The broth strikes fear into those who prefer the mountain-stream clarity of consommé. The liquid in my bowl of boat noodle soup at the Thai Cuisine practically roils, dark and opaque, as if it were extracted from the devil’s black heart. You half expect to see an animal skull float to the surface.
The broth’s fearsome appearance is, of course, part of its appeal, the thrill of staring a wild beast in the eye. Your first sip confirms what your brain already suspected: The soup is a feral creature that snorts fire from its nostrils. It will drag you to places you simultaneously fear and desire. You’ll revel in the adventure and, years from now, tell your grandkids about the time you slurped down a soup prepared, in part, with animal blood.
Okay, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but the boat noodle soup at Thai Cuisine does include the blood of either a pig or cow, depending on which bowl you order. The ingredient is essential to the proper preparation of the dish, sometimes called floating market noodle soup, a nod to the Bangkok waterways where vendors hawk all kinds of food, homemade or straight from the field. The ingredient also provides a small glimpse into this Rockville storefront, which channels the flavors of Thailand without pausing to consider more fragile palates.
What’s interesting about Thai Cuisine — aside from its intoxicating boat soup — is that its Rockville location offers a headier menu than its sister restaurant in Olney, which debuted in 2004, seven years earlier than this spot on Hungerford Drive. The later operation was custom-made for Rockville, where the owners felt more comfortable introducing the fragrant, fiery street fare of Thailand to locals. I should point out that this nervy outpost also predates Little Serow, Soi 38, Baan Thai and other acknowledged pioneers of authentic Thai cooking in the District.
The siblings behind Thai Cuisine hail from Isaan, the region in northeastern Thailand that has inspired so many chefs, including Johnny Monis at Little Serow. But Pongwasu Saengsophaphan and Arisara Sangsopapun do not restrict their menu to the food of their homeland, in part because Arisara’s husband, Sukhum Pongpol, is head chef. His heart and palate are tied to Lopburi province in central Thailand, his native land.
Wherever the family draws inspiration, their best dishes are often found in the specialties section of the menu. The Crying Tiger doesn’t look like much on the plate, little more than a timber pile of marinated strips of rib-eye. On their own, the meat sticks are modest pleasures, their slight chew providing ample time to ruminate over the flavors of the sweet, savory marinade. But when scooped up with a piping-hot clump of sticky rice and dunked into the accompanying nam jim jaew sauce, an impenetrable concoction of pure pungency, the steak assumes a new identity. What was once a sketch has become a fully composed work of art.
Unlike the beef strips, the grilled pork skewers are an amusement all to themselves, their milky, soy-splashed marinade an enhancement that deserves its own patent. But like the rib-eye, the easygoing pork skewers hum a different tune, high and fevered, when dipped into their ramekin of hot, sour sauce. Crumbled bits of ground pork bob in the tom yum noodle soup, one of countless delights buried in this unassuming vegetable broth that’s force-fed lime juice, dried squid, fish sauce, crushed peanuts, pickled jalapeños, chili powder and other ingredients that stimulate the brainpan faster than recreational drugs.
The kitchen liberally doses some dishes with dry-roasted rice powder, called khao khua, a touch of texture and toastiness common to Isaan cooking. The ingredient adds an unearthly crunch to the larb gai salad, which first assaults your nose with its slap of fish sauce before rattling your bicuspids with rice powder. The same powdered stuff, supplemented with minute amounts of galangal and lemon grass, is sprinkled on a dish dubbed dusty pork, which will jolt you with its seismic crackle, a tabletop alarm to wake your senses.
Crunch is also the primary sensation of the spicy moo krob, a pork belly stir-fry that undergoes three forms of heat treatment. The belly is first boiled, then slow-roasted in a low oven before being tucked into the refrigerator. When ordered, the precooked meat is tossed into a deep fryer until all fat has rendered, resulting in a protein that’s sort of the Thai equivalent of chicharrones. I must confess, I grew weary of the juiceless morsels midway through my moo krob.
A number of the appetizers betray their debt to Chinese cooking, notably the kanom jeeb, these beautifully pleated dumplings of crab, chicken and shrimp that would not look out of place on a dim sum menu. The dumpling’s dizzying mix of meats, both sweet and nutty, becomes even more bewitching with a little black sauce dabbed behind each fold of wonton. The homely hoi jaw, by contrast, won’t be auditioning for the cover of Bon Appétit any time soon, but this tofu-wrapped cake of crab and cuttlefish inspires deeper contemplation than sheer beauty alone: What is it about the fishy, deep-fried snack that proves so alluring?
If anything at Thai Cuisine comes as a shock, it’s learning that the kitchen does not pound its own curry pastes. After one slurp of the fragrant, slyly spicy green curry, I would have placed sizable bets that commercial pastes had no place in Pongpol’s kitchen. But Saengsophaphan tells me that the chef adds fresh galangal, shallots, lemon grass, garlic and dried chilies to a canned paste. The result is a green curry that, while based in convenience, is bold enough for prime time.
Speaking of which, Saengsophaphan indicates the family is searching for a third location, one that will follow the lead of the Rockville spot, not the original eatery in Olney. One can only hope they scout properties in the District, where there is always room for another genuine Thai restaurant.
757 Hungerford Dr., Rockville.
Hours: Monday and Wednesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 1.3-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; Entrees and specialties, $9.95-$16.95.