March 2005 Best of Chinatown

Before the Thai Room opened near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues in 1972 as the area's first Thai restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, China Inn, had three menus: one for its Chinese clientele, another for Americans, and a third, printed in Siamese, for regulars from the then-small Thai community.

So it is fitting that Kanlaya, the most recent Asian interloper in Chinatown, could be considered one of DC's top Thai restaurants. Given the decorative standards of the neighborhood, it is quite attractive. And in a neighborhood often known for slapdash service, one is pleasantly surprised by the attentiveness of Kanlaya's servers.

The best ways to start here are a hot pot of mussels steamed with kaffir lime leaves and other traditional Thai spices, and then excellent Siam dumplings, which look like shu mai, the open-top, purse-shaped dumplings that are standards on Chinatown's dim sum menus.

If green curry is Thailand's hamburger, Panang curry is its prime rib. At Kanlaya, the Panang curry with beef has a spicy-sweet flavor yet is light despite its wealth of coconut milk. More assertive is the Wild Pork, a name popularized by the original Sala Thai on Dupont Circle for a highly spiced curry paste that elevates ordinary poultry and meat into something quite special. Half of Kanlaya's menu is dedicated to vegetarian dishes. The smoky-flavored rice noodles stir-fried with vegetables have an attractive spiciness provided by a generous amount of garlic and chili added to the wok. And the Asian eggplant, stir-fried with basil and black-bean spice, is spectacularly good.

But whatever else you order, include the Pottery Shrimp, a casserole that looks like a Chinese hot pot, filled with shrimp nestled in a tangle of cellophane noodles. To add punch to the shrimp, a side-dish of chili sauce is provided on the side.