Haad Thai Restaurant | Washington DC Thai Cuisine

The Washington Post Magazine – 04/30/95

By Phyllis C. Richman

Sunday, April 30, 1995

Tropical Thai

Tropical Thai

I've always thought of Greyhound stations as places where you make do with a cello-wrapped danish to the rhythm of fitful snores while waiting for a bus to some grim little Pennsylvania town.

Not our Greyhound station. Now that it's been restored as an art deco monument, it sends you not to gritty industrial outposts but to fantasy worlds. It started its new life with a big, noisy brew-pub and a bustling trattoria. Now it's also just the place to go for an exotic tropical sunset.

Haad Thai-its entrance is on 11th Street NW, around the corner from Capitol City Brewing Company and Luigino-is a small Thai restaurant designed by a dreamer. Its curved walls surround you in sunset colors, with silhouettes of a beach and palm trees painted against a coral sky and a ceiling black as midnight. Tiny spotlights hang like stars above the small wooden tables and the free-standing bar-just the kind you'd sidle up to in your bathing suit after an afternoon swim. Even the floor looks like a sandy beach etched by the wind into parallel wavy lines.

Quicker than you could shake saltwater out of your hair, a young woman with a lilting accent offers to bring you something to drink. Something sweet and fruited, some modest wine or an imported beer. The food smells like jungle flowers and looks as bright as tropical birds against the white plates.

I've never been to Phuket, but now I feel it has come to me.

Maybe I've gotten carried away, but to complain about anything at Haad Thai makes you feel like a grinch. It took me three visits before I noticed that the bare wooden chairs are not particularly comfortable. And when the kitchen was unconscionably slow in producing our entrees I was inclined to forgive, as if clocks have no value so far from the workaday world. Small portions? We just ordered more.

No wonder Thai restaurants are such a success story. Curry sauces in colors of a spring wardrobe, fragrant with coconut and peanuts. Icy hot foods, ignited by chilies and cooled by lime juice and cucumbers or carrot slivers. Plenty of vegetables, their color and crunch intact, with thinly sliced meat more as a condiment than the mainstay, in sauces that are unthickened and intensely aromatic. This food was just waiting for the lowfat,
high-flavor inclinations of the '90s.

Haad Thai serves all those standard dishes that we in Washington have luckily been able to take for granted: pad thai, with its chewy translucent noodles and a faint sweetness reminiscent of honeysuckle; puckery and incendiary salads such as ground-chicken larb and mixed-seafood yum talay. These are as lime-tart and savory as any in town-though if you want your food really hot here, you'll have to do some heavy persuading.

Some of the traditional Thai dishes are done better elsewhere. Chicken satay is dry here, its peanut sauce all sweetness' and no pepperiness; and fried appetizers such as spring rolls, crab-stuffed chicken wings and Japanese-style meat dumplings (gyoza) are too greasy and underseasoned. Curries are mild enough for the Mother's Day crowdsunless the kitchen has finally caught on to Americans' heat-seeking palates.

Come to think of it, when you take Haad Thai's food apart dish by dish it's not all that exciting. But if you're not focusing on the details, you'll probably leave thinking you had a great meal. Especially if you seek the dishes with tart, hot sauces.

At dinner there's a kind of Thai shrimp cocktail-goong som o- with five juicy shrimp hooked over a hollowed grapefruit shell filled with chunks of grapefruit, lime juice, bits of red chilies and red bell peppers, shards of red onion and lots of cilantro. It's liquid fire, summer in a shell, cool and hot at the same time. It would be the best of the appetizers except that the usual chicken-coconut soup is remarkably fragrant and tart.

Entrees are largely predictable-but deliciously so. Key mao's thick, wide rice noodles are topped with ivory slices of chicken breast, strips of red bell pepper and hot chilies, and leaves of green basil that perfume the table with its cinnamony scent. The same dish is available without the noodles as ka prow. Chicken is also paired with eggplant in a fragrant clear sauce made with brown beans, or teamed with cashews and scallions. Chicken, beef or pork are used almost like garnishes with noodles, gingery bean sauce or curry sauce with string beans. Shrimp comes sweet-and-sour, curried or with a disappointingly tame garlic sauce and snow peas. Several of the dishes are available in vegetarian versions.

Beyond the standards, the chef has a sense of drama. Among the grilled entrees is something called surf and turf, which could give a good name to what is usually a justifiably maligned dish. A rectangular wooden board is the platform for a small steak-cooked rare, sliced thin and re-formed-and several shrimp on a skewer, with a little landscape of vegetables decorating the platter. What makes it taste almost as good as it looks is the "spicy tartly" dipping sauce of lime, chilies and soy sauce. Another showpiece: PIa tod is a. whole flound er, deep fried and blanketed with a choice of three sauces. Which sauce to choose? Definitely chili and garlic. The fish-which comes with a small bowl of that irresistible hot, tart soy sauce for dipping-is steamy, white and fresh, a little greasy in the frying and definitely overpriced ($18.95 to $25.95, depending on market prices, compared with $6.95 to $13.95 for the other entrees) but one of the kitchen's best efforts.

Otherwise, Haad Thai's food is a bargain, even with the entrees small enough that you'll want to fill up on rice or order generously. And the wines begin at $11.95, topping off at $29.95, which is where many restaurants start out. Such prices might make you rethink your inclination toward beer with Thai food.

While you'll probably have room for dessert, Thai coconut custard-the usual offering- is not a crowd pleaser. It's rich with pureed yam, tasting more of egg than of coconut, and it's less sweet than some of the entrees. At $2, it might be worth satisfying your curiosity, and somebody at the table will surely be tickled to have the whipped cream and maraschino cherry.

So here it is. Just another charmingly decorated, graciously staffed, modestly priced delicious little Thai restaurant.