The first time I visited Amina Thai Restaurant it was midafternoon in late winter, and between deliveries of the dishes I had ordered, owner Amina Toopet quietly took a prayer rug to the back hallway, said her prayers and returned to tending to my needs.
Amina Thai, in a tiny shopping strip in the sharp curve of Nicholson Lane near White Flint Mall, is the area's first halal Thai restaurant. That means, among other things, it doesn't serve pork or alcohol and the meat is from animals that have been slaughtered according to Islamic law. Toopet runs her restaurant with equal attention to her religion and her customers.
By my second visit, this dynamo -- who works the 40-seat room with the skill of a seasoned lobbyist -- had discerned that I prefer appetizers to main courses, and by the third visit, that my favorites are the spicy, astringent flavors of Thai salads.
"It is my favorite," Toopet assured me as I asked for her version of yum nua. In a slight variation on the usual presentation, the strips of beef are briefly grilled before being combined with red onions and cucumbers in her spicy lime dressing.
"The grilling gives it more flavor," said Toopet, who prepares all the dishes from her recipes. Ask and she can describe the most complex preparation. Tell her how spicy you want your food, and she will see that it suits your preferences.
Such attention to detail is the hallmark of Amina Thai, from the soothing ocean blue and shimmery lemon grass green-yellow of the dining room walls to the handsome small ceramic boxes that hold packets of sweeteners. Decorations are spare: a few plants, some pottery, photographs of Thailand and a spotlessly clean dark wood floor. One day I watched as Toopet took a damp mop to the nearly invisible tracks left by a deliveryman.
She seemed to be everywhere, a blur of scarf and long skirts, refilling glasses of water, suggesting possible menu choices, delivering a slice of Thai custard to show off one of her country's little-known desserts.
She and her husband, Hassan, who cooks at the restaurant, came to the United States 21 years ago. Her restaurant experience includes stints at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and Sushi-ko in Washington. Along the way she worked through the ranks from busboy to assistant manager. Hassan Toopet previously cooked at Sushi-ko and Benihana.
Amina Thai's menu is well edited, showcasing exquisitely fresh vegetables, fish, seafood and meats. The appetizer selections can be combined into a terrific meal, which isn't surprising, because in Thailand all dishes are served at the same time.
Kanom jeeb (dumplings combining chicken, shrimp and crab) are light and airy and nicely complemented by sweet Thai soy sauce. A vegetable version of the same dish is available, but Amina Toopet said these are better. She was right.
Yum talay, a seafood version of the tangy grilled beef salad, is just-cooked, still-warm shrimp, bay scallops and diamond-shaped pieces of squid atop green-lipped mussels, all bathed in glorious lime dressing. It's difficult to choose between the beef and seafood versions.
Even the tod mun (curried fish cakes), which at other restaurants are often bland or rubbery, are suffused with flavor here, and that's before one adds the piquant onion and cucumber relish that accompanies them. Toopet said the thin croquettes are very labor intensive, with lots of mincing and mixing and deep-frying twice.
Just as complicated are the chicken wings, which are transformed into little drumsticks and stuffed with crab.
The chicken lemon grass soup (tom yum) is spicy but not fiery. Toopet was pleased when I finished off the broth. "All the herbs. They are so good for you," she said.
Amina Thai offers elegantly fresh versions of Thai favorites such as pad kaprow (chicken with basil), pad khing (chicken or beef with vegetables and ginger in garlic and black bean sauce) and various curries. Toopet said she doesn't like coconut milk in main courses; I agree with her.
The only dish I found disappointing was pad kee mao (popularly known as drunken noodles), which I thought was dry and not sufficiently fiery.
There are also several vegetarian dishes.
Besides the beef and seafood salads, my favorite dish is the fried banana dessert. At Amina Thai, banana slices are enveloped in rice paper; the petite bundles are then deep-fried until crisp and drizzled with honey and chocolate sauce. And now Toopet knows all my dining preferences.
Amina Thai Restaurant 5065 Nicholson Lane, Rockville, 301-770-9509. Reservations recommended for groups of six or more and on weekends. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays. Appetizers, $4.25 to $7.95. Main courses at lunch, $6.25 to $10.95; main courses at dinner, $8.25 to $13.95. Accessible to people with disabilities. www.halalthaicuisine.com.
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