The Allure of Asia
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Mai Thai is one of those restaurants where you could order nothing more than a glass of water and still feel as though you were having a good time.
The servers help. They are attentive and friendly even when the joint is in high gear, and they have that uncommon ability to know just what you might want -- another Singha, some more rice -- just as you want it. Indeed, the staff appear as fresh as the flowers that grace the smooth tabletops.
Even more of an incentive to drop by is the setting. Yes, it's underground, but the smart design makes you think otherwise. Terra cotta-colored figurines on the walls suggest an ancient and important museum display, while the curved, lipstick-red banquette and chic yellow bar stools keep Mai Thai from becoming a history lesson. Beyond the foyer and the bar, aglow in orange, awaits a softly lighted dining room with cozy booths for two or four, cleverly separated by wooden dividers that resemble sails. Mirrors are tilted at an angle, giving everyone a good view of the restaurant (and helping to make up for the absence of windows in the back).
You may have heard the amusing name before. There's also a Mai Thai in Alexandria, and it's owned by the same person, "Woody" Tongrugs, whose sense of humor extends to his other restaurants in Dupont Circle and Pentagon City, both named Thaiphoon. None of them is of the caliber of the area's best sources of Thai cooking -- I'm thinking of Thai Square and Bangkok 54, both in Arlington -- but all are nice to know about if you happen to be in the neighborhood, want a splash of style with your larb gai, and don't want to look like a cheap date, even if you are. (Dinner entrees at Mai Thai hover around $10.)
A lot of the food here does exactly what you want it to do. The chicken satay stays moist beneath its grill marks. The piping-hot, cigar-size, cabbage-filled spring rolls shatter when your teeth sink into them. Tom ka gai brims with pleasure for about $4 a bowl: It is sweet with coconut milk, bright with lime, fiery with lemon grass and indulgent with chicken or shrimp. And here or there on Mai Thai's long bill of fare are dishes that remind you there's more to Thai food than salads and noodles. One such treat is "golden bags," little wonton purses with a pinch of curried potato, onions and ground chicken tucked inside. They come six to a plate, with a plum sauce for dunking, and are easy to polish off. And even the dedicated carnivores at my table returned, forks at the ready, to wrinkly cubes of steamed tofu tossed with colorful bok choy and jolted with fresh ginger.
Which reminds me: Mai Thai is a restaurant that welcomes diners of many denominations. Meat-and-potatoes types will be happy with the zippy grilled-beef salad and the robust, but not at all spicy, massaman curry, thick with big hunks of beef and soft pieces of potato, everything covered in a red gravy. Heat-seekers, on the other hand, should introduce themselves to the fragrant green curry dressed up with bamboo shoots, string beans and fresh basil, plus whatever protein they choose. In addition to that gingery tofu, vegetarians can count on velvety baby eggplant and garlicky steamed watercress to make them feel welcome at the party.
Only a few dishes make you wish you were dining elsewhere. They include a scrawny whole red snapper buried beneath peppers and chilies, and fried chili shrimp that appeared to be missing an important element. Not only were the shrimp faintly seasoned, but their batter was mushy. And I can think of a dozen other restaurants where the pad Thai is better. Note to kitchen: Your peanut dipping sauce tastes as sweet as candy.
Mai Thai is easy on the wallet and easy on the eyes. The kitchen isn't doing somersaults to wow you, but what's not to like about food that is steady and true, wrapped in a pretty package?