Open Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Reservations unnecessary. Prices: Appetizers $2.75 to $4.25, main dishes $3.25 to $8.95. Full dinner with tax, tip and beer about $12 a person.
With so many Thai restaurants serving the Washington area, those who have become enamored of this delightful Southeast Asian cuisine consider themselves lucky in love. And in an interesting twist of affairs, they often find themselves in the suburbs -- where many of the best Thai restaurants are found.
Open only a few months, Rama is a dancehall-size establishment located on a Silver Spring side street where a string of earlier restaurants, including Sala Thai, have opened and closed. A few blocks north of the Silver Spring Metro stop and a half block over from Georgia Avenue, Rama is not that far off the beaten path -- and is worth finding. The food ranges from fair to very good, the decor is pleasant, the service is gracious, and for the time being, anyway, you don't have to fight for a table. We consistently spent $10 a person there, beer included.
Rama's appetizers are varied enough to satisfy both the bold and the wary. The spring rolls are crisp, delicate, tasty, and especially popular with children. The satay, skewered pieces of pork or beef served with a spicy peanut sauce and a change-of-taste cucumber salad, will please even the dubious. Chicken Rama (stuffed with crabmeat, pork and vegetables and deep-fried) is almost sweet and every bit as good as it sounds.
People who seek out Thai food often seek out the fiery side of the menu, and we are no exception. Thus we were more than a little enthusiastic about the nua nam tok (another appetizer), a mildly painful rendition of sliced, cold barbecued steak seasoned with shallots and mint leaves and, though the menu doesn't mention them, a small delegation of chile peppers.
More surprising yet was yam woon sen, a deceptively amiable-looking salad of spicy bean thread (cellophane noodles) with minced pork and seafood -- an artful combination of mild textures and the taste of fire. Spicy food lovers, take note.
Note also that the secret to ordering a Thai meal is balance: hot with not-hot, sweet with sour, soft with crisp, heavy with light. In a good Thai meal the tastes are orchestrated. One way to vary the meal is with soups, which are often eaten after the rest of the meal is served, or may be eaten throughout the meal, as liquid counterpart to the solids. Soups are among Rama's best offerings. Tomyam -- shrimps with lemon grass and mushrooms in broth, was superb one night, not as good another.Gai tom kha, chicken with lemon grass and galanga (a ginger-like root) in coconut milk, strikes an American palate as odd at first, but if you are the least bit adventurous, you should try both soups. The other soups on the menu are fine, but more familiar -- more like Chinese soups.
The main courses are disappointing, the noodle dishes even more so. Beef in oyster sauce, which the waiter did try to steer us away from, tasted like an old piece of beef. The duck with oyster sauce was more interesting, though the night we ordered it we were unable to appreciate its subtle pleasures because we had ordered seconds on the peppery beef salad shortly beforehand. Thai curry is soupier than Indian curry, with more of a chile base and less of the cumin-coriander-turmeric kind of spice. Rama's curry, while not as good as some we've eaten, was a decent enough example. One advantage of Thai cooking is that many spices are added at the last minute -- so the spiciness can be adjusted to suit the diner's taste.
The whole fish with ginger and bean sauce was lovely and flavorful, but I was distracted by the suspicion -- encouraged by the emptiness of the restaurant -- that it was not quite fresh. Had the other tables been crowded, I might have gobbled it down without so much sniffing. There's no question about it, an empty restaurant is prejudicial. Most of us subcribe to the theory that a good restaurant is full of people and an empty one probably deserves to be. Recent disappointments in popular restaurants, and a very enjoyable meal as Rama's only customers one recent Tuesday evening, have caused me to doubt this folk wisdom, though I still accept as a good omen the fact that Rama's other customers, one busier evening, were mostly Thai.