In my line of work, few questions are as loaded as a server's introductory salvo: "Have you dined with us before?" Should you reply in the negative, you may be subjected to a tableside speech that makes small plates sound as hard to comprehend as the Monty Hall Problem. (Look it up and argue for hours with your old math teacher!)
The owners of Esaan, a tiny Thai eatery carved out of the blink-and-you-missed-it Social Restaurant and Oyster Bar in McLean, have devised a novel digital response to that opening inquiry: A server pulls out an iPad and scrolls through photos of fully prepared dishes, one by one. By one. By one. By one. By one.
Sorry, I was just experiencing a flashback.
You can understand why Esaan wants to present diners with the culinary equivalent of a mug-shot book before dinner. ("This dish here has been known to assault a number of guests, much to their liking.") Despite the presence of Little Serow, Baan Thai and other critical darlings that trade on the leaner, meaner qualities of Isaan (or Esaan; spellings vary) cuisine in the northeast, many folks still associate Thai cooking with green curry, coconut milk and pad thai, the flavors of the central and southern regions of the country.
The first time I dined at Esaan, I felt like a 10-year-old again, sitting through a Kodak slide show of my aunt and uncle's trip to Hawaii. My server literally flipped through 20-plus photos, oblivious that I had started watching cat videos on my phone. (I joke!) The place had turned its educational opportunity into a hostage situation. I silently wondered whether I should call the State Department, or whatever's left of it. (I joke again!)
I belabor this point because, other than that re-education camp at the table, I adore Esaan. The restaurant customizes the often-nuclear northeastern Thai experience to your comfort level: mild, medium, hot or Kim Jong Un. The owners will even prime you for the heat with some exotic-sounding drinks that, on closer inspection, are merely classic cocktails disguised with Thai accents. You can have your kid hod (basically an Old Pal) and khao soi noodle soup in one setting, a win-win in my book.
Esaan employs two chefs, neither from the Isaan region in northeastern Thailand. Instead, Polasate Rodanant and Benjamas Tiatasin hail from central Thailand, where many of the country's flavors collide. You have to wonder how Isaan natives — who have more in common with neighboring Laos than central Thailand — feel about their cuisine's sudden celebrity status, given that the folks in the northeast have long been considered second-class citizens in their own country. Is Thailand's embrace of Isaan food that latest exploitation of the region or a long overdue acknowledgment of a singular cuisine?
I'm no cultural scientist, but my palate tells me the owners and chefs at Esaan have a deep respect for the foodways that contributed to their featured cuisine, an organic fusion of Lao, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai influences. Green papaya salad has become a staple throughout Southeast Asia, but Esaan serves up a version (among several on its menu) that reminds you that the dish's origins lie in Laos. The threads of unripe papaya in the somtum muor look as if they were shaved from different fruit, their flesh inky from pla ra, an opaque and particularly pungent fish sauce common to the region. It's a salad, hot and flavorful, that leaves behind a permanent footprint.
Sticky rice is a daily bread of the Isaan table, used as both a utensil and a salve for your scorched tongue. At Esaan, the kitchen offers miniature baskets of black sticky rice, whose name is misleading. The glutinous grains are actually the color of a nice Bordeaux, with the nuttiness and toothsomeness of their wild-rice cousins. When pressed into a chewy scoop, the rice serves as an excellent base and insulator for almost everything on the menu, particularly Esaan's lengthy list of salads.
Many of these salads are not veg-friendly. They're meat-forward preparations, such as the classic minced-meat salad known as larb, an Isaan dish that has been muzzled, tamed and pranced around on countless Thai menus. Esaan lets its salads remain feral, or as feral as you'd like: meaty dishes accented with lime, fish sauce, chile peppers, toasted rice powder and fresh herbs, the flavors as direct as a drill sergeant. The highlights include the moo nam tok, a grilled pork shoulder salad that's given a swift umami kick in the (pork) butt, and the yum kai zapp, a fried chicken salad lifted high on a cloud of lemon grass.
Esaan buries a whole chicken leg in its relaxed, coconut-milky preparation of khao soi, a noodle soup that, while delicious, will not supplant the standard-bearer at Baan Thai. The better bowl here is the tom zapp moo, a full-bodied, "soft bone" pork soup that runs hot and sour with galangal and lemon grass. The kai yang Esaan, a marinated and grilled Cornish hen, reaches its full potential when dunked in a pair of side sauces, like the Isaan equivalent of Peruvian rotisserie chicken.
The kitchen aims high with its appetizers, and sometimes hits the mark. The kai kra ta is a mouthwatering review of porcine products, including crumbled pork and Vietnamese cha lua sausage, each enriched with the yolks of two sunny-side-up eggs. It's downhill from there with the starters, although the wizened chicken wingettes, spiked with galangal and garlic, taste better than they look. Much the same could be said for the beige desserts, the best of which is a dish of sticky rice topped with custard, at once warm, cool and sweet.
One of Esaan's owners has connections not only to the departed Social, but also to Pasa Thai, a more conventional Thai restaurant around the corner. The partners have done little to the space in preparation for the new concept: It boasts the same weathered boards, the same tiny bar, the same vintage BMW motorcycle propped up in a corner. In this way, Esaan resembles so many other strip-center eateries devoted to immigrant cuisines: It has taken over a former restaurant site and instantly made it sing, without any of the baubles needed in more refined settings.
1307 Old Chain Bridge Rd., McLean. 703-288-3901. esaandc.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 to 10:30 Friday; noon to 10:30 Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $8 to $12 for appetizers and green papaya salads; $12 to $25 for entrees.