Though nestled in the Shirlington wasteland, T.H.A.I. is a pleasant enough place. Much like the new houses my friends’ parents bought in the ’80s, T.H.A.I. appears to have been conceived in reaction to both boredom and stress. The walls are jagged, and the colors change abruptly, but the hues—soft yellow, warm blue, beige, muted red—are affable shades the restaurant’s clients might appreciate in a tie or scarf. The crowd is neatly pressed, especially during lunch, when local business types flock there to enjoy a limited, lower-priced menu and, presumably, what’s promised in the restaurant’s acronym: Tasty Thai cuisine; Hospitality and warmth; Architectural elegance; and Innovative seasonal menus.
The creative drought that obviously plagued the folks at T.H.A.I. when they named the place must have passed by the time they arranged its ornate food presentation. Most of the restaurant’s dishes could serve as models for innovative jewelry designs, and some of them even taste good.
The larb gai is the restaurant’s best dish, if only because the chili peppers next to its name on the menu don’t turn out to be bogus signals; despite what the waiters or menu tell us, nothing else we order is hotly spiced. The yum talay salad’s lime dressing has a certain kick, but it’s unique because it’s so tart, making it a good foil for the sweetly spiced shrimp, scallops, and squid hidden in the greens. A similar potion would better serve the salad khaek than its flavorless curried peanut dressing, which benefits the dish only in putting a gloss on its crisp fried tofu and potatoes, red leaf lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and egg.
T.H.A.I.’s soups are its most reliably rewarding creations, so it’s a shame that there are only four of them to choose from. The tom yum seafood teems with lemon grass, and the wonderfully sour broth is a shock to the senses. The ka pok pla is thickened with coriander paste and filled with shredded chicken, quail eggs, bamboo shoots, and wild mushrooms. Without adding anything new to the archetype, the wonton soup won’t throw anyone, but it’s refreshing comfort food, as good as any I’ve had. Even though we find a thin twist of metal in its broth, the milky tom ka gai, with its chunks of juicy chicken, is a better option than most of the other appetizers: The satay chicken is a bore, the autumn rolls, propped up like a tepee, are neat to look at but ungraciously thin, and the “fried” duck wantons are so undercooked that we figure if you tossed one at the wall it would stick.
You’d think that good pad Thai would bode well for other orders, and T.H.A.I.’s version is excellent. Buried in the tangle of transparent rice noodles, crisp scallions, bean sprouts, whole shrimp, soft bean curd, and barely visible crushed peanuts are sharp undercurrents of spiciness, light hints of sweetness, and a swirl of flavors in between. But a similar transcendence is achieved only rarely by T.H.A.I.’s other entrees.
The crispy whole fish (catfish when we try it) is one success; it’s a fresh-tasting fillet, crisp and accompanied by a healthy dose of the chili garlic sauce the kitchen seems to use sparingly on everything else. The pa-lo pork chops are also intriguing; soaked in a coriander-cinnamon sauce and accompanied by an eclectic collective of sides—steamed bok choy, pickled mustard greens, boiled quail eggs, fried bean curd, and (I couldn’t believe it either) salsa—it’s a gratifyingly daring dish.
Maybe it’s the blankness of the Shirlington development that inspires T.H.A.I. to concentrate on surface beauty. Or perhaps the kitchen is being careful not to rattle the palates of its timid clientele. Whichever, the kapow delight, a chicken, beef, pork, or seafood dish that I’m promised is one of the most lively items available, is nothing more than a dull mound of meat; for anyone who has ever watched the old, TV Batman, it’s deceptively named. The curries, even when we order them extra spicy, are innocent and lifeless. The flavors in the pla nueng, an enticing-looking dish of red snapper cooked in apricot sauce, are so tame that when I close my eyes, it’s hard to say for certain that the food even exists.
T.H.A.I. in Shirlington, 4029 S. 28th St., Arlington. (703) 931-3203.
Next to the lunch counter at the rear of Good Health Food is a small display of books—mostly stuff about eating “responsibly” and a few philosophical texts. “We’re looking to expand that a little,” a woman making California rolls says to a customer leafing through some of the material. “More self-help-type, but not The Celestine Prophecy. Less mainstream.” Good thing, because this easy-to-miss grocery/deli is at its best when it’s bucking convention. The “handburger”—made with a lentil-and-tamari patty—is good even though I’m told to eat it cold, straight from the fridge, with some tahini sauce. The self-serve soups are kept at a more familiar temperature, and the selection changes daily; the minestrone, served Fridays, and the split pea, served Wednesdays, are both wholesome and hearty. The place is closed on Sundays, but don’t expect the door to be locked; I hang around one afternoon in the book section hoping to gain spiritual enlightenment and waiting for someone to sell me a soda. I leave thirsty.
Good Health Food, 325 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. (202) 543-2266.—Brett Anderson