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Jun 5, 2008 11:12 PM

Looking for authentic Thai food

I'm coming to the DC for a conference and will be meeting up with a friend who lives in good-food deprived southern England.

We both lived in LA (I still do), home to a large Thai community, and we are looking for the closest we can get to authentic Thai food in DC, ie not too watered down, sweet and insufficiently spicy.

Thanks for any recommendations you might have!

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  1. Thai Square, Nava Thai and Ruan Thai are in my rotation. Bangkok 54 used to be top notch but we haven't been in a long while.

    19 Replies
    1. re: deangold

      Nava Thai & Ruan Thai are about 2 blocks apart in Wheaton, Maryland, and both are accessible by Metro (Red line), though it's a bit of a trip from downtown. Thai Square is in south Arlington, certainly closer to downtown DC, but not convenient to Metro.

      1. re: potrzebie

        Thai Square is my default authentic Thai place, but as potrzebie notes, it's not convenient to Metro and thus might not be good for someone who's downtown for a conference.

        If you don't have a car, you can also try Kanlaya in Gallery Place/Chinatown--it was Americanized on my first trip there, but my last two visits have (with the help of some Thai phrases thrown in the ordering) produced credibly authentic dishes.

        Rumor mill has it that Thai X-ing, also Metro accessible and in the city, is also the real deal, but logistics (it's only open for dinner, and it's basically one guy who cooks everything from scratch once you order, meaning it can take quite a while to get the food) have prevented me from trying it yet. I'm going to try to fit it into my schedule again tomorrow, though...

        1. re: sweth

          I used to live on Columbia Pike, just a bit East of Thai Square/Bangkok 54. There is a very convenient bus from Pentagon City to head up the Pike. Very short ride. Check Metro's site.

          1. re: Dennis S

            Just what I was gonna say... just a year too late, lol. I used to live right near thai square, and that bus was how i got home. It runs very often, and stops right across the street at the mcdonald's

          2. re: sweth

            OK, I finally tried Thai X-ing on Saturday. Got there at 4pm, when I had heard they opened; there was a hispanic guy there who said to come back at 5. I came back a little after 5, to find Taw (the owner/chef) chatting with two patrons; before I could really talk to him, though, he slipped into the kitchen to start cooking. A young lady came out to take my order; I explained that I was looking for authentic Thai food, and asked for suggestions for what they did best, but she admitted that she didn't really know the menu or Thai food very well. She passed my request on to Taw, who apparently suggested pad kee mao (drunken noodles), so I went with that, as well as a khao pad. At nearly 6pm, I got my food (I had been forewarned about the delays, so I brought a book); since the restaurant was pretty packed by this time (this place is TINY--there's a small table for four, three other chairs with two TV-tray-style tables to use, and two other chairs by a computer where you can check email while waiting), I went out to my car to eat (which is probably closer to the experience I remember of eating khao pad on the street in Bangkok while inhaling diesel fumes anyway).

            And the verdict... the food was good, but far from great, and nowhere near as good as you can get in BKK. In particular, while the flavors were complex and layered, they were also very mild--I had even asked for Thai spicy for the pad kee mao, and what I got was nowhere near even typical Americanized Thai spicy. The fried rice was similar--it was more of a wet, sweet fried rice w/ a lot of fruit, rather than the kind that I got used to in BKK. The issue might be a regional one--I read that he's from southern Thailand--and I may not have tried the best dishes there--I've since been told that I should have tried one of the curry dishes--but given how hard it is to get food from there and that I'm much closer to Thai Square, I don't think I'll be in a hurry to return to try it out again.

            1. re: sweth

              sweth, maybe you know my addiction to pad kee mao, and my search for the ultimate one (to compare with that i used to get regularly at pan asian noodle house on vermont avenue (near k) years back).

              questions: did they use ground or sliced chicken? did they give a good wok char on the noodles?

              oh i long for that dish from pan asian. does anyone else recall that dish, resto? know where the proprieters went after closing?

              1. re: alkapal

                Sliced chicken, no char.

