Thai Taste

Thai TasteChange usually usurps the comforts of complacency.  In the last few years, my usual go-to Southeast Asian market and my favorite Thai restaurant were casualties of the recent recession, both located within walking distance from each other in Wheaton, MD.  Since then I had been on the search for worthy replacements for both categories.  After many months, I found a grocery store carrying many difficult-to-find ingredients, located a stone throw away from the defunct businesses.  As I left the location, I noticed a newly opened eatery at the end of the parking lot.  Walking in, I asked for a copy of their menu, and after perusing its extensive offerings, I was inspired to pay this eatery quite a number of visits before writing this review.

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Spicy Seafood Pho TaekThai Taste Crispy Spring Rolls

The menu at Thai Taste is a bit of a maze, much like the streets in Bangkok, partly due to the extensive offerings and most dishes listed in the Thai language, in addition to the rather creative and zany English descriptions.  After familiarizing myself with the menu while munching on some peppery and savory complementary Fish/Shrimp Crackers (nice touch) reminding me of Grandma’s, I decided to go with a couple of familiar appetizers.  I started with the Spicy Seafood Pho Taek.   The bowl arrived with pieces of shrimp and squid, bits of bay scallop and a mussel, covered by a clear broth that is akin to Tom Yum with its spicy bite, sour notes from lime juice, fish sauce saltiness, and pungency from root aromatics evidenced by the bits of lemongrass, kafir lime leaves, galangal root, and fragrant basil leaves.  What was lacking in the less-than-inspiring bits of seafood was made up by the full-bodied clear soup that woke up all the taste buds.  An order of the Thai Taste Crispy Spring Roll was out of the ordinary.  Crispy rolls made with an outer shell of rice skin, not the usual wheat flour skin, encased a savory mix of ground chicken, carrot, glass noodles, celery, and a surprising ingredient, taro root, that exuded a smooth sweet note to the whole mix. The light dipping sauce, unlike the usual sweet chili sauce, consisting of fish sauce, lime juice, chili, and garlic provided the complementary notes to these tasty bites. Already, one notices a different direction from the usual coming from this Thai kitchen.

Look Chin Ping - Grilled Meat BallsLucky Bags

Gai Yang - Grilled Marinated ChickenThe menu in this establishment offers many street food dishes, those not usually found in most Thai restaurants. Look Chin Ping is skewered meatballs or fishballs that are grilled or fried, served with a tamarind chili sauce. One bite into it brought me back to the food stalls in front of Cathay movie theater in my homeland during the 70’s.  What made the dish work for me was the pepperyness along with the umami-ness that each bit possessed, balanced by the fruity and spicy tamarind dipping sauce.  Another opener was Lucky Bags.  Pouches of ground chicken mixed with sweet potato were seasoned with curry powder and wrapped in spring roll dough.  I found the fried bags a bit greasy, given that sweet potato easily absorbs some of the oil, and the mix rather interesting but perhaps missing one more element to make this appetizer successful for me.  Another order of Gai Yang peaked my interest.  Pieces of skewered chicken thigh meat came well-marinated and grilled with some burnt marks.  The seasoning permeated each morsel with slight sweet notes (server wouldn’t divulge the seasoning secret), a bit dry but at least not like breast meat, and complemented by a fiery sour sauce made with lime juice and smoky toasted chili flakes.  The meat balls and skewered chicken are definitely street food offerings usually not found in most Thai establishments and they are worth the order here.

Larb Gai - Chicken SaladYum Pla Duk Foo - Fluffy Catfish Salad

On a couple of occasions, I tried the salad dishes.  Larb Gai is a standard found in most Thai establishments.  My order arrived with a heaping mound of ground chicken sitting on lettuce leaves, along with some slices of red onion and some cilantro.  The dish was still warm pointing towards its freshly made nature.  After a few bites and despite my appreciation of it coming straight from the wok, the dish proved a bit of a ho-hum due to the lack of punch in the seasoning which usually consists of lime juice, fish sauce, toasted rice powder, and smoked chili flakes; perhaps, the chef forgot to taste this batch, which could have easily been rectified.  Another day’s order was Yum Pla Duk Foo or Catfish Salad.  When the dish arrived, a mound of brown fried lace was sitting on the green elements waiting to be stirred with the side sauce.  After mixing it, I was wondering where was the fish element.  My server pointed out that the lacy topping was made from finely shaved catfish, which amazed and perplexed me.  I thoroughly enjoyed this popular dish here with the different textures and flavors, aided by some nutty peanuts. some sweet julienned green apple, and a well-balanced chili-laced sour and salty sauce that provided the much-needed flavorings and moisture to the whole mix.

