With the possible exception of the owner, no one was more eager to see Thip Khao open in the District than I. Laotian food, the restaurant’s calling card, tugs at my heartstrings with its Thai references, sharp edges and a reliance on grilling and steaming over frying. That the cuisine is as rare here as a hero on “House of Cards” only adds to its allure.
One of the few sources is Bangkok Golden Thai in Falls Church, whose Laotian-born chef-owner, Seng Luangrath, offered tastes of her homeland only as specials or to insiders when she acquired the business five years ago. Good food is hard to keep secret, though. When word got out about her specialties, Luangrath began sharing them on a separate list. Its success — Lao food now outsells Thai — led Luangrath to shop around for a second place where she could serve the hits to her fans in Washington. Thip Khao and its all-Laotian menu replace Thaitanic II and chicken satay in Columbia Heights.
Some fans are comparing the fresh face favorably to the no-reservations flame-thrower Little Serow in Dupont Circle. (It’s not there yet, but I’m hopeful.)
Naem khao, one of the newcomer’s signatures, is a dish more diners should be able to access. It’s a salad composed of crumbled fried rice balls made with lemon grass and coconut and tossed with bits of sour ham and pungent cilantro, everything heaped into lettuce leaf scoops at the table. Throw in some lime, and watch the sparks fly.
Kaing som deserves greater exposure, too. The soup is a little sour and a lot hot, crammed with cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and shimeji (beech) mushrooms whose slightly crunchy texture tells your brain you’re eating noodles cooked al dente. My preferred additions to the bowl are meaty pork ribs that soak up the flavor of the broth like sponges, turning each morsel into a mini-meal.
Of the “large” plates, fish makes a fine strategy. Knap pah bundles a choice of grilled protein in a banana leaf, along with flavor pumps of dill and ginger. If you were eating the preparation in land-locked Laos, the fish would probably be from the river and revered for its earthiness. At Thip Khao, the leaf hides cod, Chilean sea bass or salmon. The entree gets an escort of rice noodles and Thai eggplant coins for wrapping in lettuce leaves: “Asian tacos,” servers describe them.
The best mop for the sauces is in the little baskets of steamed sticky rice that give the restaurant its name and show up, along with cucumber slices, airy fried pork rinds and racy chili dip, when you sit down. Pinch some rice, roll it into a marble and sop away. (To signal the end of a meal, close the thip khao.)
“Let’s go to the jungle!!!” urges the header on Thip Khao’s alternate menu, its dozen or so dishes flavored with pig’s blood, fish heads and chicken innards. The tamest-sounding dish is a papaya salad that picks up its funk from crab and shrimp pastes. “Extremely spicy,” warns the description. “I can’t eat it,” says my Thai server. The roadblocks only heighten my desire to drive on, so I bite. The salad bites back — hard. I can’t claim to have chewed on molten iron or had a Roman candle go off in my mouth, but having tried tam muk hoong phet e’loor, I feel as if I’ve come close.
The “jungle” menu ought to audition for Andrew Zimmern. Steamed pig’s ear adds a memorable gelatinous quality (you either dig it or you don’t) to its bowl of cellophane noodles, cashews and tamarind sauce. Bobbing in a sea of red curry, rice noodles, cabbage and carrots are pork blood cakes, soft as tofu and mineral in taste. Beef tongue, tenderized overnight with green papaya, is grilled, sliced and served as a ruddy tepee forested with pungent cilantro. Intrigue comes by way of a splash of chili-lime sauce. Among the warm salads, first among equals is chopped pork mixed with mint, scallions and toasted rice powder, a “jungle” destination thanks to pork skin and liver in the heap.
The regular menu might be adventure enough for some eaters. You don’t have to be a hot head to appreciate, say, tapioca balls with centers of minced peanuts, radishes and cilantro root, or puff pastry crescents that open to reveal lightly curried potatoes. Both meatless, the comforts reassure conservative tastes: There’s something for us! Spring rolls filled with pork and taro are mute, nothing special. In contrast, sun-dried beef teased with lemon grass and ginger should be what American beef jerky aspires to.
The mango-colored Bangkok Golden Thai is cramped and homey. Window-wrapped Thip Khao, practically aglow with tangerine-colored chairs, is dressier in every way, and it comes with a central bar that knows it has to pour more than Singha if it wants to be taken seriously in the city in 2015. Cue the Salty Rooster — amaro, grapefruit juice, a dash of sea salt flavored with Campari — which meets the lips like a pisco sour with its frothy cap of egg whites.
Order a few dishes at a time. The food comes out speed-date fast, and if you’re not careful, dinner can be over in the time it takes you to read your horoscope. This cooking deserves more than 20 minutes of consideration.
That wasn’t so much the case when Thip Khao opened in December. Initially, some lackluster plates left the kitchen, even with the head chef present. Fried watercress with shrimp, mango and tamarind sauce was, counter to the Laotian preference, cloying in its sweetness, while the pork sausage served with peanuts and ginger lacked the springiness and zest of the version served at Bangkok Golden Thai.
Time has smoothed out some rough patches. These days, the aforementioned sour soup delivers more tang. Once routine and flabby, the fried quail now shatters, spurting juices as you devour every last golden crumb.
Don’t take just my word. A food fan doesn’t have to go to a pop-up, Union Market or a charity cook-off to see the industry’s young Turks. Plenty of these chefs — Mike Isabella of Kapnos, Cedric Maupillier of Mintwood Place, Jeremiah Langhorne of the future Dabney — are spending their off-hours here, knocking back a style of cooking that, with luck, catches fire.
Convenience is part of the attraction. Unlike Little Serow, says Maupillier, Thip Khao is “spicy without the line!”
Correction: A previous version of this review referred to baskets of steamed jasmine rice, instead of sticky rice.
Location: 3462 14th St. NW. 202-387-5426. www.thipkhao.com.
Open: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends. Closed Tuesday.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $13, main courses $9 to $19.
Sound check: 64 decibels/Conversation is easy.
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