Taking Thai Cuisine in a new direction
Seasoned restaurateurs serve street fare
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Fred and CiCi Hart thought they were retiring from the restaurant business in 2008 when they sold their Rockville establishment, Benjarong, after a 15-year run. Only a year later, they realized they missed feeding strangers who had become friends, hoped to help out some loyal employees and found a location in Germantown to solve that problem. Their new place was an opportunity to address a question, says Fred Hart: "What could we bring to the restaurant that we didn't do before?"
Something less formal, he and his family decided, starting with the name. The repeating words in Sabai Sabai Simply Thai translate as "relax, relax." The directive is easy to follow, given the soothing palette of orange and lime, and what sounds like lute music in the dining room. "It looks like a spa," a friend observed as we made our way from the entrance to a table, where we were handed large menus whose content distinguished Sabai Sabai from the Harts' original Thai restaurant.
In addition to Thai classics that could be found at Benjarong, the menu has two other groups of offerings: street fare and vegetarian dishes. The last collection is a gesture to the Harts' daughter, Vanda Manprasert, who doesn't eat meat. Among her other contributions to the restaurant are the handsome photographs of street life in her mother's home town of Bangkok.
My gang starts the first of several meals by ordering appetizers that pretty much every Thai eatery in the area stocks. The table is soon crowded with springy, slightly greasy shrimp cakes; ground chicken (larb), its heat matched by its sweet, delivered with crisp lettuce for scooping; and steamed dumplings made with pork and seafood, their tops crunchy with fried garlic.
They are all appealing, but the appetizer with the most repeat customers at my table hails from the vegetarian section: bright kernels of corn suspended in a wisp of fried batter and presented as nubby golden cakes with a dip of cucumber. The dish is simple, and simply wonderful. Another meat-free standard, tom yum, gathers crisp carrots, snow peas and broccoli in a lemon grass broth that glistens with specks of red chili pepper. Less enticing: curry puffs, braided turnovers with a soft filling of potato and chicken that errs on the sweet side.
Overseeing the kitchen are two Hart-era veterans of Benjarong, Sunthara Hongswang and Boonma Utsaha. In dish after dish, the women demonstrate why Thai food tugs at so many chow hounds' heartstrings. In the penang curry, for instance, which can be made with meat, chicken or seafood, the sweetness of the coconut milk is tempered by the heat of the chilies, which, in turn, are tweaked by fragrant and lemony kaffir lime leaves.
The dish I'm most eager to return to is one of the items flagged as a street snack: a big bowl of sliced braised pork leg. The super-tender meat floats in a broth zapped with star anise and stinging with vinegar, shocks of flavor that keep my fork returning for more. Ground pork makes an appearance in another "snack," a plate-size omelet that is anything but tame, thanks to Sriracha sauce, the Thai condiment revered for its distinctive firepower. (It's tangier than the usual sweet chili sauce.)
Other streetwise attractions include floating market noodle soup and salted perch with Chinese broccoli. The soup fulfills the promise of its name; the bowl is crammed with fine rice noodles, dense meatballs, shaved beef and a broth that torches the throat going down. (Chili and garlic will do that.) The fish is fried and shredded, tossed with the bright green leafy vegetable and moistened with an oyster sauce-based gravy.
Spicy catfish is one of Sabai Sabai's signatures. The entree, arranged with clusters of tiny peppercorns, green chilies and fried Thai basil, seduces first the eyes, then the taste buds; the combination of those seasonings with the crisp and snowy fish fillets is quite pleasing. Pork belly, fried to a fine crisp, reminds the Latino in my posse of a dish from his youth: "Thai chicharron," he dubs the dish, also a signature. (For those who prefer it, brown rice can be substituted for white rice with the main courses for $1.)
Dull shrimp and cloying sweetness in an order of pad Thai meant much of the entree was left uneaten, a detail the server noted. The chef on duty insisted on redoing the dish on a busy weekend afternoon; the second version got more than a dent in it.
The setting at Sabai Sabai lets you relax, relax. The kitchen encourages you to eat, eat.
The most unusual item on the menu - a combo of hot dogs, ham, eggs and raisins on catsup-flavored rice - is considered comfort food in Thailand, says co-owner CiCi Hart.