and balanced with enough chili heat, lime tartness, fish sauce saltiness, and sweet from a pinch of sugar.  The bowl had a fair amount of mushrooms, tomatoes, and slivers of chicken breast to make it quite satisfying.  A good start to the meal, indeed.

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Larb Gai/Spicy Chicken Salad

Green Papaya Salad/Som TumOn a couple of occasions, I decided to try out their traditional salads.  The first was Larb Gai.  Pieces of minced chicken are paired with sweet onions, roasted chili powder, toasted rice powder, and moistened with lime juice, fish sauce, and a hint of sugar.  This was a delicious spicy salad with the chili powder and rice powder adding a level of smokiness and heat to the sour, salty and sweet flavors of this warm bite.  If it weren’t for a couple of sinewy pieces of chicken, this would have been flawless.  The other salad was Som Tum, or Green Papaya Salad.  Thin julienned strands of the young fruit are paired with carrot, tomato, and green beans, flavored by a sauce made of fish sauce, lime juice, and fresh chilies.  What I enjoyed about the dish is the freshness of the ingredients and the balance of the bold flavors as well as the assertive spice heat – the kitchen is not holding back here.  The whole peanuts in the dish added a rich nuttiness that balanced out some of the acidity in the dish.  This was refreshing for me despite the fieriness of the chili heat – definitely, very close to Ped (Thai chili hot).

Sate Chicken

Another appetizer that is a good litmus test of a Thai kitchen is its rendition of Sate Chicken.  This restaurant’s version was out of the ordinary and it definitely wowed me.  Unlike many versions that I have eaten before, here the pieces of chicken were well marinated in turmeric and root aromatics like galangal making each moist piece full of flavor and aromatic, enough to stand by itself.  The accompanying sauce was also revelatory.  Most restaurants serve a bland version made with peanut butter but here, I tasted a version made with crushed peanuts, root aromatics, palm sugar as the sweetener, and tamarind juice as the sour element, an authentic sauce that I have tasted on the other side of the world.  The toasted pieces of bread were the perfect vehicle to mop up the sauce to its last drop.  The bowl of sweet pickles was probably a bit too fresh and they could have done with a longer pickling.  But that was very minor compared to the main players of this opening dish.  Yummm!

Pad See YuPad Kee Mao/Drunken Noodles

Noodle dishes seem to be calling my name every time I visit a Thai restaurant and I had to sample their offerings.  A friend’s order of Pad See Euw was his lunch on one occasion.  The wide pieces of rice noodles were slightly bouncy fresh and adequately sauced without being drowned by it, tasting savory from Thai soy and quite sweet that made each bite irresistible.  The crunchy broccoli, moist chicken slices, and wispy clouds of egg added the necessary tasty elements to the dish, which made this version pleasurable for my friend.  My order of Pad Kee Mao, or Drunken Noodle, was totally up my alley.  The wide noodles were fresh and not oily, adequately covered by a savory sauce (which remains a secret enigma to me to this day), mixed with slightly crunchy sweet peppers and onion strips, fragrant fresh purple basil, biting fresh bird chilies, moist meat, and pieces of sweet tomato.  This was an damn good version of my favorite Thai noodle dish, and it hit the right spots for me.

Thai Shrimp Fried Rice

Very few fried rice dishes impress me these days but my friend’s order here was something else.  The fresh tasting rice was cooked with bits of slightly crunchy carrot bits, sweet white onions, juicy tomato, topped with perfectly cooked shrimp, pungent green onions, bits of scrambled eggs, and served with fresh cucumber slices.  But what ties these disparate elements together is the flavoring added to the mixture, made from Thai soy sauce, containing a je-ne-sai-quoi added to regular soy, and a hint of fish sauce.  Despite being engrossed in my delicious noodle dish I couldn’t help but spoon from his rice place and enjoy the flavor profile of this dish.  When it is done right, this dish sings in the mouth, and it did in this case.

