Category Archives: Thai

Ruan Beats Nava in Battle Pad Prik Khing

And it wasn’t close.  The only thing that would have stopped Ruan from prevailing would have been if we had been unable to procure food from them in the first place, which almost happened.

Pad Prik Khing: Ruan left, Nava right

Pad Prik Khing: Ruan left, Nava right

Friends joined us for dinner and we took the opportunity to have a Ruan-Nava taste test, ordering dishes from both restaurants.  We didn’t order exactly the same things from each place:  we got crispy duck kaprow* from Nava, great as usual, and drunken noodles from Ruan, excellent, and a few other items.

* kaprow!!!!

But the main event was the pad prik khing (with chicken, this night), which I almost always order because not only is the fiery/savory sauce delicious, but the green beans make me feel like the meal is not wholly unhealthy.  I have long been of the opinion that Ruan’s PPK is superior to Nava’s, and our testing proved me right.

Ruan dominated in all aspects of the dish, most immediately/obviously in terms of portion size.  The containers were identical, but Ruan’s was full, while Nava’s was barely half full.  The Ruan portion also looked more appetizing, with thick dark-reddish-brown sauce thoroughly coating the chicken and beans, while the Nava portion was watery.

And whaddya know, Ruan’s sauce tasted better, too.  Both were very spicy, as expected, but Nava’s sauce lacked nuance, while Ruan’s was richer, more balanced.  Final point in Ruan’s favor: while the chicken was comparable, Nava’s beans were overcooked and mushy (as they usually are, the primary reason I have always preferred Ruan’s version), and Ruan’s still had some snap.

In sum, a clear victory for Ruan.  A couple of caveats: this was just one dish, on just one night, and Nava still has plenty going for it, especially on the kaprow! front.  But I had not realized until how the extreme degree of superiority enjoyed by Ruan on this dish.

It may be enough to swing me back to preferring Ruan overall — I have been voting Nava #1 for years — but there was one huge problem with Ruan, namely that they refused to answer their phone, we had to drive over and place our order in person and then return an hour (!) later to pick up our order.  Takeout-reliant restaurants should ALWAYS answer their phone, even if they have to put you on hold.  This is not the first time Ruan has failed to answer our call, but previously we just ordered from some other joint; this time we wanted to do the taste test, so we took additional steps to get our food.

Ruan was packed, every table taken and three groups waiting, but restaurants should be able to deal with being at capacity; I fear that Ruan’s expansion has outpaced the kitchen’s ability to produce sufficient food in a timely way.  The staff seemed on the verge of melting down, and while I was there placing our order, someone else was up at the counter complaining that they had been seated at their table for an hour and still had not received any food, so it wasn’t just us.  Ruan clearly still has some kinks to work out — but at least food quality is not among the kinks.

Wheaton. And Eatin’. And Whatnot.

So, Wheaton.  We still live and eat in Wheaton, even during the 15 month blogging hiatus, and there’s still a lot of deliciousness even as our urbanism continues its de-feralization.   Even as the reconstruction of downtown Wheaton continues, the food scene hasn’t changed much; almost every restaurant from 15 months ago is still serving (woohoo!), although there was one Salvadoran (?) place that only lasted a few months in the University strip mall spot previously occupied by Gloria’s Caribbean and before that Irene’s III.  Cursed ground?  We’ll see.  Unleased ground for the moment.

There will be more posting on Wheaton going forward, but I think one reason for the hiatus was a sense that since nothing much has changed around here, and we often eat elsewhere (mostly due to working elsewhere and most of our friends living elsewhere),  I just wasn’t feeling very Wheatony.  Or bloggy.  So finally I decided not to worry so much, going forward, about the “Wheaton” part of the blog’s title, although I think Wheaton will still source a plurality of the restaurants discussed.

Senior Mrs. Me is here and we got huge bags of Ruan  Thai (11407 Amherst) last night, and here’s an example of what I mean: Ruan is still very good, although the beans in the pad prik khing haven’t been up to snappy par the last two times; the duck kha prao (kaprow!) was better than ever; but it really hasn’t changed much in ten years, other than physical space expansion.  Still good, still in the regular rotation, but not superexciting to blog about.  The prices have changed, most main dishes are now in the $11-15 range, compared with ten (or even five or six?) years ago in the $8-10 range.  That’s a 40-50 percent increase since 2003, much higher than the rate of inflation, even of average raw food prices, and certainly wages haven’t gone up much over the past ten years.  So while Ruan remains a valuable Wheaton restaurant — even today’s prices aren’t outrageous or anything — it isn’t quite the same fabulous deal it used to be.

Blogging might be light over the next couple of weeks, although not as light as it was during the previous 15 months!

Eatin’ in Wheaton, Pelecanos Style

George Pelecanos has written a bunch of stuff, perhaps most notably HBO’s The Wire (with David Simon) but also a series of novels, mostly crime fiction, set in greater Washington, D.C.  Among Pelecanos’ strong points are his seamless injections of accurate local color into his plots. I have only just begun exploring Pelecanos’ books, but the first one I picked up, The Way Home, includes visits to two loosely-described yet clearly recognizable Wheaton restaurants.

First, two characters go on a date to  Wheaton for pho at a restaurant “in a commercial strip of Landromats and Kosher and Chinese grocers…diners sat communally at tables similar to those found in school cafeterias.”  This brief description obviously refers to the strip on University from Max’s Kosher Deli to Shalom Kosher grocery to (no longer there) Asian Foods grocery to a laundromat to Full Key Chinese restaurant (to liquore store) to, on the East end, Pho Hiep Hoa, which is indeed cafeteria-like and nearly ambience-free (which, in a way, is perfect cheap pho house ambience).  Despite (or maybe thanks to) the atmosphere, Pho Hiep Hoa serves pretty decent soup, though I prefer Song Phat — but the characters in The Way Home are absolutely the kind of folks who would visit Pho Hiep Hoa on a date.  Ring of truth, for sure.

