The night before she was to meet with her landlord to close the deal for the restaurant that bears her name, Amina Toopet dropped to her knees and asked Allah for help.
Friends and family had cautioned her about letting on to anyone, especially the man who owned the space, that this “dream-of-a-lifetime” venture was to be a Muslim restaurant. Remember, they urged her, the driver who’d terrorized her, giving her the finger through three stoplights down Randolph Road in Rockville one afternoon in the tense months after Sept. 11, apparently set off by her bumper sticker in praise of her maker.
Toopet remembered. She remembered his car pulling alongside hers at the third light. She remembered shaking. But still she had turned and looked. Whereupon her harasser had discovered, to his apparent consternation, that this Muslim woman he had been accosting was not Middle Eastern, but Asian.
The Bangkok-born Toopet, who converted from Buddhism 25 years ago when she married Hassan Toopet, her high-school sweetheart, prides herself on her forthrightness. The two left Thailand with just $200 to their name—which was not nearly as anxiety-inducing, she told me, as starting this restaurant in this uncertain time.
She decided, in her heart-to-heart with Allah that night, that she would lay out all the significant details to her landlord: no pork, no alcohol, only halal meats, and, not least, a clientele including tradition-bound women who wrapped their heads. If, after all that, she was still granted the lease, she vowed, she, too, would wrap her head, as a gesture of her gratitude.
The 7-month-old Amina Thai thus symbolizes the completion of her conversion, and to watch Toopet making the rounds of the bright, immaculately clean dining room is to appreciate the boundless enthusiasm of the newly faithful. Few owners are as passionate, as hands-on, as—well—as much of a lovable annoyance as the indomitable Toopet. During one of my visits, the restaurant was nearly deserted, and as she swept through she seemed to implicate my wife and me and all of Rockville, too. “How come nobody?” she wondered aloud. “Maybe raining.” She walked outside, to return a full minute later. “Italian food next door: one table,” she reported. “But Chinese food a lot.”
Another night, she stopped by to take my table’s order even though our waitress had just done so. “Oh, no problem. What are you having?” I related each of our dishes. “What about crispy fish?” she asked, disappointed. She went to retrieve a menu, then plunked the binder down in front of me, pointing toward the description. I threw the matter out for discussion. “Yes?” she said, enlisting my tablemates in her cause. “It’s very, very good. You won’t be disappointed.”
The fish was wonderful: a whole, head-on flounder, scored in the center and deep-fried until the skin took on the color and consistency of a lacquered, roasted duck, bathed in a sweet and heady red-pepper sauce. Her insistence, another night, that I order the mussels was again backed up—this time by a clay pot that sent up great heady gusts of steam, beneath which a dozen large, opalescent bivalves lay open, an aromatic mix of cilantro, onion, and chilis clinging to their briny, meaty innards.
I came away that night convinced that, although she might hover like a grandmother, and although you might go to her restaurant intending to have a quiet, uninterrupted conversation (backed by K-Tel-style classics), it’s best just to let Toopet involve herself in your meal. Once, when I asked for a jump in the level of heat of a dish, she returned a minute later with an antique pepper tray from Bangkok. “You like hot?” She seemed pleased. In each of the tiny compartments were different treatments of chili—a paste, a vinegar, a powder—with degrees of heat that ranged from slurp-down-the-water-all-in-one-gulp hot to reduce-your-date-to-streaming-tears hot.
The back of the house belongs, relatively speaking, to husband Hassan, a veteran of both Benihana and Sushi-Ko. He has plans, he says, to take up making sushi again—which should fill out a menu that, by the standards of most Thai restaurants, is exceptionally small. Not just pork but duck, too, is absent, and there are few roasted or fried dishes. But if there is little adventure to be found at Amina Thai, there is little failure, either. The spring rolls are virtually greaseless; phra gong, that light salad of steamed shrimp tossed with lemongrass and chilis, is as refreshing as it is crisp; the deep-fried, curried fish cakes called tod mun are given an additional boost by an appealingly sour cucumber relish; and yum nua, its grill-striped steak sliced thin and bathed in a spicy lime dressing, is a neat marriage of smoky and tart.
The curries are standouts. Among the best is the salmon chu chee, which brings sour and sweet and hot into harmony; the fish is dry, but the smooth, coconut-based sauce abounds with chunks of pineapple and crisp snow peas, and is finished with a chiffonade of Kaffir lime leaves, which lend the dish a distinctive, ineffably fragrant perfume. In the mussamun curry, the Thai equivalent of a meat-and-potatoes meal, the toughness of the beef is mitigated by the broth: creamy, lightly sweet, and totally addictive.
Sweetness, unfortunately, gets the better of a number of dishes. The biggest offender is a stir-fried chicken dish called pharam long song, buried beneath a layer of peanut sauce that puts you in mind of nothing so much as a steaming jar of Skippy. Not even the restaurant’s signature dessert—wonderful, bite-size rice-paper dumplings filled with puréed banana and drizzled with honey—is as cloying.
Toopet, eyeing the mostly unfinished chicken that night from her perch behind the counter, descended on our table.
“I wrap it up for you—you take it home. Yes? For lunch tomorrow. Don’t forget.”
Amina, I forgot.
The dish, not you. Not you.
Amina Thai, 5065 Nicholson Lane, Rockville. (301) 770-9509.—Todd Kliman
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