                I recall Pan Asian, although I remember it being closer to Dupont than to Vermont Ave/McPherson Square. There was also Oodles Noodles, which was a little closer to that Vermont Ave area you're talking about; if that's what you mean, I believe that's what became Nooshi (after they added sushi to the menu: Nooshi = Noodles + Sushi).

                I've heard (but not tried) that Singapore Bistro, on the same block as Nooshi IIRC, has the sort of kee mao that you're looking for (ground chicken + charred noodles).

                1. re: sweth

                  there were 2 pan asians. one on p and one on vermont. the one on vermont was first. and the one on p street outlasted that one.

                  no wok char? no good! sliced but not ground, i won't disqualify, but it ain't pan asian noodle house.

                  btw, oodles noodles could not hold a candle to pan asian. gosh! i miss that place!!

                  now, you have got me on a new mission. singapore bistro?
                  edit: sb is on 19th, and it uses PINEAPPLE in drunken noodles. scratch!
                  is it redeemable?
                  i mean if they've got the wok char, there may be sumpin' happenin')

                  1. re: alkapal

                    IIRC, SB is where Star of Siam's downtown location was until about 6 years ago.

                    why is it so hard to find ground chicken? grinder cleaning issues?

                    1. re: hill food

                      hmmm. good point. otoh, it really is a fine mince, which is done with larb, for example.

                      1. re: alkapal

                        FWIW never try to introduce your mother to Thai by way of Larb described as Chicken Salad...

                        1. re: hill food

                          oh yeah, that might be a *little* surprising! ;-)

              2. re: sweth

                Sorry you didn't get to try my recs - tofu soup, red curry salmon, and pad kana. Almost everyone knows about the salmon by now - was featured in the City Paper article surely posted in the restaurant. The salmon is one of the best dishes I've ever had. But you can go wrong here - pad thai is truly awful. I would stay way from the noodles, personally. Also not the place I would go looking for spicy - probably Bangkok 54 is more reliably hot.

          3. re: deangold

            Thai Square is my favorite. I ate at Bangkok 54 last week and it is still good, but they are a bit trendier. At Thai Square the only focus is the food.
            If you're visiting DC though I would suggest checking out some of the great Vietnamese places at Eden Center in Falls Church. Northern VA has some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the US.

            1. re: jchaojareon

              We went to Thai Square for the first time last night. Fantastic! In fact, so good that we'll be eating less Thai food from now on. That apparent contradiction is easy to explain: Thai Square isn't particularly convenient to our home, but we can't imagine patronizing our more local Thai restaurants any longer.

              Kate was our server and she was pleasant, patient, and committed to making our meal a successful one. We explained that we wanted authentic Thai food, but we didn't want Thai-hot. (As an aside, we'll be visiting Thailand later this year. In preparation for the trip, I've been reading the appropriate Chow board. Most of the posters there focus on Thai-hot food and brag about the meals so spicy that they went deaf for a brief time. You're welcome to make fun of me, but eating with the objective of going deaf isn't one of my life's goals.)

              At Thai Square, we ate the warm seafood salad, crispy squid with basil, Chinese broccoli with crispy pork, and yellow curry.

              The seafood salad offered the most heat, but it wasn't so spicy that the chili obliterated the complex play of flavors. The crisp iceberg lettuce was a lovely counter point to the warmth -- both literal and spice-wise -- of the mixed seafood and the sauce.

              Kate explained that the crispy squid is a Thai Square invention. A dish combining some protein with crispy basil is authentic, but, in Thailand, choices of protein would not include squid. What we loved about this dish is the fact that the sweetness was a mere suggestion, never dominating the rest of the flavors. Give me a bracing squirt of lime any day in preference to sweet with meat!

              The yellow curry was a delight for the complexity of the flavors in the sauce. Huge chunks of chicken were moist and tender. The ratio of meat to sauce is light on the chicken, but the sauce is so delicious and the other dishes are so generous, that we wouldn't hesitate to order this again. We were more than content to spoon the abundant sauce over rice.