About 25 pages later, a real estate agent holds court at “a Thai restaurant up in Wheaton, off University Boulevard, in an area heavy with Hispanics and Orthodox Jews…the restaurant itself had little ambience, holding eight four-tops and a half-dozen deuces, with the standard royal family portraits hung on plain blue walls.”  Again, a no-frills description that is totally accurate, and clearly the restaurant (“Thai Feast” in the book) is Ruan Thai, which was a little pastel-blue-walled dive before it was renovated last year (The Way Home was published in 2009). The passage continues, noting that “the food was clean, the service mostly efficient, and the specials went for four dollars and ninety-five cents” — not sure the specials are that cheap anymore, but the rest still holds true (and of course the food is better than clean, it is fantastic!).  I’m looking forward to reading more Pelecanos, both because he tells a good story, but also to see what other local spots pop up.  If anyone knows of any other instances of Wheaton restaurants showing up in works of fiction, please post in the comments.  I love this kind of thing.

Yum Watercress, Yum Ruan

Things that make you go “yummmm”…

We’ve been dining at Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst) for years, and actual bonafide restaurant critics have been raving about Ruan’s Yum Watercress appetizer for even longer.  We tried to order it once, but it turned out we were doing it wrong: pad watercress (what we ordered) and yum watercress (what we should have ordered) are not the same thing.  Pad watercress, by the way, is stir-fried in a black bean sauce and is pretty good in its own right, but it isn’t quite yum.

We finally, successfully, ordered yum watercress last week, and I can see why it gets so much love.  Watercress, shrimp, squid, shallots, and cashews are deep-fried, almost like tempura but with less batter, just enough to coat each piece and make it crisp.  The seafood is tender, and it all has wonderful texture, but really it is the sauce that makes you go yum: tangy with fresh lime juice, fish sauce, just a hint of sugar, and peppery heat, it has that distinct Thai sweet-salty-sour-spicy balance, and is the kind of dish that makes me want to lick the plate once the food has been consumed.  I restrained myself, barely.

We also feasted on pad prik khing — we are incapable of eating at Ruan without the PPK — and tom  yum soup, which we rarely order, but we enjoyed the clear fiery broth, rife with chicken and shrooms, hinting of lime and galangal.  Great stuff.  I know I’ve been on the Nava bandwagon, but this visit puts Ruan right back on a par with Nava in my mind.  Wheaton is so lucky to have (at least) two great Thai restaurants.  I really should hit Dusit again one of these days, I’ve not been for more than a year (and, other than that, not since about 2007) and I’d like to remind myself how they compare.

More Washingtonian Wheaton Thai Love

Washingtonian magazine’s annual “100 very best restaurants” issue (January 2012) is out (on newsstands, possibly in your mailbox, but not online) and both Nava Thai and Ruan Thai made the list.   This is not the best cheap restaurant list, this is the best list.  Inn at Little WashingtonKomiAshby Inn…Nava and Ruan! I still think Ruan has slipped just a bit, but it’s nice to see both places continue to get more or less well-deserved attention.  Washingtonian continues to taunt me, though, in their capsule review of Ruan, where they highlight that dang Yum Watercress dish again.  I really need to get in there and order that.

Ruan Re-re-revisited

Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst) has settled nicely into its expanded and renovated digs — looks great, although seems a bit cavernous when uncrowded — and continues to churn out good food, but the beef mussamun curry in particular has slipped a bit.  It was never as authentic or amazing as the only-sometimes-available Nava version, but it used to have rich if overly sweet flavor. Lately it hasn’t gotten the old taste buds jumping much at all.  Ruan’s pad prik khing (spicy green beans with choice of meat) remains excellent, the local standard.  Recently we also branched out and tried a dish we hadn’t before (what!?), chicken with cashews and spring onions: good savory flavor, although it was more broth than sauce, surprisingly watery.  Not bad but probably wouldn’t order it again.  Need to eat in rather than take out like we usually do so we can try the lauded yum watercress, which I suspect would not travel well.

I think Ruan has also taken the opportunity to raise its prices — bigger, nicer space, new full color menus, why not?  Most main dishes used to be in the $8-$10 range and now entrees are a couple bucks more across the board.  Still not a bad value, but not as fabulous as before; appetizers are the best value at Ruan these days.

Road Trip: Boston

Beyond Russo’s and H Mart:

  • Takeout from Minerva in Natick.  Pretty good except for not getting what we ordered. Our double order of lamb biryani arrived as lamb vindaloo, good thing Mrs. Me wasn’t there!  The vindaloo was suitably spicy at least.  Solid butter chicken, lamb rogan josh, something else I’ve forgotten.  They also completely forgot our curried chickpeas.  Nice samosas.  Average or better quality, normal quantity, bad accuracy.
  • Lunch at Pho and I in Boston. Nice lunch specials, maybe a dozen to choose from at $7.50 apiece.  Carl got the ho fun — how could at least one of us not? — and liked it well enough but we both preferred my basil fried rice, fragrant and a bit spicy, full of flavor.  Fairly large portions.  Good service.  Unusual curving space with a bar snaking along one side, actually a pretty good use of an awkward space for a restaurant.
  • Lunch at Johnny Rockets in Logan Terminal C.  I was desperate. I can’t review JR because I have already wiped the entire sordid affair from my memory (although I may still be digesting the cheeseburger).