The journey from a sidewalk in Dupont Circle to a night to remember starts with a steep set of stairs, the walls of which are lined with Thai and Chinese newspapers and the base of which finds a slightly sinister costumed doll the size of a child.
Welcome to Sura, dressed to suggest a Bangkok Chinatown night market, according to its chef, Billy Thammasathiti. He co-owns the young restaurant with his mother, Penny, and his brother, Andy, the skill behind the drinks here. The name of the family affair has a double meaning: “sun” in Sanskrit and “spirits,” as in alcohol, in Thai, says Billy, 29. His aunt, Satang Ruangsangwatana, is a consultant on the project and the reason for my initial visit. Ruangsangwatana was a co-chef at foodie favorite Fat Nomads, a Thai supper club she staged in her home in Wheaton, Md., until last fall. Billy hosted there before launching Sura in May.
Don’t come looking for fish cakes or tom yum soup. Sura is not a Thai traditionalist. Billy Thammasathiti comes to the restaurant from Azumi, a Japanese establishment in Baltimore, and likes to call his business an izakaya, or Japanese pub. Born in Springfield, Va., he spent summers learning to cook from his grandmother in Bangkok, and he says his family is “Thai-Chinese by blood.”
An order of skewered beef shows how the chef makes some Thai basics his own. A riff on crying tiger beef, the ropy meat is marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar and salt and sprinkled with what Thammasathiti calls “rice spice” — roasted sticky rice, lemongrass, lime leaves — before hitting the grill. The textures and aromatics are riveting.
Other dishes let Thammasathiti remind you where he’s cooked before. The chef displays raw black tiger shrimp, garnished with crackling tobiko, in a pool of sauce made green with chiles and cilantro and sassy with lime juice and garlic. The supple shrimp slip over the tongue like slick noodles; the fire in the sauce stays with you even as you move on to other dishes.
As in an izakaya, dishes aren’t designated as appetizers or entrees, and the food comes out as it’s ready.
Thammasathiti must have had his brother’s craft in mind when he proposed “chips & dip.” Airy, garlic-scented rice crackers and a little dish of ground pork and roasted peanuts souped up with coconut milk are the perfect companion to one of Andy’s drinks. The other obvious bar snacks are quail eggs fried inside bow-tie-shaped wontons, dappled with sweet-sour chile-garlic sauce and served with a pinch of pickled cabbage and carrot. Munch, munch, gone, just like the bean curd skin rolls. They’re sliced to reveal springy centers of ground pork, shrimp and water chestnuts, and enhanced by a dunk in what looks like honey but turns out to be salted plum caramel.
The drinks prove as spirited as the cooking. The signature libations affix Asian accents to the classics. Hence the passion fruit liqueur in the refreshing daiquiri, and baijiu, a potent Chinese spirit, in a pleasantly medicinal Manhattan made with mezcal and fernet. The latter goes by the name Yaowarat and pays homage to Bangkok’s Chinatown, where Andy’s father is from. Yet another crowd-pleaser marries a cosmopolitan with a caipirinha. Ask for the raspberry-colored Cosmorinha.
The chef loves to play with fire, evinced by pork belly simmered in fish sauce before it’s fried. The seductive dish, lavished with colorful bell peppers and heaped on steamed rice, is finished with a chile sauce that races from hot to tangy and back, a sensation (somewhat) tamed by abundant Thai basil in the jumble. Then there’s the Chinatown-inspired chicken with cashews, smoky from the wok, which also singes the onions and ginkgo nuts in the assembly. The predominant memory of the dish is the peppery wake left in your mouth. Thank you, dried Chinese chiles. Crisp chopped duck prompts sweat on the brow with hits of the same, plus lime juice, shallots and a jungle of fresh herbs that make you feel more alive than before you tucked into the dish.
A page of meatless dishes expands the audience for Sura. Precise blocks of fried tofu draw eyes to the golden stack, strewn with crackly bits of fried ginger and garlic and herbs including cilantro. Pluck a cube, soft as a marshmallow inside, from the pile, dip it into the accompanying green sauce and ... immediately go for some sticky rice to absorb the electric heat. (If the shock is familiar, you probably sampled the shrimp crudo, which sports the same green cloak.)
Allow me to winnow your dinner choices by steering you clear of the pad thai, which suffers from the frequent problem with the popular noodle dish in this country: a heavy hand with (palm) sugar.
The genial attendants are adept at making suggestions. If you show even casual interest in whatever’s in your cocktail glass, one of them is apt to bring over the spirit that gives the drink its lift. My only wish is that the food come out at a more leisurely pace, not within nanoseconds of ordering. The tables aren’t big enough to accommodate all of Sura’s goodness, obliging guests to clear space for incoming traffic.
The setting isn’t for everyone, either. The steep stairs prove a challenge for some diners, the lighting requires you to use your votive as a flashlight to read the menu, and the hard surfaces mean repeating yourself in the din. Still, the family has done a nice job of making the basement feel bigger than it is with well-placed mirrors and islands of tall tables to break up the space. The most comfortable time to visit is the hour or so after the restaurant opens. (For the record, the adventurous nonagenarian I took on one of my three excursions had a blast at Sura — literally, when my mom sweated over the aforementioned cashew chicken torched with dried chiles.)
Some sweet news came to light when I phoned Billy Thammasathiti after my last visit. For one thing, his aunt plans to revive her supper club at Sura. Fat Nomads could pop up yet this month.
For another, “it was a surprise we got this location,” the chef said of the space that once housed the popular Sala Thai — the restaurant his grandmother cooked at when she came to the United States from Thailand in the 1990s. “You could say it was faith.”
Or fate. Whatever. Sura is doing something different with Thai, and it’s something special.
2016 P St. NW. 202-450-6282. suradc.com. Open: Indoor dining and takeout (with a separate menu) 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Monday and Wednesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Dishes to share $8 to $18. Sound check: 80 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: The steep stairs and snug dining room make the restaurant inaccessible to wheelchair users. Pandemic protocols: Staff is vaccinated; masks are optional.