              The Chinese Broccoli with Crispy Pork was our biggest surprise and delight. I think the broccoli was ang choy, a Chinese green we first fell in love with in China and is difficult to find here. (Mark's Duck serves ang choy, although I'm not sure it's on the menu.) When ang choy is cooked to the crisp-tender stage, as was done last night, this is a lovely vegetable. The greens were loaded with garlic and studded with nuggets of crispy pork. When we ordered, we had some concern that we were duplicating the preparation of the squid and the pork with two "crispy" preparations. The two preps are quite dissimilar. The squid is lightly battered and wok (?) fried. The pork consists of 1/2 inch pyramids of pork skin, fat, and the tiniest morsel of meat that have been flash fried until they're quite crispy. The meat is the tip of the pyramid shape. The dish is primarily a vegetable dish; the nuggets of pork are added for flavoring. I, who have a thing -- and not in a good way -- about fat freaked when I realized what was in the dish. However, the preparation was so skillful and the taste was so delicious that I kept eating. For the first time, I could understand Anthony Bourdain's habitual rhapsodizing over the interplay of crispy skin, fat and meat. (Now, if only Hong Kong Palace could learn to prepare its fatty meat in the Twice-Cooked Pork as skillfully...)

              To go back to an earlier comment... When Kate heard my husband wonder if the two crispy dishes would be duplicative, she offered to serve us just the Chinese broccoli without the pork. Obviously, we decided to go with the pork version, and we're glad we did. Still, I share this bit of information in case someone just can't deal with the prospect of eating any pork skin and fat.

              1. re: Indy 67

                Thanks for the great report. The crispy squid and the yellow curry now top my list things I must try - i've already had the others.

                1. re: Steve

                  The thai restaurant in courthouse (name is slipping my mind) has great chinese broccoli in their pad tofu j..... It made me a chinese broccoli addict....

                  1. re: kubasd

                    Maybe you are thinking of Sawatdee?

                    1. re: Steve

                      yes. and their drunken noodles aren't bad at all -- not at all! a good lunch value, too!

          4. Thanks everyone. Looks like we'll be doing a little field trip.

            1 Reply
            1. re: dergrosseludwig

              Most of the above advice is on point: Nava Thai is probably the most authentic; Ruan Thai is great, too; and Thai X-ing has some of the best dishes in DC (but you must plan a bit in advance for your dinner). Bangkok Garden in Bethesda has a Thai language menu that is also very good; but I've barely begun to explore it.

              Thai Square has been great in the past; but there have been very mixed reports of late.

            2. I know you said DC but for others there is a pretty hole in the wall authentic place in Alexandria off of Van Dorn street, called SakulThai.


              Vegetarians beware-they use fish and oyster sauce.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Smiles2008

                Does anyone happen to know if Sakulthai is run by the same folks as Thai Hut (the Thai restaurant that preceded it in that location)? I haven't been there since the switch, but Thai Hut was for that area a pretty good option for Thai. (For someone coming into NoVA from DC, though, I'd still recommend one of the Columbia Pike places.)

                1. re: sweth

        's not run by the same people. One of ex employee of Thai square bought it and the cook used to work for Thai Square too. My fiancee is Thai and used to work for Bangkok 54. I recommend Sakulthai because of their thai menu and price. The other restaurant I recommend is Duangrats. I think it's still authentic and really good drunken noodle with duck.

                  1. re: flipeatery

                    flipeatery, care to review the sakulthai drunken noodles in the context of certain criteria? if you would please, go to the thread i started about drunken noodles -- i am crazy about them! thanks!

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Sakulthai's kee mao gai is OK, but it's not the sort you're looking for--sliced chicken, and no wok char.

                    2. re: flipeatery

                      FWIW, in the intervening 7 months since I asked about Sakulthai, it's become one of my go-to Thai places. Much better than Thai Hut was.

                2. I vote for Ruan Thai in Wheaton (telephone directory lists the address as Silver Spring, MD.) Below is a link to a rundown of what to order.


