Thaied Down
[from August 2002 issue]

If you think the area has become super-saturated with Thai restaurants, you wouldn't be far off the mark. It seems that Americans--or at least, Washingtonians--can't get enough of the hot/sweet/sour/salty cooking that is the trademark of good Thai cooking. But that's the rub: Not many local Thai eateries really get it right.

Pandering to Western tastes, what most Thai kitchens do is toss in the sugar--Americans, they believe, have an oversized sweet tooth and hate the heat from chilies--and eliminate anything that may seem exotic. That may be why there's a joke among some Thai cooks that when the staff sees a Westerner come in to their restaurant, they immediately turn down the heat (remove the chilies) and make it simple. Perhaps they figure most Westerners wouldn't know the difference anyway.

Up until a few years ago, DC's venerable Thai Kingdom restaurant, one of the old-timers around town, did make an effort to play it straight. But it tastes like times have changed. Based on memories, I had insisted on dinner here recently, thinking of its once-succulent duck and pork dishes. But when my friend and I dined here, we found that the food was unmemorable at best. At worst, several dishes we didn't even finish. Maybe that was the chef's night off, and the assistant was in charge--that sometimes happens.

We started off with the Zesty Duck, a salad usually called "crispy duck salad," which turned out to be a sampling of gristly duck meat tossed with a mild lime dressing and layered on lots of greens. Elsewhere, the duck meat is chopped into small pieces and very crispy, and the dressing is laced with heat. My friend had one bite, and set hers aside.

She asked for the ever-popular lemon grass soup with chicken. "It has tomato," she cried--it didn't, but instead of using slivered chilies, someone in the kitchen had sprinkled hot pepper sauce plus something sweet into a very salty broth, all of which overpowered what should have had a citrus-like undertone from slices of pounded lemon grass and gave the soup a reddish tinge and salty-sweet taste.

We ordered three more dishes, and found that the simple pad see ew, or wide rice noodles cooked with Chinese broccoli, saved the day, or at least, the meal. Many local restaurants substitute Western broccoli for the more expensive and more difficult to work with Chinese broccoli, a culinary fraud, as the latter has a subtle sourness that is quite appealing, especially when cooked with multiple other flavors.

As for the panang curry and a chicken dish dubbed Gai Krata, or chicken spiced on hot pan (menu's words), neither merited a "good-to-the-last-drop" accolade. The chicken resembled a Chinese sweet and sour offering, and with its melange of veggies and bits of chicken breast, seemed the least promising of possible entrée orders. The panang was just passable, but it too, needed some slivered lime leaves or something more to offset its underlying sweetness.

Maybe all this really means nothing to folks who want the feeling of Thai cooking without its true character. But we carried away a doggie bag of food, and my friend ended up handing it over to a homeless couple standing out in front of the restaurant.

On the bright side, the restaurant itself is a shrine to traditional Thai images: Buddhist shrines, trinkets, and monks' photos vie with pictures of the Thai royal family in a backdrop of bold reds and golds. The décor alone is worth the price of admission, so keep that in mind when wanting to impress out-of-towners with an Asian setting. And who knows, if the chef was off for the night, the cooking may reach new heights of delight at other times.

Thai Kingdom, 2021 K St.; tel., 835-1700. Hours; lunch and dinner daily. Entrée prices: $6.95 to $8.95. Major credit cards accepted.

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