5892 Leesburg Pike
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Lunch appetizers and soups $2.75 to $6.95. Entrees $5.50 to $13.95 (most under $8). Dinner appetizers and soups $3.50 to $6.95 and entrees $7.75 to $13.95.
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, Carte Blanche, American Express. Nonsmoking section available.
Is there a "Duangrat Empire" emerging in the 5800 block of Leesburg Pike? First, there was Banjonglak and Thumrong Duangrat's family store, perhaps the most complete Thai grocery in Northern Virginia. Then, a stone's throw away, the family opened its first restaurant, Duangrat's, three years ago, and it quickly set the standard for elegant Thai dining in the metropolitan area. Six months ago, Rabieng opened, a lovely, less-lavish but more intimate version of the Duangrats' first restaurant.
Why two family restaurants nearly side by side? "They're easy to manage," is Banjonglak Duangrat's disarmingly simple reply. Perhaps, but the service at Rabieng was a little shaky on a recent busy Saturday night: two appetizers were forgotten and the entrees were slow in arriving. On another occasion, the waiter seemed a bit mystified by the menu.
Nonetheless, Rabieng is worth seeking out. While not all dishes reach perfection, most are satisfying and artfully presented. And in addition to the traditional Thai dishes found at Duangrat's, there are a dozen offerings typical of the northeast, or Esan, region of Thailand where, as in neighboring Laos, steamed rice is replaced by sticky rice and eating utensils are replaced by fingers.
A complete meal can be fashioned from this special section of the menu even though it consists mostly of appetizers and soups. A fun, interesting way to begin is with an order of the rich, roasted cashews spiked with fresh hot red peppers and green onions. Another good choice is the jerk beef, thin chewy strips of lean meat roasted and spiced with coriander seeds.
For the adventurous eater, there is saap soup ($7.95), a winner for its wonderful, spicy broth even if you don't care for the ingredients of tripe and beef tendon. Another dish, the boiled-but-still-crunchy pig ears, is definitely an acquired taste.
As for the Northeastern Thai entrees, there are two, a delicious, non-spicy, herb-scented grilled chicken ($7.95 for a half; $12.95 for a whole), and the similarly prepared quail.
From the regular menu I'd begin with the yum squid, a salad of tender grilled squid flavored with fiery peppers and fresh coriander leaves, or the less-fiery chicken galanga soup with its spicy edges softened by coconut milk. Another good choice is the deep fried chicken wing stuffed with minced pork and crabmeat. On the other hand, the spring roll was only so-so, and the chicken satay was slightly overcooked.
The best entree was a terrific fried whole flounder, aromatic with garlic and basil in a pungent chili sauce. Other dishes, while not as memorable, were still enjoyable, such as a special of honey-grilled pork, pork with garlic and beef with basil. The chicken with ginger and mushrooms, however, was marred by toughness and a lack of flavor.
To end the meal, I'd choose the sweetened Thai iced coffee or smoky Thai iced tea served with a top layer of half and half, although there are several desserts, such as a decent caramel custard and a refreshing almond cream with tropical canned fruits.