Thai House

Thai gem in Gaithersburg.

It’s hard to stand out amid the area’s many Thai spots without a signature or gimmick. Tara Thai trades on its DayGlo cocktails and splashy interiors, Bangkok 54 pours California and Austrian wines in a gallerylike dining room, Nava Thai showcases street food.

Thai House, in a Gaithersburg strip mall, has none of those things going for it. Its menu is conventional, its look bare bones, its drink list modest. It seems content to be a trusty neighborhood resource, a place to stop for carryout or dinner with friends.

But that’s just at first glance. In fact, Thai House has its surprises; it’s a place of second and third impressions.

Num tok, a lime-marinated beef salad that’s traditionally a way to use leftover meat, is redeemed by the care and attention of chef Dawan Seanguan, who comes from the popular Benjarong in Rockville. The meat is thicker and more tender than usual, and the salad—with slivers of red onion, torn cilantro, and lime dressing—is tart and hot. Sprinklings of pulverized rice give the dish a neat bit of crunch.

No other appetizer I tried matches that dish, but there are also good preparations of tod mun (spongy fish cakes), with an excellent peanut-cucumber relish; spring rolls; and miniature pinched dumplings called kanom jeeb. A dish called Heavenly Wings reprises a Thai classic seldom seen anymore, in which chicken wings are turned into a conversation piece: The meat is cut, loosened, and pushed to the top of the bone; stuffed with crabmeat, shrimp, and scallion; and then battered and deep-fried. Seanguan sends the wings out hot and greaseless—and hard to resist.

Seanguan roasts and grinds her own spices; she also grows some of her own herbs. Unlike at many restaurants, where you have to earn the kitchen’s respect through several visits before you can even think to ask for “more spice,” the question of heat is taken seriously. Ask for a dish to be prepared “full spicy,” and it will likely come out blazing. Not that that’s always a good thing; the green curry is fiery but not terribly flavorful. Curries in general are a weakness: A yellow curry with ground chicken and cellophane noodles was boring and indistinct.

The garlic shrimp is notable for its deft use of white pepper and welcome treatment of its star ingredient. Frozen, yes—all shrimp are likely frozen unless you see the heads on them—but unlike most stir-fries, they’re cooked medium-rare, the better to appreciate the texture of the meat.

The crispy duck with chili-and-garlic sauce is a tour de force, the kind of dish that can reawaken your interest in a familiar preparation. The duck is absent of excess fat, and the exterior that isn’t covered in sauce is as well seasoned and crispy as good fried chicken.

This review appeared in the April, 2009 issue of the Washingtonian.