When I take a bite of the dry catfish curry at Thai Chef — a restaurant Chalisa Fitts and her parents, Pornnapa Pongpornprot and David Weston, opened in Rockville Town Square in October — flavor and texture bombs are exploding. Crispy, moist, quick-fried fillets sautéed with clusters of green pepper, Thai eggplant, strips of red pepper, Thai basil, and an intricately composed spicy curry paste with hints of chilies, lemongrass, paste prawns, ginger (it’s galangal, similar to ginger, I confirm later), Makrut lime leaf, coriander, cumin and cardamom.
The dish is stunning, as is the Thai chef himself. Inside the 3,500-square-foot, two-level space, which seats 75 people indoors (and, in the spring, 40 outdoors) is a visual extravaganza meant to evoke a Thai nighttime festival. New York designer Wirat “Pop” Assawamahasakda, a friend of Fitts, created the look, even making much of the furniture himself, including cotton seat covers in bold patterned prints. Every color on the spectrum is represented at Thai Chef in its décor, which includes a floor-to-ceiling collage of window shutters; painted and glass-topped dining tables with woven inset; a wall sculpture of a clock surrounded by neon signs, houses, a sailboat, an illuminated merry-go-round, beads and crystals; and a giant shadowbox wall filled with bric-a-brac, including a phonograph, vintage TVs and radios, thermos flasks, and a dart board. Most of the gear, including a three-wheeled taxi parked near the welcome stand, came from Thailand (shipping issues pushed the opening back six weeks).
Fitts and his parents also own the Aroy Thai restaurant in College Park, which opened in 2013, and the flagship Thai Chef location, which opened in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2017. Fitts, 32 , is the practical handler. “I entered the restaurant business working at Aroy after college in 2013 when I realized I couldn’t find a job with the psychology degree I had earned. [from George Mason University]she laughs.
A giant cinema marquee above the small restaurant bar in the middle of Thai Chef spells SCALA in Thai writing. It’s a replica of a sign from an iconic cinema in Bangkok that was demolished this year. Fitts started taking mixology classes five years ago because, she says, it’s annoying that Thai restaurants don’t serve good cocktails, and she was determined to do something about it. “I just go into the kitchen and find things to make cocktails with,” she says. This kitchen needs to be well stocked because its cocktails – there are eight on the list – are excellent. Purple Rain, made with passion fruit juice and Stoli vodka infused with butterfly pea flower tea, has a purple ombre effect thanks to the tint of the tea. Crazy Thai Lady – Makrut lemongrass and lime infused tequila and rum – comes with a kicking Thai salt and chili rim.
For the street food-heavy food you might find at a nighttime festival, Fitts hired chefs Wheaton Prapavadee (“Lekki”) Limvatana and Satang Ruangsangwatana as consultants, first for the Dupont site and then for Rockville. . In addition to creating many of the Thai chef’s dishes, the couple helped choose the restaurant’s quirky, mismatched dishes and helped design and formulate the menu, which is divided into categories: Street Bites, Yum-Zapp ( spicy and lemony salads), Hot Soup, Noods (short for noodles), Shophouse Selfies (starters), Fried Rice and Curry. “Lekki and Satang are so good. They turn a simple dish into something so good. I get cooking training from them and pass it on to our chefs,” says Fitts.
The chive and garlic cake is a great starter. The batter made from tapioca flour, rice flour and chopped chives is cut into small cubes, steamed then fried into delicate and irresistible cakes and served with sweet soy sauce for dipping. Appetizers common to Thai menus in the United States, such as pork and crab meatballs, curry soufflés (flaky empanadas filled with curried potatoes and vegetables), and arugula shrimp (ground chicken with four shrimp whole individually wrapped in spring roll paper and fries) are executed with more flair and flavor than I’ve experienced elsewhere. The fried calamari looks like onion rings and is just as satisfying served with sriracha aioli. Our table devoured chicken wings rubbed in garlic and pepper with a chili tamarind sauce. Cucumber sticks, sliced raw green beans and cherry tomatoes seasoned with garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar and topped with chopped peanuts make a bright and refreshing salad with notes of bird’s eye chili.
You’d be happy with familiar noodle dishes, such as pad si-yu (wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli, egg, and dark soy sauce) and standard curries (Massaman, Panang, green, red), but don’t pass anything out of the ordinary. Go for Southerner’s Comfort, a dish of minced chicken sautéed with spicy red curry paste, Makrut lime leaves, green beans and red peppers, served with sliced cucumber and a halved hard-boiled egg. Another stunner is wok-fried beef – cubes of flank steak are seasoned with five-spice powder, braised in soy sauce-based broth until tender, then wok-fried with sprouts soy beans, celery leaves, green onions and garlic oil. It’s an example of the layering of flavors evident in the Thai chef’s dishes, including my favorite, which is meatless: wok-fried Thai eggplant, mushrooms, red peppers and fried tofu cubes in soy sauce sauce. black, soybean paste and ground peppers.
Even if the starters come with rice, order fried rice for the table. Garlic Pepper Fried Rice with Shrimp is prepared by sautéing cooked jasmine rice, garlic and Thai chili peppers in a very hot wok to create wok hei (literally “breath of the wok”). Then scrambled eggs, green onions and wok sauce (made with oyster sauce and light and dark soy sauce) are folded over and fried shrimp are placed on top.
There are three desserts on the Thai chef’s menu, and all of them are tasty, even a toasted coconut ice cream that Pongpornprot buys from an Asian grocery store. Mango Sticky Rice with Coconut Cream and Roasted Mung Beans provides a sweet balance to a meal loaded with heat, herbaceous flavor and spiciness, as does the Taro Tapioca Dessert, fluffy purple taro balls and tapioca pearls in hot sweetened coconut milk sprinkled with sesame seeds.
29 Maryland Avenue (Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 301-339-8045, thaichefdmv.com
Global mark : A-
Favourite dishes : Violet Rain cocktail; chive and garlic cake; cucumber salad; dry catfish curry; Southern comfort; spicy eggplant; garlic pepper fried rice with shrimp; taro balls in hot coconut milk.
Prices: Appetizers: $7 to $12; Noodle dishes: $15 to $18; Admissions: $15 to $19; Fried rice: $15 to $18; Desserts: $4 to $7.
Releases: Wines — three reds, three whites, and one sparkling — by the glass ($8) and four beers ($7) are available, but cocktails ($13) are the way to go. The Pandan-mic, made with Hendrick’s gin, coconut rum and pandan syrup (a leaf with hints of grass and vanilla), is reminiscent of a piña colada. The Only Word, a riff on a Last Word (gin, lime juice, green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur) subs baijiu, a clear Chinese spirit made from fermented sorghum, for the gin.
A service: The Thai chef has been understaffed, especially on busy weekends, but the front and back of house handle the crowds effectively. They don’t take reservations, so expect a wait during prime time.
David Hagedorn is the food critic for Bethesda Magazine.