Open: For lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Tuesday thorugh Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. Reservations suggested for large parties. MC, V, AE, DC. Lunch entrees $3.95 to $6.95. Dinner entrees $5.95 to $7.95. Average price of dinner with tax and tip about $15 a person.
Even without Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, The King and I is a terrific show. This version is a small restaurant nestled next to a video arcade in a shopping strip on Glebe Road. And nothing outside prepares you for the inside, which is slightly Disneyland, with brightly painted walls and a colorful pagoda constructed over the bar. Along one side of the restaurant are "Thai Village" alcoves with low tables that only look as if you must kneel at them, but actually include holes in the floor that allow you to sit comfortably at these tables without tucking your feet under; triangular cushions provide support for your back. Windows cut between the alcoves prevent a feeling of claustrophobia, and little chandeliers provide a determined elegance to this slightly makeshift but cute setting.
But there is nothing makeshift about the food or service. Whether or not the members of the staff are actually a family, they certainly act as if they are. They treat customers as though you are guests in their home. They ask after your welfare, refill your drinks and act quite attentive, though you shouldn't assume that everyone who attends your table can speak English or you will wait a long time to have your requests filled.
The special charm of The King and I comes through on the menu. Who else offers dishes such as Crying in the Rain (elsewhere called shrimp and lemon grass soup), Prawn in the Mountain (shrimp with bean thread, ginger, pepper, soy sauce and brandy) or Veice of the East (fish soup with lemon grass)? What other restaurant contrasts Town Curry (duck with pineapple, coconut milk and chilies) and Country Side Curry (chicken with green beans and chilies)? And what description of a marinated seafood salad has been more compelling than "fresh shrimps, fresh squid, forest mushroom, onion, lettuce, and chili pepper with fresh lemon juice cooked and mixed in the nice degree appetite"?
What this delightful prose adds up to is eight appetizers, including the usual Thai grilled skewered satays; fried selections, such as crab-stuffed chicken legs and crab balls; and a couple of chili-and-lemon spiked meat and seafood salads. Then there are soups, of lemon or coconut with chicken or seafood, served in huge "steam pots" for two to four people or in single bowls that in truth are large enough for two to four. Main dishes go on for three pages, listing four curries, five shrimp dishes, three squid dishes and four dishes of crisp fish, sliced or whole. There are also mix-and-match preparations of stir- fried meats and vegetables, pork, duck and vegetable dishes. For dessert, there is only mixed tropical canned fruits.
Often Thai restaurants serve main dishes that are as small as appetizers. But over the months not only has the cooking at The King and I improved but also the portions have grown larger. And whereas the appetizers are delicious, as they usually are at Thai restaurants, the menu has evolved so that the main dishes are every bit as delectable nowadays -- which, of course, makes ordering difficult.
Satays here are particularly good; the meat is rubbed with more spices than at most restaurants and is grilled to juiciness. The peanut dipping sauce is sweet and hot but not excessively so, and there is the usual little cucumber-chili salad alongside. Among the fried appetizers, the crab balls came out more crisp than the stuffed chicken. For a cold contrast among appetizers, the Quarter Rain seafood salad was pretty rows of tree-ear mushrooms, delicately tender squid, shrimp and onion slices in a chili-spiked lemon dressing; the seafood version was better than the beef version, whose meat was chewy and its lemon and peppers were too timid. Every soup was excellent, and all were fairly peppery. (Be particularly careful not to bite into the woody slices -- they taste like solid fire, or hot green chilies.) My favorite of the soups is the chicken and coconut milk combination, which is like cream with a kick.
As for main dishes, again the squid is exceptional here, whether it is in a smoky oyster sauce with broccoli or more heated with garlic and pepper. The kitchen knows how to select and care for seafoods; the fried whole flounder is excellent, its skin and fins very crisp, its sweet white flesh moist and topped with a tangle of ginger that is as fine as thread. Less exciting were roast duck -- it was rather soggy and seemed to taste of reheating -- and the curries, which were soupy and their meat was overcooked. Rice is served in a big silver tureen and is particularly useful for capturing the wonderful intricate flavors of the unthickened gravies that are characteristic of Thai food.
That's it: a collection of deceptively simple dishes, just bits of meat and vegetables in thin gravies. But those gravies distill the ginger, the chilies, the coconut milk, myriad spices and such Eastern aromas as oriental basil into a mellow-hot blend, often faintly sweet and usually delectable. This is food that is light and fresh -- and hot. Thai beer in abundance is warranted. And a long run is predicted. For whatever flaws might be found in the food here and there, The King and I is an endearing show.