Category Archives: Thai

Summer Wheaton Restaurant Update: Aiiiiiii!

Mrs. Me and I have not been eatin’ much in Wheaton this summer due to travel, family stuff, yada yada yada.  Will try to rectify that come autumn.

All the new restaurants in Wheaton are Latino.  Surprise!*

* not a surprise

El Taco Loco has been open for a month or so, in the University Avenue strip mall next to El Pollo Rico.  We should call it El Strip Mall?  We ate there recently, review coming soon.

We have still not been to El Catrachito, in the old Irene’s III  microdiner space on University, despite its getting great reviews, but we hope to go soon.

In the old Irene’s (no numerals attached) space on Georgia, a new Latino/”Tex-Mex” restaurant called El Fogon has been open for about two months now.  I am skeptical about the Tex-Mex self-designation, since most places around here don’t really do it right, they just use it as a marketing ploy for people who don’t know better.  But maybe the food is good anyway?  Will check it out at some point.  We used to like Irene’s back in the day, despite the constant too-loud music.

Finally a little culinary variety: Tyler Cowen loves Thai Taste (11315 Fern, behind Hung Phat), his micro-review here (and my original review here). I love it when TC eats in Wheaton, because Wheaton, and also because it helps me calibrate my own restaurant-review palate.  For example, he mentions the mussamun beef as a “very very good” dish, which it is — and yet it isn’t as good as the spectacular version Nava Thai too infrequently trots out as a special.  He’s right about maximizing the condiments at Thai Taste, and I would add for all dishes, not just the soups.  Overall I still think Ruan is at the top of the Wheaton Thai heap at the moment, but Thai Taste is certainly also recommended.  Nava has been uneven lately, but if they have the mussamun available, it is a must-order.

And lastly, a new cheesesteak chainy place (Mike’s?)  is on the way to replace the Quizno’s in the Westfield Wheaton strip that also houses the Starbucks.  I’ve been off Quizno’s ever since their Vegas airport location gave me the worst food poisoning ever, so this is a welcome change (since I also like cheesesteaks). I’d still rather give my sandwich business to Marchone’s, but it’s nice to have options.

Feliz Augusto!

Thai Taste Tastes Thai (and Good)

Crispy Duck Kaprow at Thai Taste

Crispy Duck Kaprow at Thai Taste

The decor at Thai Taste* hasn’t changed much from previous tenants Mi La Cay and Nava Thai — tired checkerboard linoleum, basic tables and chairs, a few new paintings and Thai artifacts on the walls.  There’s nothing wrong with the slightly dive-y atmosphere, in fact it is quintessential Wheaton, and we’re glad the restaurateurs are focused more on the food than the appearance. The trick, though, is to serve food good enough to overcome the atmosphere.

* located behind Hung Phat, as I’ve said in about six different posts now, but any Hung Phat mention is a good Hung Phat mention

Thai Taste succeeds, at least to some extent.  As with most local Thai spots, the menu is long, and many dishes at TT are different from what’s on offer at Ruan and Nava.  Naturally, we stuck with the familiar; I like to think I am adventurous, but in truth not always on the first try.

For me, the best dish was the appetizer of grilled moo yang (pork) skewers, wonderfully charred, served with a delicious spicy-peppery-tamarind dipping sauce.  Pad kee mao (aka drunken noodles) is above-average, smoky noodles in a spicy-sweet sauce with peppers and onions, nothing exciting but tasty and well-executed.

Thai Taste’s massaman curry falls somewhere between Ruan and Nava — it is rich and peanuty, but not as much (or as complex overall) as Nava’s exemplary version; it falls too much on the sweet end of the spectrum for my taste, though not as much as Ruan’s.  It looks great, a large portion of dark beef and sauce in an oblong white saucer, and the beef is disintegratingly tender.

We also tried the ped pad kaprow (crispy duck), because I am a sucker for kaprow, and this version is unique (in my experience) in that the duck is breaded and deep-fried, and served in a lighter sauce with many more vegetables (broccoli, peppers, onions, etc.) than usual.  It’s pretty good, although for leftovers it ends up too soggy, but I prefer Nava’s non-breaded, darker-and-spicier sauced version, where the duck is rendered to crispness in its own fat rather than relying on breading and a deep-fryer.  TT’s kaprow does come with a  LOT of fried basil sprinkled on top, which we liked a lot.

So many menu items we didn’t try, including about a dozen soups that I imagine are excellent, various noodle and seafood dishes, unusual Bangkok street food items (stewed pork leg, steamed pork or fish balls), and a bunch of desserts.  They didn’t have any mangoes, otherwise Mrs. Me would have tried their mango sticky rice.  Oh well, we’ll just have to go back.

