All of this might sound suspiciously like shabu-shabu — whether the Japanese or Chinese variation on the hot pot experience — if not for one thing: My friends and I are sitting in Vannipa Thai in the Culmore Shopping Center in Falls Church. Thailand, I have discovered, has its own spin on shabu-shabu, and it essentially begins and ends with the condiments that accompany the hot pot. The four sauces at Vannipa, including the classic fermented tofu blend known as sukiyaki, serve both as dipping bowls and travel guides, offering glimpses into the flavors preferred in each region in Thailand. (I’ll circle back to that in a second.)
What initially attracted me to Vannipa, however, was not its shabu-shabu, but its full page of Thai noodle soups, 10 in all. I must admit that in pursuing Vannipa so ardently, I was trying to re-create, like so many misguided romantics before me, the experience with an earlier flame.
Many years ago, I fell hard for a tiny Thai outpost located in the back of a parking lot, just steps from garbage rotting in a rusty dumpster. I almost had to herd my friend inside the restaurant with an electric prod, but once we took our seats at Nava Thai in Wheaton, we felt as if we had found the secret entrance to Narnia. Every noodle soup put before us, whether the floating market or yen ta fo, was a rare creature whose taxonomy had to be dissected and discussed ad nauseam.
While I didn’t enjoy the same Darwin-in-South-America discoveries at Vannipa, I did reignite my affair with yen ta fo, a liquid built from a chicken broth base and tinted pink with the last-second addition of a fermented soybean-and-chili-paste sauce that gives the soup its name. Crammed with fish cakes, shrimp, fried wontons, congealed pig’s blood, rat-ear mushrooms and exquisitely carved calamari (which look like pineapple stalks), yen ta fo teases you with its sweet, cartoonishly florescent broth before walloping you on the side of the head with its frying-pan heat. From every point of view, the yen ta fo at Vannipa stands up to scrutiny: flavor, texture, spice, visual appeal and sheer slurpability.
I’d love to report that I worked my way through all 10 soups — some day, some day — but I did order a few, all sold in small, manageable portions, per the Thai custom, so you can sample widely. Chefs Tina Komol and Tonya Poonkruen, veterans of such places as Busara and Kanlaya, devote an extraordinary amount of time and attention to those seemingly simple soups, which may explain why so few Thai restaurants even bother with the liquids. Their floating market, bulging with meatballs and pork rinds (!), packed more sourness than heat, while their egg noodle cooed with its mild coconut-curry broth, a flavor native to northern Thailand.
Even if you’re on a restricted-liquids diet, Vannipa has dishes worth investigating, like its crispy duck basil, these roasted slices of breast meat that are battered, fried and (when ordered Thai-style) lightly coated in a pungent chili-garlic sauce that, paradoxically, helps emphasize the dish’s sweetness. (Note: At $18, the entree barely squeezes under my budgetary ceiling.) The “hillbilly herb sauce” entree is also striking for its curry that shuns coconut milk in favor of aromatic greens such as kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil; the dish is best enjoyed, I believe, with a spoonful of the chili-vinegar condiment known as pik nam som, which gives this hillbilly some major firepower.
In fact, I’d keep those blistering tabletop condiments handy throughout the meal. Vannipa prefers to keep many of its dishes open-ended, by which I mean the chefs leave room for you to spike the food to your satisfaction. I found that the floating market soup and the pad Thai (prepared Rayong-style, with crab meat) both benefitted from a heat injection. The fiery larb gai, with its cooling cilantro counterpoint, did not.
Which brings me back to those shabu-shabu dipping sauces. As delightful as it is to cook beef, pork and seafood in a roiling hot pot, those proteins come to life only when dabbed in the chili-tamarind sauce (flavors courtesy of northern Thailand), the chili-lime-fish-sauce blend (central Thailand) and the curry-chili paste combo (south). It’s a trip around Thailand, right in Northern Virginia.