Let me start by telling you about Taw Vigsittaboot’s salmon in red curry.
It’s a dish you’ll find at any number of Thai restaurants—a fillet of fish in a sauce you can find in any number of dishes. What gives this version its distinction is the unexpected alchemy of protein and sauce. Vigsittaboot takes his time. Rather than fry or sear the salmon in advance, he poaches it in its skin in the pungent broth—a traditional, low-and-slow method that honors both the salmon and the curry. The salmon is not just tender and moist; it’s meltingly luscious. The broth, meanwhile, is permeated by the rich, natural oils of the fish, which elevate it into the realm of the voluptuous.
Now let me tell you how you can come by this terrific dish.
You step down a small flight of concrete steps and pull open the door of an old English basement in a fading three-story town house around the corner from Howard University Hospital. Inside, you’ll find Vigsittaboot, framed by the door of the kitchen, sweating away in T-shirt, boots, and shorts, his long, glossy black hair bundled in a white bandana. He looks up from a bowl of rice and waves you inside. “Welcome, welcome. I’ll be with you in a minute.” His lilting, accented voice lingers on the final word, drawing it out as long as possible. Miiinute. There are only two other customers, a man and woman picking up their carryout order. From the long looks on their faces, they’ve been waiting a while. They occupy the only two chairs, which Vigsittaboot has tucked into an alcove of books and magazines, in the manner of a dentist’s waiting room.
You place your order with Vigsittaboot—25 minutes, he says—and plop yourself onto the stool beside the counter. When the couple departs with their takeout, you take one of the chairs.
Smells waft into the tiny, low-slung room—Thai bird chilis making contact with peanut oil, holy basil leaves sizzling away, whiffs of ginger and garlic. You distract yourself for a half-hour by leafing through a paperback copy of The Dhammapada. Another customer walks in, jingling the wind chimes. The sound alerts Vigsittaboot, who emerges from the kitchen with that customer’s takeout bundle.
“OK,” says the chef, looking in your direction. “Now I start on your order.”
You return to the sacred teachings of the text, trying to follow its prescriptions for tranquility and inner peace, even as you find yourself becoming more impatient by the minute.
As The Dhammapada teaches, harmony in all things: What makes Thai X-ing so frustrating is also what makes it so worthwhile.
Vigsittaboot’s inability to multitask in the manner of a veteran short-order chef pays off handsomely in his undivided concentration on your order. When he’s making your food, he’s not generally doing anything else. And from prep to saucing, his are the only hands involved. Not all of his dishes sing (stir-frys, the epitome of quick, intensive cooking, are a flat note), but all of them cohere.
In his free time, Vigsittaboot makes art, some of which is on display in the waiting room—colorful, finely wrought mixed-media sculptures that reward the attentive viewer with a wealth of detail. So it goes with his cooking. Leaves of fresh mint are a smart touch in the nam tok, perfuming the cold slices of beef and playing against the tart lime marinade. Crisp green beans offset the richness of the pork ribs in green curry and—like a complementary accent in a room—pick up the color of the sauce. Ka prow, too frequently a chicken-dominated dish, becomes here an intriguing and delicious showcase for the way black mushrooms (chewy, earthy) work with and against thin, long slices of ginger (crunchy, aromatic). And larb gai, that light, lively appetizer salad, not only is mouth-puckeringly bright (credit a few extra shots of fish sauce and lemon juice) but also benefits from ground chicken that isn’t overcooked.
Spring rolls are usually a bad bet to hold up to long travel; but Vigsittaboot gives them a tight, painstaking roll (which keeps the fry oil from the veggies within) and cooks them just past the point of golden-brown. When I took one from its Styrofoam container after 30 minutes, it actually crunched.
The highlight of my meal, of course—the highlight of the week, for that matter, or maybe even the month—was the salmon in red curry. When I woke up the morning after, the memory of its lushness and heat was lodged in my consciousness like a dream. I went back that night for more, rationalizing my craving as a crucial test of quality control. This time, of course, I made sure to call ahead. The wait was shorter, but it was still a wait. I again cracked open The Dhammapada, spending my half-hour on a passage called “The Pairs,” which encourages the reader to perceive the world with serenity. I copied a stanza into a notebook, to remember the words. I already knew I would remember the fabulous curry.
Two days later, I was back. My food was
ready when I walked in. I was stunned. Had Vigsittaboot’s sense of time suddenly improved? Had I demonstrated my loyalty as a customer—and therefore my claim to an expedited order? Had I reached some strange, exalted state of being? Whatever it was, one thing was certain: I was making myself one with Thai X-ing.
Thai X-ing, 515 Florida Ave. NW,
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Jati Lindsay.