Green CurryRed Curry

No meal in a Thai restaurant would be complete without ordering a curry dish, or a couple of them.  On one visit, I ordered the Green Curry.  My bowl arrived with lean pork, Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, sweet peppers, and purple basil.  Being a curry dish, the main player is the curry sauce, and this version was outstanding for me.  It had a slight peppery quality with a vegetal green chili fragrance, made more aromatic with root herbs and the basil.  But the cooking of the curry paste with fresh tasting coconut milk resulted in a well amalgamated mixture that stands out from other versions.  It was slightly sweet which points to the Thai sensibility for this seasoning as integral to the authentic palate.  Another visit’s order of the Red Curry was equally superb with the same ingredients as the above dish with exception of the curry paste.  The sauce was a bit more fiery with the use of red chilies in the paste with a darker leaf aroma from the use of Kaffir lime leaf – the evidence of a soften leaf points to adequate cooking to render all its flavor into the sauce.  I was again impressed by the skillful cooking that gave the curry a magical quality that I have not experienced often with this dish.

Mango and Sticky Rice

Fried Bananas with HoneyAlthough the sweet offerings here are sparse, I had to give them a try since they were some of my favorites.  The Fried Bananas came as mini spring rolls stuffed with pieces of banana, and topped with some honey and toasted sesame seeds.  The dough was fried crispy and nearly greaseless, encasing a filling of soft sweet banana, made even sweeter by the honey and fragrant from the sesame seeds.  An order of Mango and Sticky Rice was a special on another visit.  After getting a confirmation from the cook that the mangoes were prime and sweet, I received a plate with pieces in such heavenly state.  The side of sticky glutinous rice topped with coconut cream was an equal partner to the ripe fruit.  It had enough saltiness to match the sweet fruit and rich from some quality coconut crème made nutty from a topping of fried mung beans, an addition that wavers from the usual sesame seeds.  What impressed me the most of this dish was the rice, which was perfectly cooked and matched in seasoning and creaminess.  I know how tricky it is to cook this grain well, and that is why most restaurants can’t get it right.  However, this is the best rendition (yes!) of this dessert I have ever tasted, and its delicious ghost aftertaste still haunts my taste buds.

Something good is going on here, especially in that small kitchen: woodsy shiitake mushrooms in perfectly wrapped spring rolls, well-seasoned Tom Yum soup, fiery and smoky chicken salad, spicy and nutty papaya salad, the well-marinated Sate chicken and irresistible sauce, perfectly seasoned noodles with barely a trace of oil,  savory fried rice that puts all others to shame, curries with an aromatic sauce perfectly balanced with quality coconut milk and paired with fragrant jasmine rice, the best sticky rice ever tasted along with sweet ripe mangoes, and sweet soft bananas encased in sticky crispy dough.  Looking at the photos that I took, you see an undivided attention given to each dish even in the simple garnishes on the plate.  In Korean, this is called “hand flavor” which is indescribable but only can be felt or tasted.  Well, this place sure has it, and when I am this inspired, I want to get a glimpse of Mrs. Chef in the kitchen.  One day I hope to personally thank her for such skillful cooking.  This place is most definitely Aroy! (Tasty!)

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Ruan Thai

Ruan Thai 019.jpgRuan Thai was really not on my radar that day.  Initially, I was going to review a Japanese ramen-noodle house a couple of doors away.  I decided to meet up with my college-mate who lives around the corner for lunch on Easter Monday when we teachers are granted this rare weekday respite (slave labor here).   Upon entering the noodle house, it appeared empty and I asked the young host if I could sit near the window for some good photos.  He was very amenable and I plunked myself at my table of choice.   While I was testing the camera’s settings with a test shot of the tableware, I heard a knock on the table.  There was Mr. Chef staring me down and asking why was I taking a picture.  I explained my purpose of visiting his eatery with my equipment, but he denied me permission to use my baby Nikon – two run-ins now with Mr. Chef’s over photos in the course of two days (see last blog – Ristorante Piccolo).  I packed my stuff up and quickly bolted out of there – I refuse to write a blog without a single visual representation.  No photo, no food, no blog!

I walked out feeling incredulous that a restaurant would not want some free publicity.  Looking around and waiting for my ambling friend, I noticed Ruan Thai, a place mentioned by another friend about his foray into this Southeast Asian eatery as a Thai virgin (foodwise, that is).   When my buddy arrived, I told him of the incident and we made our entrance into our chosen place.  Even though I have already reviewed 3 Thai eateries, the demise of my favorite Thai restaurant around the corner has spurred me to find a decent and veritable replacement.  And I am glad that fate has pointed me to Ruan Thai, and I paid it a couple of visits to write this review.

