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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thai X-ing

Plaudits: Washingtonian Best Cheap Eats 2010, numerous Washington City Paper Best of DC Readers' Choice Awards
Neighborhood: Bloomingdale/Ledroit Park

The Setup

I've written before about why I love Restaurant Week. In my salad days, I used to try and cram as many Restaurant Week dinners as possible. These days, with more budget constraints and less "haven't-tried-yet" restaurants on my bucket list, the twice-annual circus has whittled down to one group meal per RW with Official Friends of DCWD Baboon, HR Intern, and G, and Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas. Yet, our last few Restaurant Weeks had left us feeling pretty meh: at best, we'd get a Rasika West End, a good meal that probably would have been a lot better every other week of the year; at worst, we'd get a Belga Cafe, an uninspired mess of a dinner. So this year, we took the cue of Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC and used Restaurant Week as an opportunity to get into an otherwise booked up spot: Thai X-ing.

The Vibe

We all came at Thai X-ing with different ideas of what to expect. On one end, Texas and I had passed it on the 90 buses numerous times and knew its facade well; on the other, G and Baboon knew only that it was in a townhouse. Still, all of us were surprised at the interior of the restaurant we walked in.

Sometimes restaurants seem like a converted townhouse; Thai X-ing clearly is a converted townhouse. Every nook and cranny has been turned into an eating space while retaining the same condo-ed layout: a front patio seats no more than eight underneath an awning, while three levels of dining area sit connected only by the main front-door staircase: an English basement serves as floor one of the dining area, while the second floor has a number of twos and fours inside various rooms along with one six in the bay window (where we sat for this meal), with a third floor sits upstairs. Everything is filled with Southeast Asian paraphernalia, reminding you of those houses of world travelers who came back from Nepal and just had to have their living room look like an ashram or their host family's home. The Buddha head on the wall, the painted lamp, the cushioned benches that serves as our seating, the ethnic curtains - everything about the space feels like an apartment which has replaced all of its furniture with tables.

None of this is to say that the space isn't up-to-snuff, quite the opposite actually. The spirit is familial and familiar, the service kind and straightforward, the atmosphere burden- and pretention-free. It's quite fun, all things considered.

The Food

Much like kindred-spirit Little Serow, Thai X-ing (which preceded the former by a number of years) serves meals family style for a prix fixe price, ranging from $30 to $50 a head depending on the night and your group size. Different days bring different rotations, some combination of veggies, and meat, and fish. There is no ordering and no menu, rather just a seating, some water, and the immediate presentation of dishes in rapid succession with a two or three-word description. Think of it like a supper club, but more established.

Our meal started with two appetizers: individual bowls of tom yum soup and a group plate of papaya salad, both of which were appropriately light and refreshing. The soup, rich with coconut milk, was also filled with shredded ginger, button mushrooms, tofu, and Thai basil, and was the harbinger of the deliciousness that is to come. Alternately lightly creamy and lightly piquant, the soup was pleasant and inviting and one of the better tom yums we've had. The shredded papaya salad, topped with cucumber slices, tomatoes, crushed peanuts, red peppers, and some green beans was similarly friendly, its sauce base was the kind that you spooned well after the salad was gone.

The family-style entrees come nearly all at once, and range in levels of hyperbole from "good and enjoyable" to "ZOMG, why is there not more of this? I would mainline this if I could." On the former side of the spectrum, a lime chicken salad, with hints of cilantro and spice, was balanced between heat and tart, and would otherwise have been decidedly noteworthy if not for its tablemates. The similarly spicy bean sprout salad with assorted peppers was also amusing (in a non-sarcastic way), the kind of likable side dish that takes nothing away from the more substantial plates on the table.
A chicken massaman curry is the likely middle ground, a meaty on-bone presentation that presented satisfying notes of tamarind and coconut milk, with a little heat to bind it all together. It's also worth noting that of all the dishes, this one was finished first.
The most incredible dishes however were the steamed pompano and the pumpkin curry, the latter of which has been deservedly feted throughout the district. The pompano, a flat whitefish served whole with distinct flavors of lime and chili, is beautiful with meaty chunks of flesh and skin melting together in your mouth with pleasant bursts of salt. Growing up with plenty of family-style meals at Chinese food restaurants where the steamed whole fish was always my favorite part, this dish compares quite favorably to those memories.
The pumpkin curry was by far the favorite of the table, the kind of dish that effortlessly blended the natural sugars of pumpkin and coconut, and somehow turned it into something sweet and milky and gooey but not saccharine. Each bite offered something new: that roasted flavor you get from something perfectly grilled, the creaminess of something that's been soaked in coconut milk. Incredible.
Much like the lime chicken and beansprout salad, the last hurrah of drunken noodles, which arrived after all of the other entrees, was probably something worthy of more compliments, with wide rice noodles generously covered with vegetables and sauce. Still, considering the immense flavors that came before it, this came as a bite of a letdown.

On the other hand, the dessert round triggered the sort of second-stomach desire that only a good dessert can manage. The offering was green tea sticky rice accompanied by sliced mango, strawberries, and blueberries. If the steamed fish was my fondest memory of Asian restaurants, then sticky rice is a close second; this version was perfectly mushy, perfectly sweet, and incredibly flavorful. This alone might have won the night for me.

The Verdict

An incredible meal through-and-through. Portions are generous, flavors are spot-on and powerful, and everything is thoroughly gratifying. Definitely one of the best meals this year.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
: Volunteer at the Common Good CityFarm in Ledroit Park, one of the best green projects in the city.

Thai X-Ing on Urbanspoon

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