Shrimp Pad ThaiPad Kee Mao - Drunken Noodles

Bangkok NoodlesThai street food denotes dishes that are quick to prepare and fairly complete in its make up, which noodles make a good medium.  The menu lists the ubiquitous Pad Thai “cooked with a tamarind sauce”.  Usually one to avoid this dish which I have found to be pedestrian in most places, the rendition here did not belie its description, being made with the faintly clove-scented fruity tamarind, sweetened with slight molasses-like palm sugar, and the saltiness from fish sauce.  I could not believe that I was inspired by this dish that I pretty much wrote off some time ago due to poorly made versions made with vinegar and sugar; never mind the smaller lunch portion since it was satisfyingly compensated by the wonderfully seasoned and bouncy noodles. Another lunch order was a favorite of mine: Pad Kee Mao or Drunken Noodle.  My dish arrived with some very fresh noodles judging by its slightly firm “bounce” moistened by a slightly sweeter than usual sauce, and studded with bits of different seafood and fishballs cooked with some cherry tomatoes and sweet peppers.  I truly enjoyed this plateful which was hitting the right spots including the chili heat and fragrant basil leaves.  A lunch order on another visit was Bangkok Noodles.   A plate arrived with a melange of egg noodles, cooked vegetables, and a shrimp and crabmeat omelette a la Egg Foo Yong.  It was a bit sloppy but street food is not meant to be overly refined.  What I appreciated in this dish was the well-sauced egg noodles and the omelette despite me not being able to discern the crabmeat in the egg mixture.  But I could imagine someone ordering this noodle dish from a street vendor as part of his daily meal after a hard day’s work.

Chiang Mai NoodlesNam Tok Moo - Floating Market Noodle Soup

Ka Nom Chine - Fish Curry NoodlesFrom the section on noodles with gravy/soup, my server highly recommended Chiang Mai Noodles.  The slanted bowl arrived with disparate elements ready to be mixed together: boiled egg noodles, crispy fried noodles, beansprouts, fried shallots, cilantro, a slice of lime, and chicken drumsticks, all sitting on a pool of chicken curry.  After giving everything a good stir and a squeeze of lime, I took my first bite.  Wow!  The flavor in the curry sauce was the perfect agent to amalgamate the different textures and flavor elements, exuding its spiciness, rich coconut cream base, and a tinge of sweetness, reminding me of Southern Thai Massaman curry.  The pieces of chicken had the curry flavors permeating through the flesh, along with the fall-of-the-bone quality that made them irresistible – I think I just found a new noodle favorite with this discovery.  An order on another occasion was Nam Tok Moo or Floating Market Noodle Soup.  A bowl of wide rice noodle filled with a dark soup was accompanied by fresh herbs, beansprouts, and pork crackling.  The saying is that the broth in a noodle soup makes the dish, and this bowl was no exception with its aromatic and rich soup supported by lean pork, bouncy noodles, fragrant basil leaves, green onions, and the irresistible crackling that took each spoonful to gastronomic stratosphere.  A final order of Ka Nom Chine was unchartered territory for me.  My server brought the deconstructed elements in a separate plate accompanied by a bowl of fish and fishball curry.  After assembling my plate with the wheat/cornstarch noodles, green beans, carrot strands, beansprouts, pickled mustard green, and a boiled egg, I slathered the combination with the curry.  I have to admit that my mind and tongue had a bit of a hard time wrapping themselves around this new dish with the cold noodles and raw elements trying to find marriage with the hot spicy curry.  But I quickly fell for the curry with the fish flesh finely shredded in the fiery gravy exuding strong notes of kafir lime leaf and Thai rhizome.

Thai Taste Duck and Crispy BasilPad Ped Pla Dook - Spicy Catfish

Kao Ka Moo - 5-Spice Powder Pork Leg StewA couple of spicy main dishes made up dinner on a visit.  The first was Thai Taste Duck and Crispy Basil.  The dish arrived looking a bit sloppy with sliced battered duck pieces topped with a copious amount of deep-fried basil, along with some boiled vegetables under a blanket of sweet and spicy sauce.  Never mind the lack of finesse in this dish; what made it up was the duck that impressed me with the five-spice powder aroma permeating the fairly moist dark meat, coated by a well-seasoned light and nearly grease-less crispy batter that tempted me to eat every morsel of its crunchy goodness (I can’t – on a mini diet here).  The other dish was Pad Ped Pla Duk or Spicy Fried Catfish.  My dining companion decided to order it ped or spicy, and one bite into his dish, he broke out into a sweat.  Beyond the spicy heat, I could discern the sauce that was replete with root aromatics, further made flavorful with green peppercorns and Thai rhizome that lent its je-ne-sais-quoi appealing element.  The pieces of catfish were crispy on the outside but still moist and clean-flavored inside.  Sorry buddy, Ped in the title means no compromise in its spice level, at least not in this kitchen.  Another order of Kao Ka Moo comprised of pork leg stewed in a dark aromatic sauce.  Yes, there was quite a bit of fat with each piece of meat, but that comes with the territory with this cut of meat.  The pieces were extremely tender after being cooked in the mouth sticky broth tasting of five-spice powder with pieces of pickled mustard green.  Again, this dish pointed towards its origin either from the home kitchen or street vendor.  The side chili sauce was the perfect spicy acid relief with its fresh chili notes mixed with some garlic, vinegar, and ginger – I could have eaten the whole amount if weren’t for the chili heat.

