Mom and pop, and charm and spice
If you think the part of my job that takes me to posh settings to dine on the work of famous chefs is what I enjoy most, you're wrong. The more years I spend writing about restaurants, the more I'm drawn to bare tables, shopping strips and mom-and-pops. Unlike some of the fancy places, with their over-caffeinated promoters and predictable menus (pork belly has become the guest who won't leave), the humble spots call to me with the promises of good stories and food backed by personality.
Hidden in a corner of the Yorktowne Shopping Center in Falls Church, Elephant Jumps doesn't signal a find. Peer through the window of the youthful Thai restaurant, and you're apt to see the small dining room with only a handful of customers and a gentleman standing expectantly near a register. His name is Songtham Pinyolaksana and, along with a silent partner, he is a first-time restaurateur. Chances are good that the native of southern Thailand and former management analyst, who wanted "to be my own boss," will be your waiter. You'll eat well as a result of his guidance.
I'm happy to be introduced to shredded papaya that's fried rather than raw. A thatch of the airy-crisp green fruit is presented with a dressing of fish sauce, crushed peanuts and lime (chunky with string beans and tomatoes), plus a few pearly fried shrimp on top. You have to eat the combination quickly, before it cools down, but that's hardly a problem. The Elephant Jumps salad is a signature in more ways than one, an edible bouquet arranged from matchsticks of apple, shrimp and a dusting of roasted coconut, fine as sawdust. Lime juice, red onion and fresh cilantro lend spunk to the beautiful appetizer. Pinyolaksana tells us he can dress the salad as hot as we want, and we go for level four, which he describes as "Thai-hot." Maybe I have an asbestos tongue; the seasoning turns out to be sweet and feisty, searing but not so hot that I can't appreciate the fruit and coconut.
It's tempting to just keep grazing on salads here. Press on. Among other plates, the shrimp "flatbread" deserves your attention, too. A paste of ground shrimp slicked with sesame oil is smeared on pieces of pita bread, then flash-fried to order. The snack, served in finger-length slices, is reminiscent of Chinese shrimp toast. A clear dip of vinegar, sugar and cucumber makes it more special.
Not all the curiosities are Thai. A section of the menu called "East Meets West" includes drunken spaghetti chicken, a burrito stuffed with grilled chicken and peanut sauce, and a riff on a cheeseburger. So as not to compete with his neighbor, a deli operator, Pinyolaksana slips juicy slices of basil-brightened beef and melted cheese inside a croissant rather than a bun. The sandwich is odd but intriguing. The cross-cultural cooking reads like an attempt to reach the fast-food crowd, but Pinyolaksana says the creations stem from the time he was doing business on the road and found mixing containers of rice and curry from home too cumbersome in his car.
The bulk of the menu, which is under the supervision of Pinyolaksana's wife, Panida, who is one of three cooks, will be familiar to fans of Thai food. There's shrimp soup: floating tender seafood and sliced mushrooms in a dusky red broth. Steamed dumplings stuffed with ground pork and shrimp arrive with frizzy caps of fried garlic and a sweet soy sauce for dipping. Fish choices include tilapia, cut into pieces and fried with Thai basil, onions and chilies. Glossy with garlic-and-chili sauce, every bite zips from heat to sweet in the mouth. The dish is very pleasing.
The food can take time getting to you, but it all shows care. Dark golden fish cakes the size of quarters, each set off with a fried basil leaf, are arranged just so on their slender white plate, accompanied by a racy dipping sauce of chilies and ground peanuts. Tender chicken and purple baby eggplant bob in a mild but nuanced green curry that's easy on the eyes and the tongue (and more interesting for the pancake-like roti framing the bowl). If you like your curry on the wild side, consider the brick-red (and biting) Penang.
Some of the food is so good, you're taken aback by what's ordinary. An appetizer of "spicy" minced pork and herbs came through with the kick, but the meat lacked juiciness. And a vegetarian entree of limp broccoli, carrots and fried tofu suffered more from its cloying peanut sauce. (Sugar sometimes is used too liberally here.) Still, the successes outnumber the lemons.
Images of the restaurant's mascot grace the menu and appear on colorful swatches of fabric on the wall. There are only 32 seats here, but the setting packs in stylish details. The tables are dressed with condiments served in pretty porcelain jars, and the walls leading to the restroom display small wooden figures of musicians. To give the boxy interior some curves, upended open umbrellas hang from the ceiling outside the kitchen.
The only missing element right now: more diners. I'll leave that to you to remedy.
Two stars (Good)
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards. Parking lot.
Metro: Dunn Loring-Merrifield.
Prices: Appetizers $3.95 to $7.50, entrees $8.50 to $13.95.
Sound check: 62 decibels/Conversation is easy.