Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, for dinner Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations suggested for dinner. AE, V, MC, DC. Prices: Full meal with drinks, tax and tip about $15 a person.
Art Deco Americana never looked better. The old Arbaugh's closed, its ribs and its wooden-booth dining room having grown tired, and we missed what it once had been rather than what it was at the end. But now the old place looks better than ever. It has become a Thai restaurant, but the colorful, angular Art Deco neon outside and the signs behind the bar look freshly pretty, and the old booths have been repainted, their mirrored walls with shell-shaped glass lamps polished to renewed vigor. Even the early Arbaugh's never had anything as fancy as sprays of baby orchids on the tables.
Thai Taste missed slightly, by making its bright coral laminated tables a little too narrow for the booths, but otherwise it is a charming dining room, matched and even bettered by the service. The staff treat you as if they are giving you a private tour through the wonders of Thai cooking, describing dishes and helping to devise a suitable menu. Even when ordering the "exotic drinks," the waiter was helpful in steering us toward the frozen lime daiquiri, made from fresh juice. It was the best of those we tasted.
And you are likely to need a waiter's help, for the menu is long, with 15 appetizers, seven soups and nearly 60 main dishes, though many of them are variations on a theme. Like most Thai restaurants, Thai Taste lists appetizers at a price only slightly lower than main dishes. That is appropriate, as the appetizers are very large portions (and main dishes tend to be smallish). In all, both appetizers and main dishes are reasonable, and a full meal with drinks is very good value at around $15 a person.
Don't shortchange the appetizers -- concentrate on them. In fact, order more appetizers than main courses. There are cold and hot ones, as well as some wonderful soups. It is hard to pass up the satay and the fried stuffed chicken wings. Satay are tiny bits of beef or pork seasoned and threaded on skewers, grilled and served with a spicy peanut sauce. The fried chicken wings are stuffed with crab meat, bits of black mushrooms, transparent noodles, garlic and ginger, and with cashews and water chestnuts as well. The batter is studded with sesame seeds and forms a thin and crunchy crust on the chicken; it is the best version I have tasted. Nor would I pass up charcoal-grilled chicken if it is among the specials; in fact, I would order it as a main course if not an appetizer. The chicken is marinated with soy sauce and garlic, grilled so that it is beautifully tender and juicy, with a deliciously smoky and crisp crust, then hacked into small pieces and served with red-gold, sweet-hot dipping sauce.
But those appetizers are only a start. There are cold, peppery and lemony salads of minced cooked meats or seafoods, such as larb kai with chicken or versions with squid, shrimp tripe or pork. There are fried spring rolls and wontons and shrimp wrapped in bean curd skin or minced fish made into fried cakes. And there is a delicious and unusual fried salted beef, the strips of meat coated with spices and fried so they are crisp straight through and taste like good lean bacon.
The soups can be outstanding. A large single portion costs $3 to $6, but these are meaty concoctions and not just flimsily garnished broths. The Thai classics are chicken (or shrimp or seafood) with lemon grass or chicken with coconut milk, both chock-full of juicy diced chicken and their broths full flavored from fresh stock, then highly seasoned with tart and aromatic lemon grass or with hot peppers and mellow coconut milk and galanga root. I'd be hard pressed to choose between them.
Main dishes are more variable, indeed less exciting. There are four curries, most with coconut milk, and other offerings divided into poultry, meats, noodle and rice dishes, vegetables and a very large seafood section. There are a few daily specials, one day an interesting shrimp steamed in buttermilk to a rich and savory custard. The shrimp were excellent, juicy and lightly cooked, embedded in the custard along with scallions cut into feathery sprays. The dish would have been delectable had it not been too salty -- a fact the waitress noted herself after dinner, with apologies. Another day the specials included fried trout coated with a thick sauce of curry and coconut milk; the sauce was more savory than the fish, which was fried to toughness. Otherwise the main dishes have been good but not as outstanding as the first courses. Thai beef was plentiful tender slices of meat, well seasoned and layered on transparent noodles to absorb its juices. Chicken with cashews combined diced meat and vegetables in a pleasant stir-fry. Pud Thai, thin noodles topped with meats, seafoods and a sprinkling of peanuts, was aromatic and faintly sweet, but could have been improved if the shrimp had not tasted so watery. Duck with asparagus sauce started out fine -- the nearly boneless duck meat moist and tender, its crisp skin in a crunchy coating flavored with a soy tang and nuttiness. The dish would have been more delicious if it hadn't been made from pale, canned asparagus.
There is more to discover. In season there are oysters and charbroiled whole crabs. Each day there are different steamed fish, with lemon grass or ginger and "salt prunes"; or with pork, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Meats are sauteed with chili paste, ginger or basil or with garlic and pepper, or they are cooked in red wine sauce.
In many dishes, particularly main courses, Thai Taste mutes its pepperiness, so if you like your food searing, ask that they turn up the heat. If you don't, ask questions, since the meat salads and soups can be inflammatory.
As for desserts, they are quite exotic and quite sweet. There are waterlily nuts with jelly and pineapple in syrup, water chestnuts diced with coconut milk or plain canned tropical fruits. I'd been tempted by friends' descriptions of the Thai dessert of the day, but the day I ordered, the dessert happened to by a gummy square of starchy pudding. Desserts have never been a strong point in Thai restaurants here, and Thai Taste has proved no exception.
Thai Taste has taken an old tradition, a Washington landmark, and overlaid it with delicate and intricate Thai cooking and exceptionally gracious service, all at a particularly low price. It has already been adopted as a neighborhood fixture.