June 2006 Cheap Eats

Amid the big-box superstores of Fairfax, Sakoontra stands out like the mohawked kid in homeroom, from its color scheme–the walls are done up in purples, blues, teals, and burgundies–to its often sharp, zippy cooking.

You're not likely to see these charms right off. Appetizers yield only occasional pleasures. Tod mun, those minced shrimp cakes, are springy not crunchy, and kanom jeeb, tiny steamed pork-stuffed dumplings, draws intriguing, if perplexing, parallels to American barbecue.

Frying is not the kitchen's strong suit. Instead, turn your attention to the soups (a hot-and-sour lemongrass soup that doesn't stint on the sour) or the lively salads, including one memorable iteration that brings together deep-fried watercress, whole cashews, poached shrimp, and chicken and squid, the whole thing drizzled with a spicy lime sauce.

It's with its main courses that the kitchen reveals its strengths. A lot of Thai kitchens pander to their audiences by recalibrating their dishes–sweetening their sauces and toning down the heat until the needed peppery punch is barely a love tap. This one, under the direction of Vilai Chivavibul, obeys the essential sense of balance that Thai cooking demands, resulting in a raft of curries whose fire is kept in check by a pronounced sourness and creamy sweetness and bright, colorful stir-fries that seldom devolve into a gloppy indistinctness.

The kitchen doesn't use fish sauce in its vegetarian dishes, which is bound to inspire the abiding devotion of vegetarians. What will inspire the abiding devotion of omnivores is the fact that the restaurant regularly scours the local seafood markets for specials–and that Chivavibul and crew are smart enough to let the goods speak for themselves. A recent special included two plump, meaty softshells, lightly fried and bathed in a sweet-and-sour sauce shot through with basil and green chilies.

Entrées $6.95 to $12.95.

Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.