At eye of storm,
Thaiphoon serves up simple charm

By Corinna Lothar

    A visit to Thaiphoon, the Thai restaurant on S Street NW, just off
Connecticut Avenue above Dupont Circle, will tell you why there's a 45-minute
wait for a table on weekend nights. (Owner-manager Woody Tongrugs says
the restaurant takes reservations.)
    The food is really good. The restaurant is noisy, yes. Crowded, yes.
But the service is charming and efficient, the clientele young
and attractive, the menu varied and the food, on the whole, is delicious.
    Thaiphoon is a clean, simple restaurant. The tables are the size of
postage stamps, but big postage stamps and large enough to
hold a stemmed red or pink orchid in a slim vase. There are no tablecloths,
but the varnished wooden tables with geometric metal inserts are stylish.
    The front of the restaurant is an enclosed terrace, while in the back are
several booths painted in bright yellow and orangy red. There's a welcoming,
good-sized bar at the entrance, with stools for dining or waiting
for tables and carry-out. At lunch, with the sun streaming into the front
windows, it makes a light and glowing space.
    Thaiphoon is not a restaurant for lingering leisurely, but it's a great place
for a pre- or post-theater dinner or for a good, informal meal any time.
    Start with a serving of crisp, hot spring rolls. The filling is a mixture of
chopped vegetables, and the dipping sauce is pleasantly sweet and spicy.
    The chicken satay is excellent. Four small skewers of grilled chicken are
accompanied by a tasty peanut sauce. The satay is not an unusual appetizer,
but at Thaiphoon it is prepared perfectly.
    The chicken ginger salad is particularly refreshing on a warm summer
evening. The chicken is minced and easier to eat with a spoon than with
chopsticks. The chicken is mixed with lots of julienned ginger and slices of
red onion in a lime dressing, with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts on top.
Very nice.
    Steamed dumplings are stuffed with pork, shrimp and crunchy bits of water
chestnuts. These are served with sweet soy sauce and make another
good appetizer.
    Basil mussels, although listed as an entree, are really more of an appetizer.
A dozen or so tiny, deliciously fragrant mussels are served in the shell in a
fiery basil sauce. It's a wonderful dish —the combination of the sweet mussels
with the hot peppery sauce makes your tongue tingle with delight.
     Entrees run from traditional pad Thai to soft-shell crabs and grilled salmon.
For noodle lovers, the pad Thai is recommended. Diners get a choice of
chicken or shrimp — we tried the shrimp, and it was delicious, served on the
rice noodles with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and a slice of lime.
    Drunken noodles are not as good as the pad Thai. The wide rice noodles
had been cooked to the point of becoming a soft gooey paste, although the
slices of pork and mildly spicy sauce of chili, garlic, basil leaves, onions and
tomatoes are flavorful.
    Beef panang in a creamy dark curry sauce topped with kaffir lime leaves is
a fine main course. The thin slices of beef are tender, and the spicy red curry is
assertive, yet not so strong as to drown out the beef.
     Even better is the green curry, which comes either as a vegetarian dish or
with a choice of beef, chicken or shrimp. The curry has the delicate flavor of
coconut milk and contains bamboo shoots, bits of broccoli, cabbage and other
vegetables. It's both sweet and hot, somewhat creamy — an excellent dish.
     Grilled salmon, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, was cooked
to the point of dryness. Although the menu describes the fish as a fillet, it is in
fact a salmon steak, served with grilled zucchini, eggplant and pepper slices,
and a "three flavor" sweet sauce. Grilled salmon can be delicious, but not when
all the juices have been grilled out of it. Steamed fillet of rockfish is a better
choice. The delicate white fish is wrapped in banana leaves, seasoned with
lemon grass and garlic and served with a spicy dipping sauce.
    Some dishes, such as asparagus with a choice of beef, pork, chicken or
shrimp, honey ginger duck with mushrooms, deep-fried curried fish cakes, or
cashew chicken are mild without the heat of peppers. Others, such as pork,
chicken or shrimp with roasted garlic and white pepper ("Peppery Garlic"), a
combination of shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels stir-fried with celery,
onion and egg ("Bangkok Sea Breeze") or grilled beef salad are slightly spicy.
Soft-shell crabs with a choice of sauces, crispy whole flounder, and spicy
eggplant are fiery dishes indicated on the menu by three peppers.
    Thaiphoon employs pepper icons on the menu to indicate the heat of the
dishes. Three-pepper dishes are truly hot, while two-peppers do not burn the
mouth and a single-pepper is only mildly spicy. Mr. Tongrugs tries to prepare
each dish the authentic way, but if a dish is too spicy or not hot enough, the
kitchen will oblige. (On this scale, as anyone who has dined there could tell
you, a hot dish in Bangkok would require a half-dozen little pepper icons.)
     We finished our meal with sticky rice and mango. When this dessert is
right, it is very good. At Thaiphoon, it's perfect. The rectangular cake of rice,
drizzled with sweet coconut cream, is served warm; the mango is cool and ripe.
The slightly crunchy rice and the juicy mango merge beautifully into a genuine
taste thrill.
    Thaiphoon's chefs will soon be cooking up a storm at a second location in
Pentagon City. Until then, the wait on S Street is well worth it.
RESTAURANT: Thaiphoon, 2011 S St. NW, 202/667-3505
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 11 p.m.
Friday and Saturday
    PRICES: Appetizers and soups $3.50 to $7 (lunch and dinner); entrees $6
to $15 (lunch), $9 to $15 (dinner); noodles and vegetarian dishes $6 to $8
(lunch), $7 to $10 (dinner); desserts $3 to $3.50 (lunch and dinner)
CREDIT CARDS: all major cards
    PARKING: Metered street parking, parking garage on Florida Avenue a
block away
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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