Overall, based on a single visit, I would say Thai Taste seems just about equal to Ruan and Nava in quality, but we’ll need to branch out and try some other dishes to be sure.  One area where TT beats its neighbors is on price: most main dishes are $7-9, compared with $10-13 at Ruan and Nava.  Those standbys used to be cheaper, and TT may also raise its prices sooner rather than later, so I would say now’s the time to go there and gorge on relatively inexpensive, good, authentic Thai food.

By the way, service was excellent, friendly and they’re clearly working hard and happy to be there. The full name is Thai Taste by Kob — the chef is  Phak “Kob” Duangchandr –and they claim “healthier and tastier Thai food” although I’m not sure breaded/fried duck qualifies as “healthier”… They spent years in Silver Spring, but SS’s loss is Wheaton’s gain.  We weren’t surprised to find good food there; that Hung Phat back room keeps spawning great restaurants.


Khao Soi @ Nava Thai

Khao Soi -- not from Nava, but it looks like this

Khao Soi — not from Nava, but it looks like this

As good (and as varied) as Nava Thai’s regular menu is, I am happiest when they offer massaman curry as a special.  Nava’s version is delicious and authentic, with fatty beef in dark rich peanut-anise-cardamom gravy, with potatoes.  Ruan Thai always has massaman (“Mussa Mun” on their menu, I think) and it is in our regular rotation there, but it isn’t as authentic as Nava’s — too sweet, not enough fat or exotic spicing, or any discernible peanuts.  Still good, but not as good.

(Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to have two awesome Thai restaurants a couple of blocks apart right here in little old Wheaton. Maybe back to three again with Thai Taste open behind Hung Phat)

In all my years of Nava dining, dozens of visits (including takeout), they’ve only had massaman curry twice.  Could be purely user error: I might just not go on the right days.  Recently, though, they had another special I’d not seen before (again, maybe I’ve just been missing it?), the northern Thai khao soi noodle curry soup. I think this is also an authentic version, though perhaps not as robust as some.  Then again, there are many different variations on khao soi — see these beautifully photographed entries on Austin Bush’s website, for example.

The Chinese might call it “Curried Rice Noodles Two Ways” — the main ingredients are boiled rice noodles, fried rice noodles, and chicken in a curried coconut milk sauce.  Usually there are shallots or green onions, too, and cilantro.

Since I had read about khao soi but never eaten it before, I was eager to try Nava’s version, and I liked it a lot.  The curry sauce was nearly as rich as the massamun sauce, and the flavors were explosive (though I admit adding a little extra hot chili).  The only trick was that the boiled rice noodles were bungee-like in their springiness, splattering sauce all over the table and a little on me.  I don’t think I doused Mrs. Me at all.

I still prefer the massaman, but I would gladly order either dish whenever available.  And if they are on offer on the same visit?  I will order them both and eat the whole thing.  I will probably order two of each and take some home.  Because that’s how we roll here at Chez Me.

The Panang of Parking

Lincoln's Toe Truck

Lincoln’s Toe Truck

For decades, Seattle has had the famous Lincoln’s Toe Truck, bright pink with a giant set of toes on top. After some years of actual towing service, it ended up sitting on top of a building downtown and now finally has a home in the awesome, rebuilt/relocated Museum of History and Industry.* As a kid, whenever we drove down I-5 to visit the Seattle Center or other destinations involving the Mercer Street exit, we excitedly looked for the toe truck.  Kids loved the toe truck.  Adults loved the toe truck.  It made towing seen fun and silly.

* MOHAI is right on Lake Union and if you’re hungry after museuming you can get fish tacos from a taco boat (like a food truck, but on water!) that pulls right up to the lakeside walkway as seaplanes take off over your head — I didn’t try it when I was there last year and still (mildly) regret it.  Next time.

Towing seems less fun and silly when you park at the wrong end of the Ruan-Ren strip mall in Wheaton (on Amherst off University).  As we were leaving last night, one of our Ruan servers was running around the restaurant asking if anyone owned the SUV that was in the process of being towed.  Nobody seemed to – the owner could have been at Ren’s, or…Brother?  Anyway, we emerged from Ruan to see the SUV hooked up to the tow truck, ready to go.  We just avoid that whole parking lot on principle, between the towing danger and the difficulty and awkwardness of getting a spot to begin with.  Park on Amherst at a  meter, or in the Metro garage across University.

I’m not overall a big fan of towing companies, I think they are predatory and in many cases an overly expensive and logistically difficult solution to a minor problem.  But in this case, I had little sympathy for the SUV owner, because both Ruan and Ren have multiple signage about not parking at the other end of the lot, to a comical degree.  Except apparently not comical enough, because still some people have not gotten the message.  This post was meant to be funny, but it was 100% true about not parking in front of Alex, or the store on the other side of it whose name I can never remember.

So the towing incident was the lowlight (someone’s lowlight, not really ours); the food was good as ever.  We tend to order the same stuff at Ruan over and over again, pad prik khing and mussamun curry, etc etc.   Both Ruan and Ren were doing good business, always nice to see, especially at a time of year when people aren’t necessarily out and about as much.

