By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 11, 2004
Thanks to the rich infusion of restaurants near MCI Center over the years, that slice of Washington could probably make most of a United Nations delegation feel at home. Within a short walk of one another are kitchens that specialize in Spanish tapas, Chinese noodles, American barbecue and pizza, Indian curries, Mexican seviche, Irish corned beef and cabbage, and Japanese sushi. Now, with the arrival of Kanlaya Thai Cuisine, the menu is broader still: Thailand gets recognized with green papaya salad and deep-fried bananas.
Kanlaya, in Chinatown, is newsworthy for a number of reasons, one being that it's not a big, bland chain restaurant squeezing out a local player. That thought occurred to me one recent evening when my waiter at Kanlaya noticed a traffic officer outside, writing a ticket for a car parked near the restaurant. "Do you have a car out front?" he asked table after table, trying to ward off potential trouble for one of his customers. Now that's personalized service.
If you're a worker bee with not much time for lunch, or if you need to be in your seat for a game or concert in less than an hour, Kanlaya is a good place to find a meal. The food comes out very fast; indeed, sometimes everything you've ordered arrives at once. But you're bound to enjoy it anyway if you asked for larb gai, that zesty salad of crumbled chicken tossed with a dressing of lime and fresh mint, or a coconut milk soup packed with chicken and mushrooms, every spoonful of broth seesawing between sweet and tangy. The chicken satays, yellow with curry powder and plenty moist, are a hit as well. When the season for eating soft-shell crabs arrived, one of the places I most enjoyed that rite of spring was here, where the crabs sported crunchy golden coats and a sauce of tamarind and coconut milk. Vegetables leave the kitchen bright and crisp; stir-fried Chinese broccoli, bold with oyster sauce, ranks as one of my favorites. So, too, does a colorful entree of purple baby eggplant, dark green split chilies and Christmas-red ribbons of bell peppers, everything mixed with crinkly cubes of tofu and splashed with black bean sauce.
The weak links in the chain include stolid and dense steamed "Siam dumplings" and "Kanlaya grilled pork," which looks more like a thin hamburger and rests on a "bun" of gummy rice.
Some like it hot, and diners who do had better make that point clear to the staff. This is a kitchen that pulls its punches if you aren't insistent; shaved beef with bamboo shoots in a supposedly spicy red curry didn't sound a single fire alarm. Several dishes leave a nice tingling sensation on the lips, though, including stir-fried rice with a choice of meat, chilies, garlic and fresh herbs, and a special recommended by a waiter, sauteed squid mixed with Thai basil, red bell pepper and onion. If the servers act a little rushed sometimes ("Hihowareyoudoyouwantatablefortwo?"), they are good guides to what's best on any given day.
Kanlaya's dining room starts out big and pale yellow, but becomes more intimate in the back, where the space narrows, the walls turn burgundy and handsome banquettes foster a cozier atmosphere. Up front, facing the window, is a good spot for reading a newspaper; the back room is perfect cheap-date territory. Anywhere, it is fast food with a point of view.