Some guests are repeats, some are newbies. All have heeded my raves that this is some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had in the D.C. area.
In front of each of us is a wide soup bowl holding a neat nest of thin rice noodles; a wedge of soft-boiled egg; raw shredded green cabbage; tender, raw snake beans, some green, some purple, cut into tiny, precise cylinders; a pile of thinly sliced blanched bitter melon; and sprigs of lemon basil. Cooking aromas intoxicate us, although we had a little help from the batch of aviation spritzers we brought and tippled in the living room before dinner. (The supper club is BYOB.)
Limvatana rings a dinner bell vigorously, an effective way to get our attention. “This is kanom chin nam-ya, a fish curry inspired by the Mon people, who live on an island near Bangkok,” she announces, adding that her version, unlike theirs, has coconut milk. Pouring from a large tea kettle, Ruangsangwatana tops the noodles in each bowl with a golden yellow curry made with mackerel, an abundance of Thai herbs, curry paste, shrimp paste, fingerroots, turmeric and chiles.
“I put makrut lime leaf pieces in at the end, then adjust the balance with salt and palm sugar,” says Limvatana. The suppers consist of two individual appetizer courses, four dishes served family-style and a dessert. “In Thailand, we share everything,” she says. “Meals have to have four styles of cooking: soup, sautéing, curry and crispy.” Not everything is spicy, she explains.
The second plated course is the custardy flesh of roasted Japanese eggplant topped with shrimp and hard-boiled eggs vibrantly dressed with shallots, mint, garlic, lime juice and fish sauce. A profusion of family-style dishes then hits the table, each met with a crescendo of oohs and aahs: lemongrass soup with shrimp, squid and cod; grilled flank steak salad with raw Thai eggplant, palm caramel and fish sauce; fiery pork shank curry cooked overnight to soften the meat’s skin; and the hit of the night, a crispy, Chinese-influenced pancake with mussels, scrambled egg and bean sprouts, served with sweet chile and garlic sauce. Dessert is a refreshing coda: cubes of black grass jelly (like you might find in bubble tea), taro root strips, grains (barley, ginkgo nuts and palm tree seeds) and ice cubes in pandan syrup. “If syrup is too sweet for you, you let the ice melt into it,” Limvatana says.
Limvatana, 59, grew up in a Hainanese Thai family in Uttaradit in north-central Thailand, where her family operated a shophouse specializing in dishes such as fried mudfish in curry sauce and sauteed stingrays with ginger and wood ear mushrooms. Limvatana, who has a degree in political science from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, went to South Dakota to pursue an MBA at Augustana University, but decamped to New York City before finishing her degree partly because there was no good Asian food to be had in Sioux City. “Where is the curry?” she wondered. “There was only stir-fried chicken and ginger there!”
On the East Coast, she began working in restaurants and rose through the ranks at places in Manhattan, New Jersey and Florida before ending up in Washington in 2010, when her high school friend, Sak Pollert, hired her as the chef of his two Logan Circle restaurants, Rice and D.C. Noodles.
Ruangsangwatana, 42, is a self-taught cook born and raised in Bangkok. Her Chinese family immigrated to Northern Virginia in the ’90s. After working in the floral business and then in restaurants as a bartender, she became a professional cook at Asia Nine restaurant in downtown D.C. in 2009. In 2011, Limvatana hired Ruangsangwatana as her sous chef at D.C. Noodles, and the two started dating soon thereafter.
Fat Nomads came to my attention as a Thai and Chinese food truck that Ruangsangwatana and a friend from D.C. Noodles ran for a year from 2017 to 2018. They called it Fat Nomads, she told me in an interview for Bethesda Magazine then, because they were chubby and had wanderlust.
After the truck closed, Ruangsangwatana came up with the supper club concept. The first one took place in the closed Palena space in Cleveland Park in September 2018. I attended the first one held at Limvatana’s house, in December 2018, and was blown away by braised brisket in Panang curry, breakfast rice soup made with dried shrimp and squid, pork meatballs and Chinese celery leaves, and tapioca pudding with pandan coconut cream and gold leaf.
The chefs operated a series of supper clubs and pop-ups throughout the DMV (and Baltimore) through 2019, and were the chefs of Som Tam restaurant in Union Market, which opened in July 2019 and closed in March 2020 when the pandemic began. (It has since reopened, but Limvatana and Ruangsangwatana are not involved.) The next month, they started delivering multicourse Quarantine Suppers one weekend a month and still do often. I organized my neighbors to buy suppers en masse several times.
They restarted the supper clubs (each one for 8 to 10 guests) in June, requiring all diners to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, as is the staff. Friends and I have attended three of them, and I’ve never been served a repeat dish.
Betel leaves, okra, mizuna, bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, shiso, garlic chives, kabocha squash, various tomatoes, basil and chile peppers from Limvatana’s garden have figured prominently in such offerings as: red snapper and lemongrass salad; fried Thai curry fish dumplings; steamed rice cake with caramelized shallots and minced pork; and pork, shrimp, crab and coconut dip with crudités. By the time each evening ends, guests, chefs and their helpers are toasting one another with the guests’ BYOB spirits or sake and Taiwanese whiskey that the hosts might break out.
Limvatana says she is semiretired, but between the suppers, pop-ups, consulting gigs, catering and private dinners, she and Ruangsangwatana are always on the go. (They also sell sundry items, such as chile paste, kimchi and flavored toasted rice powder, online.) Subscribing to their mailing list is the best way to stay informed of their whereabouts.
Expect the unexpected at Fat Nomads supper club, but don’t expect compromise on the boldness of the chefs’ cooking. “Our customers are guinea pigs to me,” Limvatana says. “The challenge for me is to make food to prove that Americans will love any dish prepared the right way.”
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Fat Nomads supper club 202-815-4919. fatnomadsdc.com. Open: one weekend a month February through November. Friday and Saturday are available to the public; Thursday and Sunday are for mailing list subscribers who reserve all the spots. Prices: $45 per person, BYOB, plus tax and tip. (They supply ice water, ice and jasmine tea.) All guests must be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Accessibility: The chefs’ home is not wheelchair accessible.