At home in his Thai pad: Taw Vigsittaboot of Thai X-ing

December 5, 2013

Taw Vigsittaboot takes a breather in the downstairs dining room before diners arrive at his one-of-a-kind restaurant. Photos by Teddy Wolff.

It’s 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday and the kitchen at Thai X-ing is buzzing with the energy of a theater moments before the curtain goes up. Two Honduran brothers in aprons hover over a tub of gnarled gingerroots, one frantically peeling while the other juliennes. A bespectacled cook squeezes a handful of limes in quick succession into a bowl of papaya salad.

Taw Vigsittaboot, 55, the owner and executive chef of Shaw’s worst-kept secret, watches the organized chaos through a cloud of steam rising from a pot of mussels in lemongrass. He smiles, knowing that the evening’s first diners are expected in 15 minutes and this is the calmest the kitchen will be all night.

The 70-seat Thai X-ing is booked solid every evening. Not bad for a restaurant without a menu (prix fixe meals are dictated by what’s fresh from wholesale vendors) that opened in 2005 as a takeout joint in the basement of a townhouse. As word of Vigsittaboot’s to-die-for curries spread and the line out the door got longer, he expanded into the two upper floors, which are still partitioned like a private residence, and eventually purchased the whole house.  He shares a third-floor bedroom with his cat, Eleanor, tucked away from the dining area.

“At first, my customers were mostly the neighbors,” Vigsittaboot says. “Then they brought their friends. Now the neighbors call me complaining that they can’t get a reservation!”

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Sauteed rice noodles often make Thai X-ing’s rotating menu.

For those frustrated diners, relief is coming: Vigsittaboot is planning a second restaurant by the same name across the street from the 9:30 Club and set to open in January. In addition to the prix fixe dinners made famous by the original Thai X-ing, which will close for about a year for some much-needed kitchen renovations, the new place will serve quicker meals for lunch and stay open late at night. A backyard garden with a fountain will extend the 250-seat dining area in the warmer months, and Vigsittaboot hopes to rent out the upstairs for private parties. Oh yeah — and it’s got a bar (the original is BYOB).

Vigsittaboot’s journey to revered restaurateur has been fueled by a desire to bring his past to bear on his present, to make the cherished memories of his childhood relevant in his adopted community.

Born in Thailand’s Chumphon province, he spent weekends with his grandmother, Somphan Nirattisai, while his mother worked long days at the Ministry of Education. Nirattisai’s house had no electricity, but Vigsittaboot remembers her as a brilliant cook. He and his brother weren’t allowed to help — they were reprimanded for being too slow or careless — but they’d fetch water from the well for her sour papaya soup. Even making a simple dish like rice was a painstaking process for Somphan, requiring exact measurements and patient stirring. Vigsittaboot watched her in silence until he knew the motions by heart.

His older sister, Aschara, spent more time with their mother in the city than she did with their grandmother. Vigsittaboot says Aschara, who came to the U.S. as an international student and earned a master’s degree in economics in Thailand, was the “perfect one,” an example held up for her siblings to emulate. When she made a bid to buy Thai X-ing from Vigsittaboot four years ago, he refused, so she opened her own place just a few hundred yards south: Beau Thai. In direct competition, with restaurants that couldn’t be more different (aesthetically, at least), the two siblings rarely speak.

Vigsittaboot left Chumphon in 1988 to follow his love, an American girl named Nancy, to her hometown of Rockport, Maine. They turned the ground floor of their house into a gallery, where Vigsittaboot sold his ink drawings of tigers and Thai river landscapes to well-heeled tourists. After a short stint in Boston, Vigsittaboot and Nancy married and moved to Maryland to find work. They divorced in 1997.

Vigsittaboot bounced around between a few woodworking jobs in D.C. and landed a gig making tables for Thai restaurants in town. Their food was good, he thought, but he could do better. He’d always loved to cook for friends and often found himself holing up in the kitchen at their parties, testing recipes and feeding the guests. So when he found a cheap kitchen space for rent in Shaw, a neighborhood with no Thai competition, he took a chance. Now, he says, he never wants to be anywhere else — with the possible exception of his coastal hometown in Thailand.

Back in the kitchen at the Florida Avenue location, Vigsittaboot watches a young prep cook rip banana leaves into squares to serve on each family-style platter of food. He imports them by the bushel from Thailand where, as a child, he honored his ancestors with fruit and incense placed on banana leaves at the shrine in the Buddhist temple near his home. He pauses by a plate of pumpkin curry being carried aloft to a table of four outside the beaded curtain that serves as a kitchen door. “Wait,” he tells the server. Vigsittaboot grabs a dishcloth and dabs at a stray drop of milky red sauce spattered on the edge of the shiny green leaf. “There,” he says, “it’s ready.”

On the second floor of the restaurant, Vigsittaboot inspects the dining room as more reservation-holders squeeze through the doorway, kibitzing about the salmon curry they’d read about on a local food blog. Though Vigsittaboot doesn’t practice any specific faith, Thai X-ing is filled with religious icons he’s collected from Thailand, junkyards and antiques stores. He likes that they bring symbols of celebration and ceremony to the meal, evoking his favorite childhood memories of mornings at the temple.

“Everyone would bring the best food they had to offer to the monks and the shrines,” he says. “Food is spiritual. It’s medicine. That means more to me than the business part of it.”

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