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062.jpgTo start the meal off, I decided to order a couple of traditional appetizers.  Kanum Jeeb are steamed dumplings with a ground chicken and crabmeat stuffing.  The filling was rather bland and the wrapping a bit understeamed.  But the thick caramelized soy sauce brought these small bites to life with its sweet and salty flavors – I find that most Thai appetizers are underseasoned  in order to allow the accompanying sauces to play a vital role in the dish.  The next opener was Peek Kai Yud Sai which are deep-fried chicken wings that are stuffed with a filling of chicken, crabmeat, Chinese black mushroom, and spring onions.   The filling here had more flavor and the tempura-like batter provided the contrasting crunch to the moist stuffing.  The  sweet and spicy sauce added another interesting note to one of my favorite Thai appetizers, which are not often found in many eateries these days.  It did bring up memories of the version served by my favorite eatery before its closing.

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On another visit, some friends and I decided to try out their soups.  Gang Jued Woon Sen is a clear chicken broth filled with minced pork or chicken, slippery beanthread noodles, crunchy wood fungus, and fragrant spring onions.  I had a taste from my friend’s bowl and I really enjoyed a couple of spoonfuls.  What elevates this soup is the use of the dried salted vegetable that adds a salty and slightly crunchy element to this simple soup.  For my order, I had a classic – Tom Kha.  It is a rich coconut milk soup spiked with chili paste, lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaf, cooked with shrimp and straw mushrooms, and lifted by a sour hit of fresh lime juice.  This is a true study of contrast with the rich coconut against the sour citrus, the strong flavored spices and aromatics against the mild shrimp and mushrooms. Love the soup offerings here.

066.jpgOne of the strong suits in a Thai restaurant is the curry that it serves, and I decided to try out the Green Curry.  My dish came with slivers of pork, crunchy bamboo shoots,  not-to-soft asian eggplant, fragrant basil leaves, crunchy sweet peppers, all in a spicy, slightly sweet and coconut-rich green curry that exuded a complex flavor profile. The dish would have been perfect if the pork had not been overcooked, thus its slight toughness – Asian restaurants tend to do this with this meat, perhaps a common practice on the other side of the globe.  However, I enjoyed its rich tastiness with the fluffy jasmine rice which made the perfect foil.

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My eating companion’s entrée was Pla Pad Ped, which is fried catfish bites in a spicy red chilli sauce along with sweet peppers, basil leaves, and julienned rhizome.  The fish pieces were slightly crispy, the sauce real ped (fiery), while the basil leaves provided the fragrant relief from the heat, and the julienned rhizome an interesting je-ne-sais-quoi note to the sauce, akin to mild ginger.  Even though my friend was comparing it to the version from our defunct favorite joint, he seemed pretty pleased with this rendition, and the searing heat was totally up his alley, which is a far cry from his earlier virgin days when he was intolerant of such spiciness.

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Ruan Thai 013.jpgOn my second visit, I ordered Gai Yang Som Tum as my main course.  It is a grilled young chicken that has been marinated in coconut milk and fragrant spices like coriander root (stronger than the leaves themselves) and pungent black pepper.  This is a Northeast Thailand dish that is not commonly served in the restaurants, and I’m glad that this eatery had offers it as one of its specials.  The chicken was moist and fragrant from the marinade, covered by the skin made crispy from the grilling.  Accompanying the chicken were the customary sides of steamed sticky rice that came in traditional rice basket (keep it in the container or not it will dry out quickly), and a Green Papaya Salad.  The salad was a hit with its slighty crunchiness, the sweet and sour lime juice dressing, the briny dried shrimps, and the nutty crushed peanuts – a perfectly balanced salad that complemented and rounded-off the chicken dish.  A great offering, indeed.

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Another friend’s order one night was Ped Tod Kob, a half duck that has been marinated in aromatics and fried crispy.  It was fragrant from the use of the complex 5-spice powder, flesh still quite moist, and the skin properly rendered from its fat and made crispy from the frying.  The sweet 5-spice infused sauce added the necessary moisture and flavor to the duck meat.  Even a mate who finds duck quite unappealing said that the skin was nearly devoid of the fat and he found it quite palatable.

Ruan Thai offers many classic dishes that are commonly found in most restaurants.  What sets it apart from the others are the not-so-common offerings like the stuffed chicken wings and the Isaan grilled marinated chicken.  Whether the dish is easily recognizable or a new discovery for the eater, the kitchen does a good job providing authentic flavors and it delivers in its tasty offerings.   So far, it is nearly tops in my search for a replacement for my favorite Thai restaurant.  I see myself making future visits to sample more of this kitchen’s wonderful cooking.

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