When dining out is your profession, you learn to spot the warning signs of a restaurant more interested in survival than staying true to its roots: The Korean barbecue joint that dabbles in all-you-can-eat sushi. The Chinatown spot that allocates menu space for crab puffs stuffed with cream cheese. The Mexican establishment that caters to the pupusa crowd.
Right or wrong, knee-jerk or not, I tend to avoid restaurants that behave like pop stars who adopt new personas to remain, you know, “relevant.” So when colleagues and readers suggested I visit Zabver in Mount Pleasant, I studiously steered clear of the (mostly) Thai spot for one reason: Among its chef’s specials is a plate of General Tso’s chicken, the cloying cornstarch king of Chinese American carryouts.
Let me get this off my chest before I say anything else: I was wrong to take my prejudices out on Zabver.
I don’t remember now why I decided to ignore my instincts and walk into the tiny storefront on a blisteringly hot July evening, but when I did, I made sure to order the General Tso’s chicken. Each bird part was covered in a sauce that shimmered like river water on a cloudless summer day. My reaction was visceral, a silent inward drool, as if some previously unknown craving was about to be satisfied.
The tempura coating had not yet surrendered its crispiness. It still had serious crunch, that mysterious source of pleasure at the dining table. The chicken, sprinkled with a handful of scallions, included a dense hedge of broccoli florets at one end of the plate. The vegetables were easy to ignore in favor of the sweet, salty crackle of the boneless breast meat. This was chicken candy, and I was a 10-year-old again, trying to hoard every last piece for myself.
The chef behind this unexpected delight is Piwat Laosiri, a Bangkok native who owns and operates Zabver with his wife, Thitiporn “Mai” Sankom. With only six seats and virtually no ability to combat the heat inside the colorful, cramped dining area, Zabver is best treated as a carryout, not a sit-down restaurant. (The couple, incidentally, hope to expand into an upstairs space later this year.) I say this with trepidation, since takeout containers inevitably degrade Laosiri’s best work. Plus, the husband and wife are charming, courteous hosts, quick with a quip or just a cup of chili flakes for an extra kick to your dish.
Carryouts are not exactly temples of authenticity. They tend to specialize in speed and cheap, late-night calories. Zabver is an exception: It’s a carryout that trades in genuine Thai flavors, is fearless in its use of fish sauce and is not shy about making you wait. Best order ahead and save yourself from the self-basting humiliation of roasting in the ovenlike dining room during the last days of summer.
One taste of Laosiri’s chicken larb salad, and you understand that the chef’s not interested in peddling the sweet, starter-kit fare that has characterized Thai eateries aimed at an undifferentiated American palate. Served in a large outer leaf ripped from a head of iceberg lettuce, the salad radiates heat, sourness and the fetid funk of fish sauce. BASE jumping won’t generate this kind of adrenaline rush.
As the General Tso’s chicken suggests, Zabver’s owners identify as Thai but embrace the freewheeling spirit of their American locale, occasionally adopting the dishes of Asian immigrants who came before them. The menu skips easily between an unconventional wonton soup (the dense, matzo ball-like dumplings float in a clear-and-complex chicken broth seasoned with soy) and a traditional tom ka gai (the coconut milk can’t begin to tame the soup’s jungle elements). Even Zabver’s soundtrack has an American heartbeat: In between spoonfuls of soup, I bobbed my head to Michael Jackson, Prince and Maroon 5, which claimed to have absorbed the moves of an Englishman named Jagger.
None of the fresh noodles at Zabver are made in-house, which gives you a sense of where the boundaries are drawn at this mom-and-pop operation. As open-ended as Laosiri’s menu can be, time remains a fixed commodity. There aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare fresh strands for the selection of noodle dishes here. Despite this, I never sucked down a noodle that showed signs of age, whether mold or stickiness, which would have forced me to send up an emergency flare, seeking fresh reinforcements.
The flat, wide ribbons used for the drunken noodles tasted almost caramelized, which balanced the dish’s traditional slap of sobering heat. The stir-fry noodles in the pad Thai still had plenty of chew left in them, providing a solid base to ferry the flavors inherent in the dish (tamarind and fish sauce) and those added (like a generous squeeze of lime). But my most ticklish experience was reserved for the refugee noodles, a pile of spongy steamed rice noodles topped with fried tofu and a variety of rough-cut vegetables, all tied together with a sweetened soy sauce. It was like a dim-sum dish ripped on ’roids.
Laosiri has a knack for renewing your faith in dishes that have let you down in the past. It might be his crusty re-examination of General Tso’s, or it might be his uncompromising green curry, built with a paste as pointed as a bayonet. Laosiri doesn’t seem to have a cruise setting. He puts the pedal to the metal no matter what the dish — or its country of origin. I’m thinking specifically about his moo ta-kite, a lemon grass pork preparation that comes with rice, not vermicelli. I’m not convinced a Vietnamese cook could make it much better.
The couple’s commitment to their native cuisine — and to any dish that wanders into their field of vision — makes me think they adopted the right name for their place. They tell me Zabver translates into, “Oh, my God, it’s so delicious!” The journalist in me has basically verified the translation with a Thai-speaking friend, who says the term is slang for “over-the-top delicious.” If the couple’s version is tinged with hyperbole, that’s okay. The critic in me knows the truth of it.
3211 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-986-2093. zabver.us
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $12-$18; soups, salads and appetizers, $5-$8.