Pad Khing - Chicken Ginger in Bean Sauce

Pad Ma Kuea - Eggplant with Crispy PorkNot all Thai offerings are on the singe-the-tongue level. A few mild ones on the menu were quite memorable.  Pad Khing is a stir fry that consists of onions, mushroom, carrot, green onions, Chinese fungus, green chilies, red bell pepper, along the choice of meat or seafood. The version here was a savory one with a full-bodied sauce spiked with some young ginger that added quite a bit of bite to each mouthful.  Another dish worth considering is Pad Ma Kuea.  Pieces of Chinese eggplant were perfectly cooked, without being mushy, along with onion, green chili, red bell pepper and basil leaves, moistened by a savory bean sauce.  This mixture was very appealing due to the skillful cooking and wonderful sauce, made even more luscious by the pieces of crispy belly pork that was the choice protein of my dining companion.  This dish hit all the notes for my friend especially the crispy pork for which he has a strong penchant.

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Mango Sticky Rice

Taro Egg CustardEnough of the savories – time for the sweets.   A must-order, and a litmus test for a Thai eatery, is Mango Sticky Rice.  The glutinous rice was fragrant and rich from the use of coconut cream in the steaming process, nearly as good as my favorite rendition from another Thai establishment.  However, since it was not peak season for mango, as the fruit was not soft and it lacked the necessary sweetness to match the rich grains.  The sprinkling of toasted coconut on top added more of the nutty notes, although I felt the dish could have done without this extra element.  The other sweet offering was Taro Custard.  The small cake was creamy rich and slightly nutty from the use of coconut cream, with a soft mash potato-like texture that spoke of the taro root used in the mix.  I love this stuff and the version here was not short in any of the categories – a wonderful (slightly) sweet ending indeed.

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Thai TasteWhew, that was quite an extensive menu and I had to pay many trips to Thai Taste to get a good feel of its kitchen.  It is a small place with only 11 tables available with only a small window for natural light.  The place does get quite loud with Thai pop music pumping through the sound system, but the ambience is only befitting of the street food dishes on its menu.  What the restaurant impressed me most besides the breadth of the menu, were the consistently well-executed and well-seasoned dishes, in addition to the uncompromising qualities evidenced by the chili heat levels and the authentic use of ingredients (tamarind, pickled mustard green) which some shy away from.  What also makes this establishment stand out from its peers (one located just next door and the other across the road) besides the above, is the unique offerings that would whisk anyone away to that Southeast Asian environment renown for its alluring cuisine.  No surprise that I could hear the Thai language coming out from most customers’ mouth, this being a reassuring note for this reviewer and gourmand.  Yes, with a number of Thai restaurants around the area and a few already on my blog site, this place was well worth writing about, and it sits very high on my list as of today.

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Bangkok 54

You can say that I have had my fair share of Thai food in my lifetime.  Having spent the earlier part of my childhood growing up south of the border (Thailand’s, that is), I was introduced to this exotic Southeast Asian cuisine at a very early age.  Although it resembles my home cuisine in many ways, there are distinctive differences that I learned to discern and appreciate with time.   During my early days, Thai restaurants were still quite rare even though I was growing up in that region of the world.

These days, you could not stroll down a few blocks of a metropolis without coming across at least one Thai restaurant.  In the Dupont Circle area of DC, you can find at least 4 of these restaurants within a quarter-mile radius.  A stone throw away in Arlington, VA, I could drive down Columbia Pike and hit at least 3 of them within three minutes.  When I was living in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, there was at least one Thai restaurant in every corner of its downtown area, and nearly the same density in some rather affluent suburbs.  As the saying goes, you could not avoid them like the plague.

So, with the abundance of this Southeast Asian cuisine in the Washington DC area, how does one know if the restaurant is serving authentic and good eats, and is worth visiting?  I would say that the answer lies in the fine details and in the gestalt, the totality of the dining experience.

