For family-run ethnic restaurants with slender margins and unprepossessing locations, sinking a lot of money into decor doesn’t make much sense. If there’s a common thread among the cultures making up our extensive ethnic dining scene, it’s a penchant for bare-bones rooms, fluorescent lighting, and worn carpeting. Unless you’re talking about Thai restaurants, which appear to have a design aesthetic all their own.
For every utilitarian Thai dining room, there are three others with walls of purple, orange, and green, lacquered tables, and drinks that are essentially liquefied candy.
The latest is Sugar Palm Thai, where vaulted walls alternate between shades of pale green and vibrant orange. The booths, which pick up the green in pretty, swirling patterns, would be at home in a trendy coffeehouse. Entrées arrive family-style on large, diamond-shaped platters seemingly pulled from Martha Stewart Living. Ditto the modish cocktail glasses, filled with gin and rum concoctions and topped with paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries.
A stylish look is no guarantee of greatness, of course—in fact, many of the most attractive places are middling. Sugar Palm Thai is not. The kitchen may not always bring the heat, but it also isn’t so preoccupied with presentation that it stints on flavor or complexity. And while there are some obvious sops to American tastes, plenty of dishes make good on the promise of the setting.
The strength of this kitchen is not in its appetizers—an exception being a plate of lightly fried fish nuggets tossed with lemongrass, shallot, and chopped mint ($9). Spend time instead with the curries: a lush, spicy green with hunks of stewed, bone-in chicken, Thai eggplant, and bamboo shoots ($10.95) or a creamy, slow-burning red that knits together rich slices of roast duck and sweet lychees and cherry tomatoes ($16.95). The presentation of the sweet-hot chu chee curry ($16.95) is banquet-worthy—grilled, skewered prawns are grouped in a kind of prayer circle—but the star ingredient was overcooked the night I ordered it. The best part of the dish was the soft-cooked eggplant, which we swiped through the rich, mouth-warming gravy. The rendition of massaman ($16.95), a red curry studded with new potatoes and pearl onions, ignores the usual tough, chewy cubes of beef in favor of an upgrade: stewed leg of lamb.
My friends at all three meals gushed over the noodle and rice dishes, particularly the kee mao ($10.95), whose wide, chewy bands of rice noodle gave off hits of smoke (thanks to the char of the grill), heat (red chilies), and fragrance (basil). But I wish the kitchen had a less liberal hand with the oil.
Better to save the calories for the crispy sea bass ($14.95), a passel of crunchy filets under a spicy chili-basil sauce, or the tom zabb soup ($12.95), a variant on tom kha kai, minus the coconut milk and brimming with hunks of broth-softened beef. That tenderness gave me high hopes for a plate of crispy pork belly and Chinese broccoli ($13.95), but the thick blocks of bacon were either just shy of incinerated or unctuous with unrendered fat.
Most Thai desserts generally aren’t worth the bother, but the three here are, and one—bananas swaddled in wonton skins, deep-fried, and glazed with honey and crushed peanuts ($6)—is good enough to cross over to most Western menus. Like much of what precedes it, it’s nice to look at and even better to eat.
Sugar Palm Thai, 5580 Vincent Gate Ter., Alexandria; 703-354-1077. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.