Editors' pick

Kao Thai

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Near the AFI Silver Theatre, this cozy restaurant puts out big Thai flavors.
11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday (until 10 p.m. Friday); 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
(Silver Spring)
82 decibels (Extremely loud)

Editorial Review

Two for Thai
New establishments add spice to Silver Spring and Shaw
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blink as you're cruising along Colesville Road in Silver Spring and you're apt to miss Kao Thai, a sliver of a restaurant amid a blur of small businesses near the AFI Silver Theatre.

Slow down and smell the mango curry. With its sweet chunks of tropical fruit in a warm bath of coconut milk shot through with fire, the seasonal dish tap-dances on the palate and tickles the throat.

Purple eggplant tossed with tender slices of beef and glossy bits of red bell pepper delivers another beautiful, nuanced performance, aided by a garnish of crisp shallots on top.

Need more enticement? Tender shrimp share their dusky yellow curry with soft potatoes and carrots. The steamed rice alongside the entree swells with flavor as it absorbs the golden gravy, its sweetness balanced by heat.

Devotees of Thai cooking know that the country's best practitioners tend to be women, so spying a female chef through the small kitchen window is reassuring. A native of Thailand, Mayura "Jim" Buddhahun comes to Kao Thai from Simply Ayzen in Tenleytown but ran her own restaurant in Bangkok for 10 years. One reason her won-ton soup stands out: The chicken broth and the wrappers for the ground shrimp and pork fillings are made in-house. Buddhahun also makes the sweet-and-sour sauce that enhances the crisp Shrimp Bikini (picture a Thai egg roll). Her larb gai is a ground chicken salad of distinction; her snowy stir-fried catfish is packed with bamboo, eggplant and a coconut broth that whispers of kaffir lime.

Two pleasant trips lead to a third visit - and some disappointments. I look up from some chewy marinated Siam Beef and spot a possible reason: There's no female in the kitchen. The food, including green papaya salad and fried soft-shell crabs, isn't bad; it just lacks the expected verve. During a fourth and final meal, I spot Buddhahun and order one of her specials, Bangkok Seafood Delight, requesting that it be made "Thai hot." The bowl of shrimp, squid, mussels and scallops in a lake of fire scattered with fried Thai basil lives up to the hype and prompts me to make a mental note to verify her hours the next time I get a craving for Thai food.

Kao Thai, which replaced Thai Flavor in November and recently signed a lease to expand into the vacant shop next door, has fewer than 30 seats, but the design takes your mind off its dimensions. The walls are painted a shade of lemon grass and are dressed here with a painting of lily pads and there with angels carved from teak wood. Further warmth comes by way of the four family members who watch over the establishment, which takes its name from the Thai word for rice or food, says Boosaba Pananon, the daughter of the owners.

Delivery is available within a two-mile radius. Handier for those of us who aren't neighbors is curbside service. Call the restaurant with your order, and a server will meet you at your car window with food that lets you experience the faraway in the comfort of home.

Click here for the accompanying review of Beau Thai