No sooner had the four of us dug into the grilled pork skewers than we fell into a contemplative silence. It wasn’t that the meat was so much tenderer than other versions we’d eaten (it wasn’t) but that it was so much more flavorful. It was hard not to feel that this was what we were supposed to have been tasting all along. The 72-hour marinade had penetrated to the center; the grill had caramelized the edges of the meat. And all this was before we dredged the pork through an inky sauce of soy, chili, lime, and pulverized rice that pushed every button on the tongue.
The skewers had predisposed us to Thai Taste by Kob, the new restaurant from chef Phak Duangchandr. The fried shrimp wontons that arrived next endeared us to it. Expecting something forgettable, I was unprepared for their elegant lightness. More chip than dumpling, with minced shrimp rolled into a crimped edge of wonton skin, the snacks are as irresistible as a hot tortilla chip and as loud as a chemically engineered Dorito, only more delicious than either.
In an alternate universe, the R&D execs at Lay’s would put Duangchandr on a plane and lock her up in a lab for the next year. In the real world, we can be thankful that such a talented cook has found a place of her own. For a decade, Duangchandr owned Wheaton’s Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market and built a following. She took over this tiny restaurant inside Hung Phat market, also in Wheaton, a few months ago, gave the place an orange-and-DayGlo-green paint job, and set about to make good on the promise of those colors with a bright and electric brand of cooking.
Duangchandr imports many spices from Thailand, toasting and grinding them herself. Nearly every preparation is begun from scratch, with soup bases, pastes, and vinegars made each morning. (Ask for her condiment tray, and be sure to make use of her wonderful chili-stoked vinegar.) It’s these methodical ways, combined with a disinclination to soften her cuisine for an American audience, that give her dishes such ping and pop.
That can be startling when you think you know what you’re eating. Witness the sharp edges of her Panang curry, festooned with kaffir-lime leaves, or the puckery tamarind sauce accompanying a shrimp-paste-flavored rice and pork. Duangchandr also brings the heat, and not just in dishes you expect: Her basil fried rice, the hottest I’ve eaten, set my heart to racing after a few bites. General manager Max Prasertmate told me that many non-Thai diners have requested extra rice to subdue the fire of many dishes, though he laughed at the notion that his aunt’s cooking was a departure from the norm. This is the taste you’re “supposed to get,” he says.
Not everything’s a scorcher, nor do you have to be inclined toward strong flavors to eat well. The heart of the menu is its Thai street food, simple dishes that call to mind Bangkok’s night markets. These include an omelet with ground pork as well as a meal-in-a-bowl packed with egg noodles, red-edged pork, and fish balls. If there’s one must-order, it’s the crispy whole fish, most often red snapper. Duangchandr fries it to a magnificent turn, draping the finished product with chili sauce or a tamer sweet-and-sour version.
The addition of Thai Taste to a three-block stretch that already includes Ruan Thai and Nava Thai—the area’s two best Thai places—means that the rich just got richer. It might be premature to talk of a Little Thailand, but diners can already start savoring what’s sure to be a deliciously competitive battle.
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.