                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Steve

                    Portrzebie upthread notes that Ruan Thai and Nava Thai are a couple blocks away from each other and the Wheaton Metro station (red line). Both are on my rotation. Ruan Thai has a more extensive menu that goes beyond street food. Nava is unique in our area with very, very authentic street food.

                    Here are a couple links to help the OP navigate there:

                    Map from a 2006 WaPo article (several places on the map have since closed):

                    A detailed report on Nava Thai from Todd Kliman:

                    1. re: Lydia R

                      Does anyone know if either Ruan Thai or Nava Thai serves beer and/or wine? We'd like to make a casual, yet festive visit and it would be nice to know whether adult beverages are offered. THANKS!

                      1. re: dcandohio

                        Both have beer although the Singha at Nava seems colder then that at Ruan.

                  2. Do any Thai restaurants in the D.C. area have crispy watercress salad (yum pak boong krob)?

                    My parents love the great Thai restaurant Sripraphai in Queens, NY. They usually have great crispy watercress. Unfortunately for my folks, they live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Amazingly, you can now get great Korean food on the Eastern Shore, and very good Indian, but not Thai. But my parents visit D.C. fairly often. We'll all probably try Thai Square tomorrow, or maybe Sakulthai or Bangkok 54, but sadly I don't see watercress salad on their online menus. Maybe somewhere else?

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Ike

                      Thai Square & Sakulthai both have Thai-langauge menus that have lots of authentic dishes that aren't on the main menu; I don't remember offhand if BKK 54 does as well. Those 3 would be my first choices for places to try that might have the dish you want, though.

                      1. re: sweth

                        We went to Thai Square and they didn't have crispy watercress salad, but we were very impressed with the quality of the cooking. It compares favorably to other great authentic U.S. Thai restaurants like Sripraphai in NY or Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas.

                        On the advice of Indy 67 above, we had the crispy squid with basil, and the crispy pork (I don't remember if this was with Chinese broccoli or something else; on the advice of the server, we got it in a spicier sauce than it usually comes in, because my mom wanted everything very spicy), and the yum talay (seafood salad). We also got the pad kee mao (drunken noodles). These were all great. That was easily the best pad kee mao I've had in a long time, perhaps rivaling the renditions I ate in Thailand in 2007 (although admittedly I did not eat much pad kee mao in Thailand). It used to be that good at Sripraphai but in recent years, the quality of their pad kee mao has slipped (especially at busy times).

                        I did not like the yum talay as much as a good crispy watercress salad, but it was still great. The "sauce," if you can call it that, is delicious, though not as complex as some Thai salad sauces I've had.

                        We asked for everything to be spicy. The spice level satisfied our group's chilihead, without blowing off the roof of anyone's mouth. The complexity of the flavors was more prominent than the spice, as it should be. This was better than at Mandalay in Silver Spring, a good Burmese place where we ate the other night, and where some of the dishes just weren't spicy enough to satisfy everyone in the group.

                        For dessert, we had the sticky rice with mango which was also good. Obviously the mango was not nearly as good as in Thailand, but that would be pretty much impossible.

                        Coming to Maryland to visit my folks for the holidays is not so bad if we can eat like this! Yeah!

                      2. re: Ike

                        I had crispy watercress salad last night at Ruan Thai. The fried seafood on top was very good but the watercress batter was a bit greasy for me, especially if it wasn't eaten right away. This was the only time I've ever tried it so I can't compare it to anything else. We also got the seafood lemongrass soup, which used to be outstanding but now (for the second time in as many visits) had a bitter off taste, even though the seafood was fresh. Also got the crispy pork belly with green beans, chili and basil. The pork was so overcooked as to be hard dry little nuggets with lilttle flavor left aside from the sauce, which wasn't particularly great. The one star of the evening was the yam pla korb. Theirs was as good as I've had. None of the dishes was particularly spicy. I have eaten at Ruan Thai a lot over the years but I think it has gone downhill. Each time I go back expecting better but get disappointed with at least half of what is ordered. Doubt I will return. I still prefer Bankok Garden in Bethesda and never had a bad meal there. Judging from the posts above, there are plenty of other places around worth trying.