The time was right to write another restaurant blog. My cousin was visiting from the other side of the world, literally, with his family and father-in-law in tow. I was tempted to invite them back to my place for some home-cooked food, which I’m sure they would have appreciated, but they couldn’t have fitted into my jalopy with 200,000 miles accrued. So, I decided on meeting them at a Thai restaurant near their hotel that I had heard about. Located on the busy and tourist-laden 14th St. NW corridor, Baan Thai sits on top of another Thai restaurant. But perusing through its online menu, the dishes hinted of a different direction that most Thai restaurants take with their dishes, a more notably Northern Thai one. So with this in mind, I was looking forward to my taste buds being challenged from their offerings.
Walking into the shotgun-style former row house, I was escorted to the floor above the restaurant level, to the bar/lounge area, perhaps used to serve to accommodate the overflow (glad I made a reservation). We quickly honed on a couple of appetizers. The first was an unfamiliar one to this diner – Pineapple Chicken Bites. The pretty dish arrived with pieces of beautifully carved fruit dressed with cilantro, a curious-looking ball, and a slice of red chili. One bite into it raised my eyebrows. The ball consisted of battered chicken pieces mixed with chopped peanuts and tasting sweet and savory at the same time. The fresh fruitiness of the pineapple echoed the sweetness of the nutty chicken ball and simultaneously added the counterfoil to it. This was an exciting bite to start off the meal. The next small bite was Golden Fried Pockets, also called Money Bags in other Thai joints. The dumplings were well fried and nearly greaseless to the touch. However, the mix, although quite savory, was nothing out of the ordinary and the filling a tad beyond its prime, especially the minced shrimp in the mix exuding a slight off-note. Anyway, it was just ok.
Since my folks were in the mood for food to remind them of home, the first main course was Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin with Shrimp. The dish arrived on a plate, rather than a bowl, with pieces of pumpkin, shrimp, and Thai basil, all sitting on a bare pool of sauce. The pumpkin was not too sweet, more a squash kind, cooked perfectly and tasting savory from having absorbed the sauce flavors, and the shrimp was cooked firm, all brought together by the flavorful and slightly sweet light chili garlic sauce. Things were made more interesting by the fragrant Thai basil and the use of slices of red and green chilies, adding more heat and their vegetal notes. My folks and I quite enjoyed this dish, and its quite fiery heat was warming us up in this cold weather.
The other main course was a nod to the Northern Thai Eesan region that this restaurant takes its inspiration from – Northern Thai Pork Curry. The first spoonful commanded my attention. The large meat pieces were fork tender, tasting moist and replete with an unusual “curry” flavors of fragrant root herbs and chili heat. There was no specific spice or herb flavor that stood out, but the sum of it all produced an inviting je-ne-sais-qoui along with its tempting spice heat. I kept digging at the dish as I could not get enough of its unctuousness. To top it off, the pickled garlic and julienne of young ginger added some more bite and complimentary spikes to this dish. A beautiful Eesan dish indeed.
My cousin’s father-in-law honed in on another Eesan offering. Northern Thailand Pork and Chili Dip was a trio consisting of a mini mortar of minced pork dip, large batons of fried pork, and a traditional Thai basket of steamed sticky rice. The fried pork was quite savory from some seasoning but it was quite dry being it was pieces of loin, I suspect, that was lacking the touch of fat to bring back some moisture to the rather dry bits. This would probably be more appropriate for the North American but not for this Asian who loves a cut like pork belly. The basket of sticky rice was perfectly cooked, albeit lacking any seasoning, but it was the perfect vehicle for the pieces of pork. But it was the pork chili dip that grabbed my attention. It was moist and made alluring by a tinge of sweetness, a blazing heat, and an interesting note that I could only attribute to the dried chili powder used to spice it up. The leaves of lettuce and tomato pieces were the necessary canvas to bring some freshness and relief to this fiery dip, which I kept coming back to. If weren’t for the lean cut of pork in the fried bits, this would have been a home run.
Not all dishes consist of curry or meat, and with this in mind, we had a tough time finding a purely vegetable offering on the menu; perhaps this is a trait of Northern Thai cuisine. Eventually we settled on Stir Fried Glass Noodle with Chicken and Shrimp. The plate came with a melange of bean noodles cooked with Napa cabbage, green onions, Chinese greens, eggs, chicken and shrimp. Although the ingredients were well-cooked with a fermented red bean curd sauce, it was a bit too sweet for all diners at the table. But it provided the necessary relief from the above spicy dishes that were doing a masochistic number on our mouths.
Baan Thai is a breath of fresh air from your usual run-of-the-mill Thai establishment that offers mostly a Bangkok style menu with the usual well-known offerings. What I appreciated here was the unapologetic spiciness and seasoning that whisked the diner to the Northern part of the Southeast Asian country with the authentic offerings like the Pineapple Chicken Bites, the Pumpkin Shrimp, the Pork Curry, and the Northern Thai Pork Chili Dip. The dishes maybe a bit too overwhelming for the average diner, but if you are looking for something challenging yet tasty, beyond the usual Thai offerings, here is the place for your adventurous taste buds.