Thai Kitchen
[from February 1999 issue]

Just a few short years ago, Thai food was as scarce and exotic as jungle fever in the DC area. But what a difference a few years can make. After the Tara Thai restaurants high-profiled this lusty Asian cuisine and numerous wannabes hitched themselves to its star, Thai restaurants have become almost as ubiquitous as the Chinese mall eatery. Even the past year or so has shown a remarkable growth spurt, from several dozen to nearly 100 Thai restaurants locally. That's a WOW factor.

But the dining public should be wary. Not every pad Thai you eat is worth its noodles. Not every Thai can cook! Selecting the good from the mediocre can challenge even the most devoted chili fan. So what do you do when a new place opens?

Try it out, for one. And that's what you should do with the new Thai Kitchen on M Street. Below street level and retro-fitted to look like an East Village loft (sort of), Thai Kitchen jumps with activity, so much so that your waiter may get orders mixed up, or forget the key piece, like the special stir-fried soft shell crabs at lunchtime recently. If done well, the crispy soft-shells can knock your socks off. But, apologized the waiter, the kitchen is backed up with a 15-minute wait for new orders. So much for the crabs at a busy lunchtime.

Looking at the main menu turns up nothing special or unusual, nothing that makes Thai Kitchen stand out from its stiff competition. There's the chicken and coconut milk soup; their version of the favorite shrimp and lemon grass soup; the Northeastern Thai salad, larb (pronounced "lap"), and the fried tofu, as just some of the starters. The tofu (tao hoo tod), unless mangled by a novice cook, is usually quite fine, and theirs is no different. But, their accompanying dipping sauce, which traditionally is both sweet and hot, is soured with several squeezes of fresh lime juice. Actually too many squeezes of lime juice, with the result that the dipping sauce rather puckers the mouth.

As for the main dishes, judging from what others were sampling, the dishes looked as if prepared by Chinese Thai, for many noodle and meat entrees came stir-fried with loads of mixed veggies, a very nontraditional Thai way of cooking. On the other hand, my neighbor's gaeng mussaman (traditionally made with beef, but made with chicken here), looks as thick and creamy as any good Thai curry. It is, after all, based on using thick coconut milk. It's safe to assume that the kitchen tries to please its Western patrons as well. For one, the flavors are tamped down, as the pad kee moo gai shows. Chicken strips stirred with Thai basil should be speckled with slivers of fresh chilies_this wasn't_but nonetheless, this was a tasty diversion in an otherwise bland day. Another Western tidbit is their Thai Kitchen Salad, about as non-Thai as you'll get, with this plate of mixed greens, sliced cucumbers and, as the menu says, dressed with a mango-basil vinaigrette. That arrived at the next table, and looked for all the world like good, solid American pub food.

So what do you have at Thai Kitchen? It's a safe haven for Westerners who do not wish to push their luck with chilied foods. It's also strong on predictable dishes, even if their cook takes a few liberties, like using chicken in place of beef. You won't really go too far wrong here, but don't expect the real taste of Thailand.

Thai Kitchen, 2311 M Street, NW. 452-6090. Price range: dinner entrees, $7.95-$12.95. Major credit cards accepted.

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