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Washington’s ethnic-food scene is largely a suburban phenomenon, and our two jurisdictions outside DC both have their strengths. Craving Korean? Head to Virginia. Peruvian? Go to Maryland. Great Thai? It’s suddenly a competition.
For most of the past decade, the leading purveyors of the bright, pinging flavors of Thai food have been congregated in Arlington and Falls Church, but Maryland is catching up. Nava Thai in Wheaton and Sabai Sabai Simply Thai in Germantown have recently emerged as two of the area’s best Thai restaurants.
Now add Kao Thai in Silver Spring to the list. The restaurant takes over for Thai Flavor, across the street from the AFI Silver Theatre. What once was a pleasant cafe is now a full-service restaurant with good lighting and warm, inviting colors.
The change in the kitchen is equally dramatic. The previous occupant was little more than a dependable takeout option. Kao Thai is worthy of a relaxing night out.
The menu is not as wide-ranging as its competitors’, and those looking for novelty might sigh at the appetizer list. Wonton soup? It suggests a conflicted mission, a restaurant hedging its bets. But the broth is made with house-made chicken stock perked up with a shake or two of white pepper. Thin-skinned dumplings filled with juicy pork and shrimp bob on the surface. Curry puffs invite a similar skepticism, but the hand-held pastries stuffed with curried potato and chicken are rendered with delicacy, lighter and subtler than most samosas.
Bikini shrimp is one of those kitschy concoctions that restaurants put on the menu to appeal to non-Thais. This one’s better than most. The wonton-bundled shrimp is fried to a golden turn, with nary a bead of grease on the wrapper. There’s larb gai, too, that lively hash of ground chicken, black pepper, minced onion, and lime juice. At many other restaurants, texture is often the issue—overcooked ground pork is the norm. Here the meat seems almost velveted, in the Chinese manner.
More than most, this kitchen understands the importance of balance. Declining to dial up the heat and the sour in a misguided attempt to pass itself off as authentic, Kao makes use of all four flavors in the Thai palette—hot, sour, sweet, salty—and integrates them harmoniously. Take the red curry (and take it with pork): The flavors are so vividly and precisely rendered that the lushness of the dish’s coconut-milk base doesn’t dull either the heat or the tang. I couldn’t resist ordering it a second time; happily, it was every bit as magnificent as it had been the first go-round.
A lightly fried salmon was nearly as good, the lusciousness of the fish reinforcing the lusciousness of the curry. I also loved the kitchen’s take on kaprow, an exuberant mélange of sliced chicken and basil. The one misfire? Clumpy drunken noodles.
My single excursion beyond the curries and stir-fries was a street-food dish called mu ping—skewers of juicy, slightly fatty hunks of marinated, grilled pork. A zesty barbecue sauce dominated by ground chilies and lime juice elevated the dish from good to memorable. As with the red curry, I couldn’t resist a second order. Alas, it wasn’t nearly as tasty—chalk it up to a leaner cut of pork.
A cold Singha beer is an ideal foil for the vivid, spicy flavors, but instead of ordering a second round, expend your calories at the back end on a surprisingly delicate dish of sticky rice and mango.
Because a good bit of the restaurant’s business is still grab-and-go, service can be both slow and harried, with diners being accommodated in between carryout orders. It’s the kind of place you want to sit and linger a while—linger purposefully, and not because you’ve been neglected.
This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.