Happy Holidays

On a brighter, more seasonal note than the previous post, both Nava and Ruan are listed in the Washingtonian “100 Very Best Restaurants issue” arriving in today’s mail — not yet available online I think.  This is not the best cheap restaurants issue, this is the best of the best, led by Inn at Little Washington and Minibar and Komi — so kudos (yet again) and happy new year to Wheaton’s pair of great Thai spots.  Of course, the list is not without its missteps, like Central Michel Richard in the top ten (for me, mediocre and thus extremely overpriced on two 2013 lunch visits) and Jaleo at #15, nothing wrong with Jaleo but shouldn’t be remotely that high on the list.  Overall, though, a fine collection, reminding me as usual that I need to eat out more… Only the top 25 are ranked, and Nava and Ruan are in the remaining 75 somewhere.  Perfectly reasonable.

Happy whatever to everyone — how’s that for blanket season’s greetings? — and look forward to more food blogging in 2014.  Probably even a few more posts between now and then.  Certainly a lot of eating between now and then.  How many calories can we pack into the next seven days? (rhetorical question)



Asian Cuisine Lightning Round

All in DC, not Wheaton. Sometimes the stomach wanders.

Thai Tanic (1326-A 14th Street) — a  CityPaper/Express reader poll favorite, longtime anchor of the southern end of what is now the hot hot hot 14th Street restaurant corridor.  I had never been here before, despite TT being on the list of punny restaurants to visit (you’re next Thaiphoon!) (maybe…)  Fun decor, lots of golds and woods, a genuine (Americanized) Thai feel.  They offer some unusual menu items other local Thai joints, including Ruan and Nava, don’t, like goong phuket, ground chicken and shrimp in chili sauce, which was unbalanced, too sweet and lacking fire.  Most dishes have multiple peppers  next to their name, signifying heat, but in the end there wasn’t enough for me.  If I’m not sweating, it isn’t Thai-hot enough.  Sodden kra pow with pork wasn’t anywhere close to Nava’s kaprow! league.  Yum nua beef salad was the highlight, living up to its two-menu-peppers with a  tangy, well-balanced lime-based sauce.  Overall okay, total old school compared with all the new restaurants up the street.

Burma (740 6th Street, Chinatown) is on the backside of Verizon Center, next to Kanlaya, up a desolate institutional metal stairwell that reminded my uncle of various Hong Kong dive walkups, so I guess that’s a point for authenticity.  I’ve been to Burma several times, and I think I go back because it is cheap (most entrees $8-11) and filling and you can almost always get right in, which is increasingly difficult at most non-Chinese Chinatown restaurants.  It isn’t the food, which is mediocre at best.  Lots of noodle dishes, some rice, some soup, everything I have tried is underseasoned, bland, and just dumped on the plate sans any artistry whatsoever.  I understand the blanditude may be sort of a hallmark of genuine Burmese cuisine, but…not my thing.  I suspect that in fact it’s just not a great restaurant, probably there is better Burmese food somewhere (maybe not in DC), but it does serve its purpose.

Asia Nine (915 E Street, Penn Quarter), on the other hand, is pretty good.  Been there several times too, always lunch, and the worst dish at AN has been an improvement on anything at Burma.  Menu is a good mix of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and some fusion.  Curries are only okay — I’ve tried the lemongrass and green, the former is more vividly spiced than the latter — but the Asia Nine lo mein is spicy and fresh-tasting.  Sushi and soups are reportedly good. Portions are large, prices are okay.  Decibels are high, and service can be maddening, both in pace (slow) and accuracy (misdelivered dishes, wrong dishes, missing dishes, having to ask 74 times for water).  But it’s one of the few restaurants near my office in that nice-enough-for-sitdown-lunch-but-not-TOO-nice range — why must everything be either Tosca or Potbelly? — and there is some solid value at Asia Nine.  You just can’t go if you’re in a hurry to get back to work.

Piggybacking the Post

Bereft of my own content — washed clean away with a week of rain — I refer you to WaPo food critic Tom Sietsema’s “Ten Great Tastes for $10 or Less” of which Wheatonian Ruan Thai’s Yum Watercress is #1.  Mrs. Me does not love the watercress so we rarely order this, but I am with Sietsema, it is totally Yum.

His Fall Dining Guide is also out, no Wheaton spots on the list, surprise surprise, but hard to quibble with most of the choices.  DC restaurant quality is high these days.  I have been to, and agree with the inclusion of, Bourbon Steak, Del Campo, Etto, Ghibellina, Oyamel, Palena, Rasika, and Vermillion.  The only place on his list I wouldn’t include is Jaleo, which is fine but not Top 40 — I might replace it with Mourayo, but there are plenty of contenders.  Places on the list I have never been but are high on my list of places I want to go: Blue Duck, Doi Moi, Izakaya Seki, Komi, Le Diplomate, Woodberry Kitchen, and especially Little Serow.

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.