Soi 38 brings the tastes of Thailand to vivid life

E ating at the modish Soi 38 downtown, where a dragon’s eye stares you down at the bar and pork liver shocks the tongue with chilies and lime, you’d never guess the restaurant shares owners with the decade-old Thai Place nearby.

Soi 38, with its big bamboo lamps and faint fragrance of fish sauce and fresh herbs, calls to all the senses. Thai Place, where the menu was created to appeal to broad American tastes, “is not the real Thai,” says Dia Khanthongthip. She should know, since she owns both establishments, as well as the five-year-old Royal Thai in Chinatown, with her husband, Nat Ongsangkoon. (Part of a row of townhouses owned by George Washington University, Thai Place will close this year to make way for an office building.)

Soi 38 is the couple’s chance to finally share a taste of their native Bangkok, where snacks are hawked from small stalls until the wee hours on bustling side streets, or sois; they named Soi 38 for one of the Thai capital’s best-known night markets. Its menu, broken into categories including “warm up,” “rolls,” “curries” and more, represents what Khanthongthip says she and her family typically eat back in Thailand.

Their good grazing is ours. Even Thai standards like lemon grass soup with shrimp (each spoonful charged with the herb sometimes called “barbed-wire grass”) and steamed whole fish (strewn with cilantro, lime and fresh Thai red chilies) seem more vivid here than at just about any competitor. Meanwhile, lesser-seen plates, like the aforementioned pork liver, stamps of rich meat that pick up crunch from toasted rice, impart something fresh to the city’s Thai scene.

With the help of exposed wood, a palette of gold and black, and murals depicting street life as well as elephants and peacocks, Khanthongthip and her husband have gone out of their way to make their third restaurant an original. I imagine the chef’s table will be in demand once people learn of it. There aren’t many restaurants with one table large enough to accommodate — hello, book clubbers and birthday partiers! — 14 diners. This one is also strategically placed in view of the sleek, second-level bar.

That’s fortuitous, because here’s the rare Thai restaurant where you should start a meal not with a Singha but with a cocktail. The owners tapped bar maven J.P. Caceres to create a list of drinks that include several served from small glass flasks poured at the table. A request for a Thai Manhattan finds the server lighting the edge of an orange peel and rubbing it on the rim of a coupe before pouring the chilled contents from the mini bottle. Tea-infused vermouth and chili bitters make for a spicier-than-usual classic.

From the fryer emerge crisp chopped shrimp — delicious support for a colorful salad of julienned mango, red onions, lime and chili — and even finer whole golden chicken. The bird is plucked from a bath of fish sauce and tropical herbs before it goes into the hot oil, giving it extraordinary savor. Served in quarters that shatter with every bite, the chicken is offered with two sauces, one sweet and tangy, the other zesty and hot. I dig both.

Those who don’t do well with heat but still crave finesse won’t be left out of the fun. For them, there is a clear soup of chicken broth bobbing with marbles of ground pork loin, cubes of tofu and kerchiefs of seaweed gathered in a rectangular bowl. Also: Stir-fried rice with shrimp, cashews and carrots, an entree presented inside a pineapple half. As simple a side dish as Chinese broccoli, cut on the bias and dressed with oyster sauce and sesame oil, impresses us with its pleasant crunch and vivid hue. Chef Mitchai Pankham, a friend of the owners from back home, knows diners eat first with their eyes.

Pankham hails from Northern Thailand, a detail your server may bring up when she’s pointing out menu highlights. Regardless, know to go for his tastes of home. Khao soi finds steamed egg noodles on the bottom of a bowl of golden curry and fried egg noodles rising from the surface, alongside a tender chicken leg. The assembly is completed at the table, where diners eat the blazing curry using chopped red onions, sour cabbage and chili oil from a small plate of condiments. Gaeng hang lay makes me want to visit Northern Thailand, too. The brick-colored curry, fueled with kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce, drapes chunks of pork belly that have been cooked slowly to absorb their enhancers. Garnishes of roasted peanuts and matchsticks of ginger, added just before serving, advance the cause of compelling eating. Gaeng hang lay comes with a little basket of sticky rice, the perfect mop for its robust sauce.

Every dish I sampled on a maiden trip was a reason to return. As I got to know Soi 38, I encountered some snags. A roll called poh pia sod, for instance, tasted as if it had been brought in from another kitchen. The thin steamed crepe wrapped around Chinese sausage, fried egg and cool bean sprouts came with a sauce stuck on palm sugar. Roasted duck and cucumber stuffed in tortilla-thin roti deliver a superior performance. Among main dishes, massamun is strictly for the meat-and-potatoes, hold-the-sass set. In the company of so much interesting food, the timid curry is a wallflower. Same for the flash-fried dominos of pork belly with Chinese broccoli in a wash of oyster sauce; the combination is nice to have met but not something you’d pursue long-term.

That said, the draws far outnumber the dross at this restaurant.

What took the owners so long to come up with their hit? Khanthongthip says they needed the time to find the right location, select a chef and figure out how best to deliver the goods, design included. Soi 38 turns out to be a recipe worth waiting for.

2.5 stars

Location: 2101 L St. NW.
202-558-9215.soi38dc.com.

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday,
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $5.50 to $10, entrees $14 to $18.

Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 2101 L St. NW.
202-558-9215.soi38dc.com.

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday,
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $5.50 to $10, entrees $14 to $18.

Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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