Khao soi gai at Baan Thai

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When chef Aulie Bunyarataphan and her husband opened their first restaurant, T.H.A.I. in Shirlington, in 1995, she introduced fermented Isaan sausage to the menu—and was promptly lectured by Americans on what actual Thai food is.

“I was told this dish is not Thai. Thailand doesn’t have sausage,” Bunyarataphan says of customers’ reactions at the time. “They don’t know, and they’re afraid to try it too, so we took it off.”

Bunyarataphan also learned to shy away from anything too “smelly” or too spicy. “Twenty years ago, those flavors are not acceptable at all in a restaurant,” she says. She recalls how diners would freak out about a single chili pepper on a dish. At her next restaurant in Georgetown, Bangkok Joe’s, the chef continued to play it safe on the menu.

But Bunyarataphan and her husband and business partner, Mel Oursinsiri, aren’t shying away from sour, pungent, spicy flavors anymore. After replacing Bangkok Joe’s with short-lived French-Asian restaurant Mama Rouge, they’ve brought Bangkok Joe’s back—with some changes. Sure, the menu includes crowd-pleasers like pad thai, fried calamari, and a wide range of dumplings, but it also features some dishes the owners had stayed away from in the past. Bunyarataphan has amped up the heat on a seafood stir-fry and added funky fermented crab to a Lao-style papaya salad. And that Isaan sausage? It appears on the menu in two places. 

“We go all the way, just like what we eat at home,” Bunyarataphan says. She believes diners aren’t scared anymore.

Neither are Thai chefs and restaurateurs. Bunyarataphan is one of several Thai chefs and restaurateurs across D.C. now flaunting the full range of flavors and ingredients in their native cuisine. Restaurants representing other food cultures—from Filipino at Bad Saint or Laotian at Thip Khao—have similarly refused to temper their dishes, but the trend is particularly exemplified by D.C.’s Thai restaurants.

Jeeraporn Poksupthong, better known as P’Boom, moved to D.C. from Rayong in eastern Thailand in 2006 and began cooking at Logan Circle’s Thai Tanic. The chef wanted to offer some specials beyond the restaurant’s Americanized fare of pad thai and drunken noodles on occasion, but she says the menu was already so established and successful that there wasn’t room for a new style. Instead, she served her authentic cuisine to the Thai staff for family meals.

Then a couple years ago, Poksupthong approached the owners of Tsunami Sushi, located above and operated by family members of the Thai Tanic team, with an idea to open a small pop-up with a few authentic Thai specials.

“There are so many wonderful Thai dishes people still can’t find in American Thai restaurants,” Poksupthong says. “Thai food is much more complicated and diverse than most Westerners realize. I knew that if we could give people a taste of Thai food that was more complex and beautiful than they had seen before, we would have a successful restaurant.”

Tsunami Sushi was struggling when it only served sushi, so co-owner Tom Healy says they were open to trying something new. Still, while Healy’s Thai wife and business partner Weerasak “Vena” Doungchan thought the idea was phenomenal, he admits he was a little reluctant at first. “I was like, ‘Uh, this is really spicy.’ I was hesitant,” he says.

But when the Baan Thai menu launched in August of 2014 with dishes like Northern Thai pork curry with pickled garlic and Thai vermicelli in chili peanut sauce, it was a hit. The new offerings were so successful that the owners closed Tsunami Sushi and reopened as Baan Thai. A sushi menu remains as a consolation to Tsunami’s regular customers, but it now comprises just 35 to 40 percent of the restaurant’s business. “Thai overtook sushi very quickly,” Healy says. The Thai menu also began to garner glowing reviews in the Washington Post and Eater National.

“We went from being moderately busy on a Friday and Saturday night to being an hour and 15 minutes for a table,” Healy says. “We were not prepared for how busy we were going to get.”

While Poksupthong and Healy say Baan Thai’s menu could  have been successful five years ago, they’re not sure about 10. “D.C. has… gotten younger, this neighborhood especially,” Healy says. “The demographics have shifted here so heavily in the past 10 years that our market changed. Who we’re selling to and the stuff that we’re able to sell, the food that we’re able to advertise has opened up.”

Soi 38 owners Dia Khanthongthip and Nat Ongsangkoon also saw the changing tides. In 2002, the couple opened an Americanized Thai restaurant in Foggy Bottom called Thai Place. Back then, Khanthongthip says most diners couldn’t handle spicy food. But over the years, that’s changed. She recalls how they used to serve diners a green curry that was milder than the one the staff would eat. But when she eventually let some regular customers try the staff version, they liked it better. “That made me think they need to try the real Thai,” she says. Meanwhile, American friends who tried Khanthongthip’s home cooking also encouraged her to go a new direction.

