Pad Thai Done Right
A Burke restaurant rekindles a flagging appetite for Thailand's signature dish
By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008
Sound Check: 74 decibels (must speak with raised voice)
There are tons of just-okay Thai restaurants in the Northern Virginia 'burbs, so when we heard in January about Panisa Thai opening in a shopping center in Burke, our jaded reaction was, yeah, whatever.
But six months later, we were still hearing about it. About how the longtime bartender's assistant at the Union Street Public House in Alexandria had opened this little gem of a place where his wife was doing the cooking. How the menu was simple but stellar. How the wine list was a big improvement over the usual underwhelming labels you find in modest places such as this.
Okay, already, we can take a hint. We rounded up some friends and headed out to Burke. Guess what? We need to stop being so jaded.
What makes Panisa Thai special is that it takes many of the standard dishes found in hundreds of area Thai restaurants and reminds us how they ought to taste. The flavors here are distinctive and fresh, not just a big mash-up of too little spice and too much sweetness. Even pad Thai, that signature dish that is done so sloppily in so many places, gets the proper treatment. The noodles aren't sticky, you can taste the tang of tamarind, and the sweetness is kept to a minimum. I had almost stopped ordering pad Thai because it always seemed so bland and dumbed down. This version reminded me how good the dish can be.
Although the food at Panisa Thai is traditional, the feel of the restaurant is contemporary. A caramel-colored wall on one side has black wooden architectural accents. A large white canvas dominates an adjoining wall, with colorful squares painted by the owner's teenage children. The food is served on large, square white plates.
The restaurant is owned by Kriangkrai Jiumdumneankij, who is known at Union Street, where he still works, as Tommy Thai. His wife, Pojjana (or Ying, as everyone calls her), is the cook. The couple renovated the former Boston Market space with help from relatives and friends. Seating is limited -- the two booths and a dozen or so tables can hold 58 guests -- but fortunately for Ying, the kitchen is spacious.
Start your meal with the tucked shrimp appetizer. Jumbo tiger shrimp are stretched straight and rolled up in egg-roll wrappers that are fried to a light-golden crisp. They come with a sweet tangerine sauce and are a perfect foil to a glass of cold, crisp Drylands Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, one of two dozen nicely chosen wines available by the glass.
While you munch your shrimp, consider which duck dish to order. There's yum ped yang, a roast duck salad with generous chunks of meat tossed with fresh mint, ginger, onions, roast chilies and a fiery lime dressing. It's a perfect example of the Thai talent for combining cool, hot, salty and tangy elements without letting any one of them overwhelm the others. Or, for a gentler option, try roasted duck noodles, which come in a large, shallow bowl of slurp-worthy duck broth seasoned with soy, star anise and green onions.
The addictively spicy lime dressing of yum ped yang also makes an appearance in yum woon sen, a bracing salad of clear bean thread noodles with ground chicken, shrimp, onions, chilies and mint.
The word "pad" in Thai means stir-fried, and pad khing is stir-fried ginger, a slyly hot dish that is terrific with shrimp. Order it that way and it comes with a generous helping of sweet, tender shrimp and an equally liberal amount of julienned fresh ginger to give the dish its heat, plus mushrooms, onions and bell pepper. Pad krapow is stir-fried basil, a basic, dependable recipe that we liked with chicken. The chunks of tender white meat are given a quick toss with chilies, soy sauce, garlic and a bit of sugar. Torn sweet basil leaves are added right at the end, filling your nose with their aroma and your mouth with their subtly spicy, lightly anise flavor.
Among the noodle dishes on the menu is Bruce's Choice. Who is Bruce? Turns out he's the bartender at Union Street with whom the owner has worked for more than 20 years. Bruce evidently loves drunken noodles, so this is a tip of the hat to him. And a fine acknowledgment it is. The soft, broad noodles have a subtle smoky flavor from the wok. Ours came topped with chicken plus crunchy vegetables, aromatic sweet basil and sliced chilies. Drunken noodles are often bland and disappointing, so it was refreshing to taste such a full-flavored version.
Thai curries are renowned, and Panisa Thai does much to advance their reputation. Our vegetarian friends loved the peanutty panang curry with tofu, particularly because the fried tofu triangles were light, almost fluffy, instead of rubbery from overcooking.
If you're a curry fan, don't miss the creamy red curry. Our waitress suggested we order it with beef. We decided on chicken, but it came with beef, anyway. Not a big enough deal for us to send it back. We ordered it medium-spicy, which is nowhere near as spicy as Thais typically eat curry but definitely hot enough for those who want a nice kick in the head. The lean strips of beef came with bamboo shoots, carrots and pieces of kaffir lime leaves. The licorice punch of basil leaves added a nice contrast.
To cool off our palates with something sweet, we had fresh mango and sticky rice (lovely) and Thai custard (interesting). The light-brown, almost bready custard is made with coconut milk and taro root; taro-thickened custard forms the bottom layer, and an egg custard forms the top. It's served warm with a honey sauce and topped with toasted sesame seeds.
For a family-run restaurant, where most of the staff is related to the owner and chef, Panisa Thai offers surprisingly prompt and professional service. Part of that is due to the manager, Tony Sanworanart, who's also responsible for the interesting wine list. Sanworanart is a constant warm, friendly and helpful presence, a talent he undoubtedly developed in his former career as a real estate agent. Does it say anything about the economy that he gave up selling houses to work in his friend's restaurant? He just laughs: "Let's just say that the restaurant business right now is a lot better than the housing business.