Bangkok 54 Decor

Bangkok 54 is one of those locales on that 3-restaurant strip in Arlington.  It has been around for quite a few years and over time I have dropped in there a number of times.  The business was originally a Thai market that sold delicious home-prepared foods to its customers.  In time, it bought over its neighboring lot and renovated it into a swanky Thai bistro.  It was one of the first Thai restaurants that I could recall having a modern interior while serving authentically based food – you can find both classic dishes, along with some updated versions of Thai traditional fare.  Being a bit of a purist, I decided to taste a myriad of typical dishes and evaluate them as the barometer of its kitchen’s cooking.

Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup 2
A good measure of a Thai kitchen is its rendition of the classic hot and sour soup, or Tom Yum.  Although it is a strong-tasting and aromatic soup, there are some finer points to a well-made bowl.  The secret is in the broth that is spiked with citrus lemongrass, rooty and camphor-like galangal, aromatic kaffir lime leaf, biting chili paste, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, and the addition of a bit of sugar to round of the disparate elements.  The restaurant’s version does some justice to this well-known soup that is filled with plump sweet large shrimp and floating pieces of button mushroom.  The floating chili oil slick on its surface attests to the spice level that the kitchen does not seem to shy away from – Peht, as they say.

Minced Chicken Salad
On one visit, I decided to order a couple of appetizers as my main course.  Larb is a minced chicken salad that has been seasoned by lime juice, fish sauce, red onions, and roasted chili flakes, with a faint hint of sesame oil and served on a bed of lettuce.  It has quite a fiery bite that is tempered by the sauce and the cool lettuce that serves as its edible bowl.  This is not your mother’s chicken salad as it will take you to another place and taste level with its unequivocably strong flavors.  Love it.

Bean Noodle Salad
Yum Woon Sen was the other partner in crime.  It is a shrimp, chicken, and beanthread noodle salad that has been seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, red onions, and fresh red chilis.  The pieces of chicken were more moist than the previous appetizer, and the beanthread noodle provided a textural difference while having absorbed all the yummy pungent sauce.    I could not help but slurp down all the flavorful noodles with pure satisfaction.

Pad Kee Mao/Drunken Noodles
On a recent visit, I decided to order a couple of standard entrées.  On my way out on my previous visit, I had spied on a noodle dish that was coming out of the kitchen, which made me vow to order it on the next visit.  Pad Kee Mao, or the well-known Drunken Noodles, is one of my all-time favorites and it is a must-order when I eat Thai, especially for weekend lunch.  This kitchen’s rendition comes with a choice of different meats or seafood, and I decided to go full gusto – I went for the seafood combination.  The plate arrived with glossy wide rice noodles that have been well-coated with its slightly sweet brown sauce without any excess grease pooled on the plate, with large chunks of tender squid, shrimp and huge sweet scallops barely hanging on to the noodles as if they are about to roll off a mountain – this was truly a seafood delight.  I relished every strand of noodle with the obligatory splash of vinegared green chili condiment that came in a flourescent-red basket.   I was in noodle heaven.

Pad Phrik Khing
Pad Phrik Khing is a dish of few ingredients, comprised of a choice meat, fresh green beans and a complex spice mix that makes the dish distinctive.  The flavor base is made from various roots like lemongrass and galangal, spices like cumin and coriander seeds, and aromatics like Kaffir lime leaves.  The dish that I ordered came with large pieces of moist pork, fresh turgid green beans, and a fiery and tasty sauce that pulls the ingredients together.  The use of a bit of sugar not only ties in the different flavors  but also tempers the spice mix that comes close to overpowering the dish.  It is well-cooked but I missed the garnish of thin slivers of fresh Kaffir lime leaves that adds that extra flavor oomph, which I have tasted in other places.  However, that did not stop me from spooning all the tasty sauce onto my bowl of fragrant jasmine rice.

During my meal, I could not help but constantly eye at the dishes served at the next table over from mine.  One of them was a bright orange Butternut Squash in Red Curry, which consisted of a large round of the sweet gourd smothered with a rich coconut-milk based fiery red sauce.  Judging by the effusive complements from the lucky recipients, this is going to be on my order list for the next visit.

The menu here is extensive and covers a wide variety of Thai classics of rice, meat, vegetables, and seafood dishes.  There is also a fairly large vegetarian menu that most Thai restaurants feel obligated to offer as respect for their Buddhist tradition.  What sets the dining experience in Bangkok 54 apart from others is the skillful cooking of its dishes (which one can view into the open kitchen), the fine details in its dish presentation and efficient service (including the waitresses’ neatly pressed modern outfits), and the relaxed yet sophisticated well-decorated ambience (large flower sculpture friezes, recessed Buddha statues, deities, and traditional figurines) that allows the diner to relish on along with some good eats.   Just like its market that has survived this recession while other area Thai markets have folded-up, Bangkok 54 seems to have the recipe for success, and it will be around for some time to ingratiate more hungry mouths with its offering of this wonderful Southeast Asian cuisine.

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