When I take a bite of the dry catfish curry at Thai Chef – a restaurant Chalisa Fitts and her parents, Pornnapa Pongpornprot and David Weston, opened in Rockville Town Square in October – flavor and texture bombs are exploding. Crispy, chewy and fried fillets quickly sautéed with bunches of green pepper, Thai eggplant, strips of red peppers, Thai basil and a spicy curry paste composed in a complex way with notes of chili peppers, lemongrass, pulp of shrimp, ginger (it’s galangal, similar to ginger, I will confirm later), linden leaf Makrut, coriander, cumin and cardamom.
The dish is mind blowing, as is the Thai chef himself. The interior of the 3,500-square-foot bi-level space, which seats 75 indoors (and, in the spring, 40 outdoors) is a visual extravaganza meant to evoke a Thai nighttime festival. New York designer Wirat “Pop” Assawamahasakda, a friend of Fitts, created the look, even making a lot of the furniture himself, including cotton seat covers featuring bold patterned prints. Each color of the spectrum is represented at Thai Chef in its decor, which includes a collage of floor-to-ceiling shutters; painted and glass-covered dining tables with a basket-weave insert; a wall sculpture of a clock surrounded by neon signs, houses, a sailboat, an illuminated merry-go-round, pearls and crystals; and a giant shadowbox wall filled with junk, including a gramophone, vintage televisions and radios, thermos and a dart board. Most of the material, including a three-wheeled taxi parked near the host stand, came from Thailand (delivery issues delayed the opening by six weeks).
Fitts and his parents also own Aroy Thai restaurant in College Park, which opened in 2013, and Thai Chef’s flagship location, which opened in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2017. Fitts, 32 , is the practical director. “I got into the restaurant business while working at Aroy after college in 2013 when I realized I couldn’t find a job with my psychology degree. [from George Mason University]she laughs.
A giant movie tent above the small restaurant bar in the middle of the Thai chef spells out SCALA in Thai writing. It is a replica of a sign in an iconic Bangkok cinema that was demolished this year. Fitts started taking mixology classes five years ago because, she says, it’s boring that Thai restaurants don’t serve great cocktails, and she was determined to do something about it. “I just go into the kitchen and find things to make cocktails,” she says. This kitchen must be well stocked because its cocktails – there are eight on the list – are terrific. Purple Rain, made with passion fruit juice and Stoli vodka infused with butterfly pea flower tea, has a purple ombre effect thanks to the tint of the tea. Crazy Thai Lady – tequila and rum infused with lemongrass and Makrut lime – comes with a rim of salt and Thai chili that gives it a twist.
For the food, rich in street food you might find at a nighttime festival, Fitts hired chefs Wheaton Prapavadee (“Lekki”) Limvatana and Satang Ruangsangwatana as consultants, first for the Dupont site, then for Rockville. In addition to creating many Thai chef dishes, the duo helped choose the restaurant’s original and mismatched tableware and participated in the design and formulation of the menu, which is divided into categories: Street Bites, Yum-Zapp ( spicy and lemony salads), Hot Soup, Noods (short for noodles), Shophouse Selfies (entrees), Fried Rice and Curry. “Lekki and Satang are so good. They turn a simple dish into something so good. I get training from them on cooking and pass it on to our chefs, ”says Fitts.
The garlic and chive cake is a remarkable starter. The dough made from tapioca flour, rice flour and chopped chives is cut into bite-sized cubes, steamed and then deep-fried into delicate and irresistible cakes and served with a sweet soy sauce for dipping. The appetizers common to Thai menus in the United States, such as pork and crab dumplings, curried puffs (puffed empanadas filled with potatoes and curried vegetables), and arugula (ground chicken with four whole shrimp individually wrapped in spring roll paper and fried) are executed with more flair and flavor than I have experienced elsewhere. Fried calamari look like onion rings and are equally satisfying, served with sriracha aioli. Our table devoured garlic and pepper rubbed chicken wings with a tamarind chili sauce. Cucumber sticks, sliced raw green beans and cherry tomatoes seasoned with garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar and garnished with chopped peanuts make for a bright and refreshing salad with spicy notes in the background.
You would be happy with familiar noodle dishes, such as pad si-yu (wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli, eggs, and black soy sauce) and standard curries (Massaman, Panang, green, red) , but don’t skip something out of the ordinary. Opt for Southerner’s Comfort, a dish of ground chicken sautéed with spicy red curry paste, makrut lime leaves, green beans and red peppers that is served with cucumber slices and a hard-boiled egg cut in half. Another amazing product is wok-fried beef: cubes of flank steak are seasoned with five-spice powder, braised in soy sauce-based broth until tender, then wok-fried with bean sprouts, celery leaves, green onions and garlic oil. This is an example of the flavor layering evident in the Thai chef’s dishes, including my favorite dish, which is meatless: Thai wok-fried eggplant, mushrooms, red peppers, and tofu cubes fried in black soy sauce. , soybean paste and ground chili peppers.
Even if the entrees come with rice, order fried rice for the table. Peppered Rice with Garlic and Shrimp is prepared by sautéing cooked jasmine rice, garlic and Thai chili peppers in a very hot wok to give the wok hei (literally “wok’s breath”) smoke. Then the scrambled eggs, green onions, and wok sauce (made with oyster sauce and light and dark soy sauce) are folded, and fried shrimp are placed on top.
There are three desserts on the Thai chef’s menu, and all of them are tasty, even a toasted coconut ice cream that Pongpornprot buys from an Asian grocery store. Mango sticky rice with coconut cream and toasted mung beans provides a sweet balance to a meal loaded with heat, herbal flavor and spiciness, as does the Taro Tapioca dessert, fluffy purple taro balls and pearls. of tapioca in hot sweet coconut milk sprinkled with sesame seeds.
29 Maryland Ave. (Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 301-339-8045, thaichefdmv.com
Global mark : A-
Favourite dishes : purple rain cocktail; garlic chive cake; cucumber salad; dry catfish curry; The comfort of the southerner; spicy eggplant; peppered rice with garlic and shrimp; hot coconut milk taro balls.
Prices: Entrances: $ 7 to $ 12; Noodle dishes: $ 15 to $ 18; Entrances: $ 15 to $ 19; Fried rice: $ 15 to $ 18; Desserts: $ 4 to $ 7.
Releases: Wines – three reds, three whites, and one sparkling – by the glass ($ 8) and four beers ($ 7) are available, but cocktails ($ 13) are the way to go. The Pandan-mic, composed of Hendrick’s gin, coconut rum and pandan syrup (a leaf with notes of grass and vanilla), is reminiscent of a piña colada. The Only Word, a riff on a Last Word (gin, lime juice, green chartreuse and maraschino liqueur) submarines baijiu, a clear Chinese spirit made from fermented sorghum, for gin.
A service: The Thai chef is understaffed, especially on busy weekends, but the front and back of the house handle the crowds effectively. They don’t take reservations so expect a prime-time wait.
David Hagedorn is Food Critic for Bethesda Magazine.