Thai X-ing: Bigger and possibly better
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011
The big problem
at tiny Thai X-ing had always been too few seats: Three tables in the basement of a rowhouse were never enough supply to meet demand. Fans reserved weeks ahead to eat green papaya salad and steamed fish within arm's reach of chef-owner Taw Vigsittaboot and his micro-kitchen in LeDroit Park. Even carryout orders had to be called in days in advance.
All that changed over the summer, when Vigsittaboot expanded, taking over the two floors above him and roughly tripling the number of diners he could accommodate. (Twenty-five people is still no big whoop.) With growth has come change: Thai X-ing no longer offers takeout (Bummer! No more chicken masaman on "Modern Family" nights), and instead of pondering a list of choices, customers receive a flurry of dishes the chef thinks they might like.
When you call the restaurant, you might or might not be told you will be eating the chef's selections. You might or might not be informed that Sunday is strictly vegetarian, or that if you want beer or wine you'll have to bring your own. (Have a credit card number handy when you make a reservation, by the way.) The first time I returned to Thai X-ing after a long absence, I was seated within eavesdropping distance of an answering machine that broadcast incoming reservation requests from people who sounded worried that their inquiries would be ignored. I was tempted to pick up the phone and reassure the callers.
Here is what I would have told them: Someone will eventually get back to you. On the night of your reservation, you'll know you're at the right address if it looks like a private residence. Push through the gate, descend a few steps and open the door. Does it feel as though you're entering a Thai speak-easy? It should. The room is so small and so stuffed with books, instruments, even an aquarium, you will very likely be in someone's way. "Name?" someone might call out in the dim light. "Number?" There's always a whiff of confusion in the air, not unlike the dinner party where you show up earlier than the host expected.
Thai X-ing will never be easy to access, but the restaurant continues to make its unorthodox hospitality worthwhile. Vigsittaboot, 54, learned to cook from his mother and grandmother as a boy in Chumporn in southern Thailand; when the women exited the kitchen to tend to other household tasks, it was his job to monitor whatever they'd left on the stove. The plates that the chef now sends out to diners at Thai X-ing are, he says, flavor combinations he grew up with.
The moment you're seated, the food starts showing up. My hunch is that having so many regular customers, the small staff no longer introduces the dishes unless called upon to do so.
"Cucumber soup," responds a server to my party's quizzical looks regarding some steaming bowls of golden broth. A little log of soft cucumber bobs in the center, a pleasant surprise at its core: minced pork seasoned with crushed white pepper seeds, cilantro and garlic. Vigsittaboot later tells me that when he eats the soup, "it's like my grandmother is there."
Everyone recognizes the green papaya salad, though some diners are not prepared for the fire in the toss of julienned tropical fruit, halved cherry tomatoes, crisp green beans and crushed peanuts. The appetizer is a torch-bearer.The chef, who hails from the zesty part of Thailand, does not pull punches when it comes to heat. Six years of feeding folks who have found their way to his shoebox have taught Vigsittaboot that his customers are "spicy people."
Like every good Thai practitioner, however, this one balances heat with sweet, sour, salty and bitter notes in his cooking. A cool salad of sliced beef, fresh mint and toasted rice is followed by soft pumpkin draped with creamy red curry, which creates a hush as it is being explored. Robust comfort food has that effect. Chicken drumsticks, cooked so that their meat falls away from the bones, are sweet with palm sugar and tart with tamarind sauce.
As if the staff is reading our minds, something light arrives. "Steamed pompano," says the woman who brings out the whole fish and shares that she helps her boss with the cooking. Like most of the food, this dish is presented on a banana leaf. The server takes a companion's (used!) spoon and fork and fillets the fish for the group. A clear sauce of lime juice, garlic and sugar gives the entree the right measure of sass.
Sunday nights are a treat, even if you aren't a vegetarian. The drill is the same - the food just shows up, and the meal runs to five or so courses - except for the absence of meat. Trust me: You won't miss it. Not when there is coconut milk soup brimming with sliced mushrooms, silky tofu and celery and shocked with lemon grass. Not when the meal is punctuated with sweet-and-sour tofu with baby corn and ribbons of carrot, or fleshy pumpkin and green beans moistened with mild panang curry. Somewhere in the feast you might also revel in steamed soybean sprouts combined with a party of fried garlic, sour peppers, soft onions and delicate snow peas.
What Thai X-ing sometimes lacks in finesse, it often makes up for in satisfied appetites - and oddball anecdotes you'll want to share later.