In 2014, Khanthongthip and her husband closed Thai Placeand opened Soi 38, which focuses exclusively on dishes they eat at home and experienced in their native Bangkok. (The restaurant is named for a famous street-food district and night market in the Thai capital.)

Khanthongthip says that people are generally more interested in “authenticity” in food these days. Although the term can have a kind of nebulous definition, today’s food culture often romanticizes traditional cooking techniques and family recipes handed down over generations.

Bizarre Foods and other food travel shows have no doubt played a role in a new generation’s willingness to explore foods previously considered exotic. Bangkok Joe’s chef Bunyarataphan adds that more of her diners have actually been to Thailand or have become more familiar with Thai food. “Before people were like, ‘Where is Thailand?’”

And then there’s the fact that one of the city’s top chefs (Komi’s Johnny Monis) began serving no-holds-barred Thai food at Little Serow in 2011. After Thai X-ing, the restaurant was many Washingtonians’ first introduction to some of the spicier, funkier flavors of Thai food, even though some Thai chefs quibble over whether some dishes are 100 percent “authentic.”

“Little Serow was definitely one of the restaurants that opened the door,” Healy says. “People got the idea that you could do more with Thai food than just the traditional Americanized fare, that there was a depth to Thai food that’s on the same level as, say, French cuisine. Those guys pushed the envelope first, and then this whole community of people realized that, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we can offer more.’”

It may seem awkward that a non-Thai guy helped make food that the Thai community had been cooking at home all along trendy and mainstream in the District. But D.C.’s Thai chefs and restaurateurs don’t seem troubled by that.

“It means that Thai food is more popular with people that aren’t Thai,” Soi 38’s Khanthongthip says. “That’s good for me.”

In the years since, other chefs who aren’t Thai—from Doi Moi’s Haidar Karoum to Alfie’sAlex McCoy—have also tried their hand at the cuisine.

Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop chef Aschara Vigsittaboot is happy to see Thai food catch on. The only thing that feels weird to her is when restaurants, like Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok which she visited in New York, romanticize street food by making their dining rooms look kind of gritty—an aesthetic that could be charitably described as shack chic. “If you want to bring that kind of Thai food here, it should be in a better way,” she says.

Vigsittaboot and co-owner Ralph Brabham say Beau Thai, which opened its first location in Mount Pleasant in 2010, has never served Americanized food. Many of Vigsittaboot’s dishes, pulled from family recipes, have always been spicy. “If you eat curry, it has to be that way,” she says. Still, Vigsittaboot has added more of those spicy dishes—like a sweat-inducing larb ped (minced duck salad)—to the menu since Beau Thai first opened and expanded to Shaw.

Heat levels, however, continue to be a hot-button issue for the restaurants. Vigsittaboot says she gets a little annoyed when diners ask for a dish to be prepared “Thai spicy.” “Some Thai people, they don’t eat that spicy. Some Thai people eat very spicy like me,” she says. To address spice modifications, Vigsittaboot now gives diners craving extra heat some dried chilies to add in as they wish.

Similarly, at Baan Thai, Healy says he’s constantly asking people how much spice they can handle in their food.

“If we don’t warn people ahead of time that the four-chili items are going to be extremely spicy—and even the mid-level range ones are very spicy to some people—we’re risking getting a dish returned,” Healy says.

At Beau Thai, Vigsittaboot also resisted putting fish sauce in spice trays because a lot of people didn’t like the smell. However, at BKK Cookshop, which opened in Shaw last summer, she now offers a tray with fish sauce and an intensely hot chili oil to accompany noodle bowls.

While some Thai chefs and restaurateurs say no ingredient or flavor is off-limits anymore, Vigsittaboot and Brabham do see some limitations when it comes to what will actually sell. The other day, Vigsittaboot made herself a spicy, sour fish dish with fermented bamboo shoots. “Our assessment is that it’s an acquired taste, and it might be a tough sell,” Brabham says. But they’re open to running such a dish as a special in the future.

Despite these advances, the fact remains that pad thai still reigns supreme. It remains the most popular dish at both Beau Thai and Soi 38. At Baan Thai, at least one or two tables per night ask “where’s the pad thai?” Healy admits that does make him pause to wonder if they should serve the dish.

But ultimately, the answer is no.

“Every single Thai restaurant in America is offering pad thai. It is the Big Mac of Thai cuisine,” Healy says. “We did not do this to sell Big Macs.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery