Chef Jeeraporn (P’Boom) Poksubthong has been coaxing eaters into the clean plate club with her fiery, funky food since she first started cooking for her family in Rayong, Thailand. Her home city is located on the east coast right on the Gulf of Thailand.
“I’m happy when I see customers eat my food and see that everything is clean on the plate,” she says. “When I cooked food starting from when I was young, my family ate everything until it was gone. When I cooked for my neighbors, everything was gone.”
For five years, diners watched Poksubthong cook comforting khao soi and tangy tom yum noodle soup in a cramped kitchen behind the sushi counter at Baan Thai on 14th Street NW. When the restaurant’s lease ran out at the end of 2019, the team vowed to find a new space with an expansive kitchen where Poksubthong could spread her wings.
Baan Siam should open in early spring in the former Alba Osteria space located at 425 I St. NW. The name carries a message. “The restaurant will be ‘same same, but different,’” says general manager and partner Vena Doungchan, borrowing a catchphrase used liberally in the touristy parts of Thailand. Some of the most popular dishes from Baan Thai will resurface, but Poksubthong plans to explore more regional cuisines of Thailand in her new digs.
It helps that she doesn’t have to roll sushi anymore. Baan Thai began as Tsunami Sushi. Even when the Thai menu took off, garnering glowing reviews in the Post and Washingtonian, partner Tom Healy worried they’d lose customers who counted on the restaurant for affordable sushi. The Japanese menu also served as a foil for diners who couldn’t handle the heat of Poksubthong ‘s cooking.
“I don’t want customers to be confused,” Poksubthong says. She’s also a partner in the restaurant. “I want to be a real Thai restaurant. I want people to get real Thai food.”
To prepare for the opening, Poksubthong and Doungchan are headed to Thailand for three weeks at the end of this month. They’ll eat everywhere from street food stalls to five-star hotel restaurants. They plan to explore markets as well. In addition to assessing how ingredients vary by region, the team hopes to pluck some pieces of decor to bring back to D.C.
The space is cavernous, with room for 120 people inside and another 65 on a seasonal patio, so Poksubthong has been thinking about how to make the restaurant feel personal. She hopes to bring back old-school cooking equipment to display, such as a device used for splitting open coconuts. Harkening back to cooking techniques of yesteryear makes sense since Siam is the former name of Thailand.
Poksubthong is excited to be back working in an open kitchen, especially one with cool toys like a gas-assisted wood-burning pizza oven she’s still determining how to utilize. After graduating from culinary school in Rayong at the age of 23, the young chef got a job working in a luxury hotel where she was in view of discerning customers.
She moved to D.C. from Thailand in 2006 and started out cooking at her sister’s restaurant, Thai Tanic, located immediately below Baan Thai. Cooking has always been a family affair. Poksubthong has a large extended family that lived in the same neighborhood. They’d gather at her grandmother’s house for potluck-style meals every day. Everyone brought something to share.
Today, Poksubthong works closely with her mother, who splits her time between D.C. and Thailand. In the mornings they go to markets together in Maryland. “We go to one for fish, another for vegetables,” Poksubthong explains. She wants to lay eyes on the products she’ll serve instead of trusting a supplier. “I could save time or money, but I don’t like it.”
When they’re done shopping, Poksubthong’s mother makes a meal for restaurant employees and then settles into her favorite task—making one of the restaurant’s signature appetizers. She folds the golden fried pockets filled with ground chicken and ground shrimp. When you could see both women working in the small kitchen, it added to the feeling that you were eating in someone’s home.
They hope to carry the same vibe to Mount Vernon Triangle. Another perk of the move is a dramatically expanded draft list headed up by Healy.
“We have a 20-beer draft system,” he says. “We had one beer on tap at Baan Thai!” Some of the taps will be used for wine and sparkling sake, but the others will pour beer, which Healy says goes best with the restaurant’s spicy food. There will also be a handful of cocktails, including frozen lychee martinis, and an expanded wine list.
Finally, Healy talks about one last bonus. Unlike Baan Thai, which was located on the second floor, Baam Siam will be ADA accessible. “That’s huge for us,” he says. It means even more people will get to try Poksubthong’s food.
Baan Siam, 425 I St. NW