If there is one thing I’ve learned about food writing, it’s that we scribes can create an echo chamber of ignorance without even trying. It’s the unfortunate consequence of grappling with so many cuisines with too little time to ferret out the necessary information before the next deadline pokes us in the eye with a stick.
Take, for example, the som tum ka pi at Elephant Jumps in Falls Church. I was prepared to tell you the papaya-and-shrimp salad was a forcefully hot and sour preparation, with “a fermented funk hanging around the edges,” the whole of which can be chased with the accompanying pork rinds or sticky rice to pacify this raging animal of heat and fetidness. Then I met Eric Gordon through a mutual friend.
Eric has a day job at American University, where he is assistant director of special events for the Audio & Video Systems and Services Group. He has an evening job, too: researching, preparing and devouring the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Well, it’s more of a hobby, or whatever the word is for an unpaid obsession. “I just get obsessed with things,” Eric, 46, tells me about his affection for Thai food. “I just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
As we sit in the tranquil strip-mall space of Elephant Jumps, where Sarah Brightman seems to warble on an endless loop, Eric doesn’t attack the papaya salad with fork and spoon, as I do. He takes his right hand, pops the top off the basket of sticky rice and methodically starts to form a ball with the glutinous grains, which, I should point out, are hot enough to brand farm animals. Eric then flattens the rice ball and uses it as a utensil to scoop up the salad.
I follow Eric’s lead and am struck dumb by the effect this method has on the som tum ka pi: It’s no longer a punk anthem, all shrimp paste, sourness and rage. It’s now a 12-bar blues tune, its anger mitigated by age and wisdom. That base of sticky rice, in other words, adds sweetness and chewiness to the salad, transforming an already multifaceted bite into something even more layered and transfixing.
A few days later, I explain my newfound knowledge to owner Songtham Pinyolaksana, who opened Elephant Jumps four years ago with his wife and chef, Panida. You could say I’m trying to fact-check Eric: It’s not that I don’t trust him (the dude spoke Thai to the staff, for crying out loud), but it’s not my job to blindly accept every piece of intelligence passed along by a stranger in a restaurant. Pinyolaksana not only confirmed Eric’s knowledge but added this nugget: Diners should look for a dish on the table with oil, and then dip their fingertips in the oil before handling the sticky rice. This thin layer of lubricant makes forming those scorching-hot grains a little less painful.
The menu at Elephant Jumps ranges farther and wider than most Thai establishments, reflecting the backgrounds of its owners. Songtham calls southern Thailand home, where the chili heat could cause a pachyderm to drop dead, while Panida hails from the country’s northern section.
One of Panida’s northern specialties is gang hung lay, a stewed pork curry with Burmese influences. Despite the presence of tamarind, ginger and God knows what other sharp aromatics, the curry leans sweet and meaty, a welcome contrast to some of the more pungent dishes. Like many other northern and northeastern Thai plates, gang hung lay is devoured with sticky rice as your utensil; the curry kindly provides its own oil for finger dipping.
I’d recommend pairing the counterbalancing Burmese-style curry with the pad prig sod moo, a stir-fry pork dish vibrant with strips of Thai long peppers that look as innocuous as bell peppers from the garden. They aren’t. Swallow a spoonful of those long peppers, and you might wander the strip center outside, looking for a gallon of milk to soothe your stinging tongue.
The more titillating experiments at Elephant Jumps often are listed on a small chalkboard menu, easy to overlook. If available, order the pla rah song kraerng, a coconut soup in name only. The special mixes ground pork, tamarind, chilis, Thai eggplant, herbs, coconut milk and fermented snakehead (yes, snakehead, apparently a relative to that environmental terrorist of the Mid-Atlantic) into a fragrant liquid that packs a ferocious amount of flavor. The delicious pickled bamboo curry special is a wallflower by comparison, but then again, Jack Black would seem mild next to that coconut soup.
I fear I’m making Elephant Jumps sound exotic in the extreme. Don’t worry. For all its attempts to appeal to authenticity hounds, Elephant Jumps also understands its place in suburbia, where the term “Thai hot” is tantamount to a category 5 hurricane warning. The place caters to all comers, regardless of heat tolerance, whether with its crispy tilapia with ginger sauce (its pungency muted by fry oil) or the chicken cashew in taro nest (the starchiness adding an element of earthiness) or the roti green curry chicken (those wedges of flatbread lending the dish richness and body).
Elephant Jumps also allows diners to customize their spice levels, which can be a mixed blessing. Like the evening my dining companion ordered her panang curry “hot.” The dish starts out sweet and nutty before flipping on its internal blast furnace. Eric may approve of this, but I was squirting water from the corners of my eyes.
8110 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to
10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m. to
10:30 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Dunn Loring, with a 1.2 mile trip to the restaurant.