Before there were food incubators and food trucks, where cooks could conduct trial runs on their culinary dreams, there were spaces like this: a lonely patch of real estate in Wheaton, tucked into the wrong end of a parking lot, behind an Asian grocery store and next to a ripe dumpster. A space with no visible storefront for passing motorists to notice. A space as inviting as an unlit alley at midnight.
But unlike so many undesirable addresses, this tiny space on Fern Street has nurtured at least two restaurants that have since morphed into more expansive operations, requiring larger dining rooms to accommodate their growing base of customers. The first iteration of Nava Thai started here, and Mi La Cay enjoyed a stay here, too. Both have since moved and become mainstays in Wheaton, where diners continue to enjoy an international buffet by merely walking from one storefront to another.
Naturally, when I first heard about Thai Taste by Kob, the space’s latest occupant, I assumed chef Phak “Kob” Duangchandr was following a similar pattern: just beginning her journey as a restaurateur, erecting the kind of place she had constructed in her mind for years. In a way, Duangchandr is doing just that, except she’s not new to running a business. For nearly a decade, she operated a small carryout in the corner of the semi-grungy Thai Market in Silver Spring.
It was apparently a decade of compromise for Duangchandr, who regularly had to prepare dishes in advance and then shut down early in the evening, just as hungry diners would knock at her door. In this sense, Thai Taste offers two immediate benefits over Duangchandr’s previous location: It stays open late and, more important, allows the chef to prepare her dishes to order, employing fresh market ingredients, a hallmark of Thai cooking.
Duangchandr serves notice of her intentions before you place an order. A server will place a plate of puffy chips on your table. They look as innocuous as rice cakes — until you bite into one and it releases this tsunami of concentrated shrimp flavor, its salty and decaying fishiness slapping you upside the head. You know immediately that Thai Taste is not for tourists.
The menu here is vast and sometimes difficult to interpret. There are categories that seem to imply that some dishes are more authentically Thai than others. There are separate sections devoted to street foods and noodle soups, as if the two don’t share some of the same origins. My advice? Don’t fret about assembling the perfect meal. You’ll find authentic touches in almost all of the dishes, which range from the familiar to the previously unknown. If you need assistance, ask one of the young servers, who are friendly and helpful.
Natives of Thailand prefer their catfish bone-in, but even if you order the pad prik khing pla dook with fillets, you’ll discover the definition of Thai hot. The fillets are surrounded with complementary ingredients, including Thai eggplant and crispy basil, which add clear, clean, faintly cooling high notes to a heat so blistering you’ll wonder if you’ve passed through some sticky membrane on the way from earthly pleasures to hellish torture. Several times I had to stop eating to give my tongue a fighting chance at survival.
Heat comes in countless varieties here, some of it by your own design. The green curry, built from Duangchandr’s house-made paste, lulls you with its coconut-milk silkiness and jade hue, but its heat stalks you like a tiger, ready to bury its teeth when you least expect it. The chef’s papaya salad plays similar games, merely stinging your lips before building a bonfire on your palate by the last bite. Conversely, Duangchandr’s pad Thai favors the sweet sourness of her tamarind paste unless you doctor it with the condiments available on request. I added two spoonfuls of dried chili flakes, a little sugar and a long squeeze of lime, which transformed a three-note dish into a symphony. A symphony situated on the outer circles of Dante’s inferno.
This underscores the differences between American and Thai dining cultures: U.S. chefs often consider it an insult if you season their finished plates, their masterpieces, to your taste. Thai chefs consider customization an essential part of the experience, and they’ll even provide the necessary condiments. Many of Duangchandr’s soups, for example, are designed for personalization, like her chicken coconut soup in a milky broth scented with lemongrass, which pops only after a generous application of the chile-and-vinegar condiment. The same piquant solution wakes up a bowl of lethargic, orange-tinted broth brimming with honey-roasted pork, shrimp wontons, bok choy and egg noodles.
Some dishes come with their own condiments, like the kao ka moo or sweet, five-spiced pork, which benefits from a dunk in its accompanying bowl of neon chile-and-garlic sauce. Same goes for many of the appetizers, whether the elegant “lucky bag” purses of curried sweet potato and minced chicken or the lacquered “devil” chicken wings, a pair of snacks that lack much punch without their partner sauces. Even some flavor-forward apps, like the fried fish cakes and the marinated moo yang skewers, only realize their full potential with a dunk or two.
The thrill is in the discovery here: By applying condiments, you’ll discover your own preferred flavor combinations and your own heat tolerance. But you may also discover something new, like the yum pla duk fu or chopped and fried catfish salad with green apples, red onions and lime dressing. A friend called the airy mass “fish cotton candy,” which doesn’t quite give you a sense of its otherworldly crunch. Whatever you call it, I was fascinated by its texture and its umami goodness. I was also grateful that chef Duangchandr now has a proper place in which to showcase it.
11315 Fern St., Wheaton.
Hours: Daily 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Wheaton, with a
0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.75-$15.99.