There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Silence has often been a necessary and merciful tool at ethnic eateries: A server remains mum on any ingredients that might make you squeamish, and you, the adventurous-but-less-than-curious diner, play the willing ignoramus by posing no questions. This tight-lipped tableside drama, of course, has its drawbacks. For example: Without asking about it, you’d never get the full story behind the rich, steaming bowl of floating market noodle soup at Nava Thai.
The soup is the house specialty at this tiny Thai outlet in Wheaton. When my beef version arrives, a large, shallow bowl—more a pasta serving bowl than a classic container for soup—practically takes over the table. The dish comes with spiced meatballs, thin slices of flank steak, and puffy fried pork rinds, which float on the surface on one side of the bowl. The proteins, along with bean sprouts and some aromatics, find themselves tangled among the fat noodles that languish in what the menu calls a “spicy brown broth.”
The soup is classic Thai street food, although that’s somewhat misleading. According to Dalad Srigatesook, daughter of Nava owners and cooks Suchart and Ladavan Srigatesook, Thais have historically bought their floating market soup from vendors who sell them in prepackaged bags out of their long-tailed boats along the many canals that wind through and around Bangkok. The most famous of these floating markets can be found in Damnoen Saduak, southwest of Bangkok. Here, women wearing conical muak ngob hats sell tourists and natives everything from fresh produce to cheap trinkets to that delectable soup.
It’s easy to understand why Thais would wake up early and paddle their way through narrow canals (or just crouch over from wooden docks) to buy floating market noodle soup. The dish is hot and sweet, lush and simple, soft and crunchy (thanks to those pork rinds). It also contains an ingredient that tends to invite silence from servers: Cow’s blood, which is the secret to the “spicy brown sauce,” the reason it is so much richer than ones based on mere beef stock.
Nava (pronounced Nah-wa) clearly is not one of those glittery, Americanized Thai places that hang planets from the ceiling or employ a giggly pun as a name. (How restaurateurs have avoided the temptation of Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down all these years remains a mystery.) At Nava, you won’t find crispy spring rolls, skewered satays, or traditional Thai salads—not even those minced-meat larb gai salads that so often come drenched in fish sauce. Nava’s raison d’être is, quite simply, noodles.
At the more standard-issue Thai restaurants, noodles dishes tend to play supporting roles, rarely getting the name-above-the-title treatment that you find at ubiquitous Vietnamese pho shops. The Srigatesooks, however, wanted to give locals a little taste of the noodle houses found throughout their native country.
They got their chance when the owners of Hung Phat grocery invited the couple to rent the small space behind their market. It was a smart move for all involved. Suchart Srigatesook, who had cooked for years at nearby Dusit Thai, could finally open a small noodle house, and Hung Phat could finally secure a tenant for a spot that practically requires a GPS to find. The place is literally tucked into the corner of a cramped parking lot, between air-conditioning units and a Waste Management Dumpster.
Hung Phat is more than the landlord, though. In the market’s basement, employees make fresh rice sheets for Nava, which the husband-and-wife team then cut into noodles the width of school rulers. These wide noodles are the only fresh ones at Nava. The others—the classic, chewy, “fat” noodles and the yellow egg noodles, among them—are all packaged imports, also purchased at Hung Phat. You might be tempted to order the fresh ones with every dish here, but I wouldn’t advise it. Those delicate, opaque, almost melt-on-your-tongue noodles work better with lighter broths, not with powerhouses like the floating market, which requires the studly fat noodle.
The best way to sample Nava’s fresh noodles is in its yen ta fo, which serves as a sort of foil to the floating market soup, both in heat and color. The soup’s peppery, slightly sweet pink broth—it owes its Kool-Aid-like color to pickled red-bean curd—engulfs a bowl of those wide rice noodles as well as slices of fresh squid and small, intensely condensed fish balls. But like floating market noodle soup, yen ta fo also harbors a secret: congealed blocks of pig’s blood.
Given the intensity of Nava’s one-two punch of floating market and yen ta fo noodle soups, would it surprise you to learn that Nava’s sweet, eggy, and nutty pad thai pales by comparison? I say that with some trepidation because I don’t want to scare you away from the more standard Thai dishes here.
After all, Nava’s cool-and-spicy beef ka-prow, served with a runny fried egg and a small bowl of fiery fish sauce, may be the definitive version in the area, while its chicken panang curry may be the most balanced one I’ve ever tried. Unlike those panang curries that favor sweetness over heat, a sad concession to the American palate, this one is an expert blend of chili peppers, coconut milk, and crushed peanuts, that nutty Malaysian influence. And I dare you to find a more fragrant, more tongue-rattling tom kha soup, which doesn’t skimp on the gingerlike galangal and Kaffir lime leaves—but manages to balance out this massive blast of sourness with coconut milk, cilantro, and a judicious use of chilies.
Nava Thai can even surprise you with its drinks, notably its “salty plum” juice, which, as the name indicates, coats your mouth with sodium chloride. Yet, if you let the liquid sit undisturbed on your palate, a certain sweetness creeps in. The beverage seems to me like a metaphor for Nava Thai itself: Bracing and unfamiliar at first, the drink leaves you with a sweet taste in your mouth.
Nava Thai, 11315 Fern St., Wheaton, (240) 430-0495.