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.