Pasa Thai's Cooking Speaks to Authenticity

Pasa Thai's specialties include, from left, Wild, chicken or pork with bamboo shoots in red curry sauce; Bikini Shrimp, large shrimp sheathed in wonton wraps and deep-fried; and crispy calamari.
Pasa Thai's specialties include, from left, Wild, chicken or pork with bamboo shoots in red curry sauce; Bikini Shrimp, large shrimp sheathed in wonton wraps and deep-fried; and crispy calamari. (Preston Keres - Twp)
Sunday, July 9, 2006

Almost every Thai restaurant in the Washington area has adopted an informal three-chili rating system for the spiciness of its dishes. Not the new Pasa Thai in McLean.

To Sakrapee "Otto" Vetchapinan, one of three Pasa Thai owners, the chili symbol is simply an indication that the preparation is spicy. Just how spicy is open to discussion. One chili is not really one chili in Pasa Thai parlance.

I didn't know that when I ordered the grilled steak salad on my first visit. I've ordered the same dish, or its seafood counterpart, dozens of times, in dozens of places. Only once -- in Sydney, at a restaurant owned by a chef who wrote an authoritative book on Thai cooking -- has it been truly fiery.

Until I tried Pasa Thai's version. I ate it, but it took about 15 minutes for my mouth to recuperate. The incident brought robust apologies from my server, who suggested I ask for a milder version next time.

Pasa Thai ("pasa" means "language") speaks in the true native vernacular when it comes to seasonings. There is no automatic dumbing down of seasonings here. Pasa Thai is the real thing, and that's a rarity.

Vetchapinan and chef Iadua Komol, who most recently served as general manager and cook, respectively, at Washington's Kanlaya, joined with Kitti "Benz" Srithongkum and Yodchai "Nung" Horcharoen to open Pasa Thai two months ago after spending more than three months renovating the space, formerly home to a Japanese eatery.

The interior is filled with cool greens and rich wood tones and accented with a bit of industrial chic. Welded pipes and cables delineate the space. The bar is wrapped in steel embossed with a diamond tread pattern more typical of industrial stairs. Chrome stools are pulled up to the bar, which has a large, flat-panel television that feels out of place in the sleek space.

A small patio flanked by flower boxes adds a few tables just outside the front door, overlooking Route 123.

Don't be scared off by the fiery food. Because about half the dishes are spicy, be sure to find out just what you are getting yourself into.

Not everything will set your mouth aflame. Crispy spring rolls are a classic vegetable version, deep-fried and sliced on an angle, then presented with fish sauce. Pasa Thai dumplings -- steamed open-faced with a filling of crab, shrimp and pork -- are gently seasoned by a dark, sweet soy sauce.

The golden calamari is a special treat, crispy on the outside like good, crusty onion rings. It is meltingly tender on the inside and doesn't really need the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce to make it notable.

Chicken curry puffs are fat pillows of pastry filled with curry, chicken and potato, cooled by a simple cucumber salad. Bikini Shrimp -- a trio of large shrimp sheathed in wonton wraps and deep-fried -- is milder than its provocative name might suggest.

For those dishes marked with a chili, it might take a couple of times for the kitchen to find your comfort range, but I discovered it generally errs on the mild side if there are any doubts. An order of ka prow , a standard Thai chicken with basil leaves and chili garlic sauce, was packed with slivers of green chilies, which I know better than to eat, but the accompanying sauce could have been stronger.

A dish with the simple name of Wild -- chicken or pork with bamboo shoots in a red curry sauce -- was a bit tamer than I might have liked. Again, I avoided the pepper slivers.

Sizzling Siam Beef is a dish even the most timid diner can enjoy. The thinly sliced beef is marinated for three days and then stir-fried and served on what looks like a fajita platter. The platter is the hottest thing about the dish. The meat's texture is velvety smooth, and the ginger barely gives it a kick.

Pasa Thai pays special attention to vegetarians, offering nearly a dozen dishes, about half marked with the cautionary chili.

Fried bananas are a favorite dessert. The fruit is wrapped in wonton skins and deep-fried, then served with coconut ice cream.

The star dessert is sticky rice with mango slices. The gentle mound of warm rice is suffused with sweet coconut milk and sprinkled with sesame seeds, a lovely contrast to the ripe mango. It's especially soothing if you are still reeling from the fiery grilled steak salad.

Pasa Thai 1315 Old Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, 703-442-0090. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturdays, noon-10 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers, $4-$8; main courses at lunch, $8-$12; main courses at dinner, $10-$14. Accessible to people with disabilities.

If you have a favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis atlewisn@washpost.com.


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