Crossing for Curries . . . and More
[from September 2006 issue]

Look for the plants out front, says the voice to two lost ladies, and you’ll find us. So, just for its entertainment value if for nothing else, Thai X-ingdeserves at least one visit. After all, it seems that everybody in the neighborhood drops in either to chat as one young woman did, embracing the chef as he stir-fried one of our orders, or to pick up their takeout meal as did many others. Obviously, owner/chef Taw Vigsittaboot is a valued commodity in this neighborhood on that borders Howard University.

What makes this quirky place a must-visit is not necessarily the food -- there's better Thai out there -- but, instead, the combination of oddball venue and artist-turned-chef-turned-artist. It's easy to fantasize that Taw put down his pen-and-ink work and picked up the spatula as a way to increase income and have a little fun besides.

Patrons aren't expected to dine in; in fact, there's really no seating, since the interior is turned over to artwork, fish tank, bird cages with a slew of twittering feathered friends, a worktable, and some overstuffed chairs. You probably wouldn't even consider scrunching up on the front porch, overgrown with loads of plants. And it was the plants that ID'd the place: Look for all the greenery, the voice on the other end of the phone line said. And we did.

But dining in isn't really an issue, since it appears that most of Taw's clientele live nearby. “I'm right around the corner,” said his helper/friend of the evening. Alas, that really puts Thai X-ing out of bounds for suburbanites, unless they plan to eat sitting on the curb.

No matter. We placed our order -- pork ribs in green curry with string beans, pad Thai, chicken Vigsittaboot, and the salmon with red curry, his signature dish -- and waited. Apparently Taw is famous for creating long waits for customers, since he cooks to order, and this is a one-man operation. Indeed, his only assistant that night was a neighbor who had dropped in to lend a hand with the orders, but not with the cooking.

Despite its diminutive, one-man size, the kitchen is outfitted with an industrial-strength stove that heats up to wok intensity; Taw has figured out just how to arrange all the components of his cooking to have them within fingers reach -- though the kitchen is so small that such cooking requires extreme organization. Otherwise, he might stall out in the middle of composing his signature salmon with red curry. Why's the curry paste under the sugar? Where's the coconut milk?

About the chef? We couldn't figure out much, despite my Thai friend's efforts to engage him in conversation in Thai. We did observe that his artsy-eclectic outfit -- traditional Southern Thai pants, oversized undershirt, and ponytail -- makes him easily DC's most colorful chef. And as for his artwork, his pen-and-ink drawings of a Central Thai village are stunning.

So on paper, he's gifted; behind the stove, he ranks above average. Our dish-by-dish sampling netted these results: The chicken Vigsittaboot arrives as a stir-fry of chicken strips tossed with watercress in, we decided, a soupy soy sauce base; although the menu describes this as a peanut sauce, few peanuts appeared. The pad Thai with its added sliced green peppers comes with your choice of chicken, shrimp, or pork and a dusting of ground peanuts; an addition of some sugar would have enhanced its effect. And the pork ribs in green curry definitely showcases a full-flavor green curry sauce thick with coconut milk, but the pork bones had too little meat. Thumbs down here.

And what about the chef's signature dish, the one that has received such hot press? It's a knock-out, plain and simple. Taw bathes the thick piece of salmon in a deliciously just-hot, slightly-sweet curry that is thick with coconut milk to smooth out any chili heat. And to the salmon he adds green beans and bamboo shoots, both of which add crunch to an otherwise softly textured dish. It's a winner with few equals in the city.

Although Taw offers two desserts, we checked out, leaving behind a pair deciding on the evening’s fare, the neighbor, and Taw, stirring away vigorously behind his stove.

Thai X-ing ~ 515 Florida Ave., NW; tel., 332-4322. Hours: Tue.-Sun., 4-10pm. Entrée price range: $6.95-$12.95. Best bet: call ahead for take-out orders; otherwise, you’ll probably sit and wait.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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