Though united by their name and a penchant for serving spicy Southeast Asian cuisine, each Sala Thai restaurant blazes its own culinary trail. Some dishes, such as the kee mao—flat rice noodles sautéed in hot chilis—sate diners' hungers at all locations, and other bites, such as M Street's red-curry pork with pineapple, can only be found in one place. To appease a variety of tastes, some locations also serve fresh, neatly rolled sushi. The Petworth, Bethesda, and U Street restaurants also calm customers' cravings for saxophone melodies and dark sunglasses worn indoors with live jazz performances on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Washingtonian calls Ruan Thai's curries "authentically spiced"—meaning, nuanced instead of just hot. The chefs here hail from Thailand, and they complement their curries with house specialties such as stir-fried pork belly and seasonal seafood dishes, including deep-fried flounder and soft-shell crab.
After strolling past clusters of Chinese eateries and shops, it might be a bit surprising to find an authentic Thai restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. The aroma wafting out of Kanlaya Thai Cuisine’s kitchen is unmistakably one of Thai cooking—a tangy mixture of basil, chili, black bean spice, and kaffir lime leaves. The fragrance only grows stronger and more enticing upon entering the bright, clean dining room and taking a seat at one of the glossy wood tabletops. Attentive servers bustle across the hardwood floors of the elegant space, taking orders, making suggestions, and noting diners’ spice preferences. Bartenders dart about behind a tiny corner bar, doling out imported beers and garnishing fruity cocktails with umbrellas and fresh fruit.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, chefs are hard at work, folding natural ingredients into a sweeping array of aromatic traditional dishes. Using time-honored Thai cooking techniques, the chefs whip up fiery coconut curries, tangy fried rice, and noodle dishes with meat, seafood, and tofu. To craft their specialty pottery shrimp—a favorite of food critic Robert Shoffner of the Washingtonian—the chefs simmer shrimp, cellophane noodles, napa cabbage, and mushrooms in exotic spices. The chefs take great care in the presentation of their dishes, decorating meats with swirls of carrot flowers, serving rice in bowls made of pineapple halves, and dishing pad thai noodles onto plates made of Renaissance oil paintings.
Located within walking distance of the DuPont Circle metro station, Bangkok Thai Dining artfully balances the five fundamental flavors of Thai cuisine daily. Inside the restaurant, candlelit tables and exposed-stone walls create a heady atmosphere for dinner dates or romantically tense geological surveys. Vegetarian options are available for all main meals, which include traditional stir-fries, noodles, and curries. Afterward, desserts can cool palates with tastes of fried ice cream or thai coconut custard.
Spices has clean, modern lines and an open sushi bar where diners can enjoy a visual feast while feasting. Chef Jessie Yan's menu features contemporary and home-style Asian recipes. Start with Sichuan Dragon Dumplings (chicken, watercress, and shiitake mushrooms, $6) before launching an all-out consumption attack on an unsuspecting specialty maki Dancing Eel roll (barbecue eel, crabstick, masago, avocado, and cucumber, $11) or the green curry (chicken, beef, or pork swimming in rich, creamy coconut curry with eggplant and basil, served in a brass wok; lunch $11, dinner $13). For large appetites, the big duck roasted and served with pancakes, cucumbers, scallions, and plum sauce (half duck $15, whole $30) is capable of occupying most unused stomach storage, while a zesty grilled dish such as the Vietnamese grilled shrimp, served with a Vietnamese spring roll, lettuce, cucumber, mint, and roasted peanuts over vermicelli (lunch $12, dinner $14) gently tucks hunger under a culinary blanket.
Little Serow doesn’t take reservations or special requests. They won't seat a partial party, seat more than four people at a table, or open the doors before 5:30. But despite all that, hungry patrons still line up for the change to sample the family-style meals prepared by chef and owner Johnny Monis. The menu of Northern and Northeastern Thai dishes changes weekly, but can include authentically Thai creations such as muu nam tok (pig ears and rice powder), het grapao (mushrooms and egg), and gai laap chiang mai (chicken liver and long peppers). Many dishes have been known to pack a punch, but, luckily, an in-house beer and wine director that has taken great pains to ensure drinks pair well with the spicy cuisine and that all of the cocktail napkins are flame retardant.