When I take a bite of the catfish dry curry at Thai Chef—a restaurant Chalisa Fitts and her parents, Pornnapa Pongpornprot and David Weston, opened in Rockville Town Square in October—flavor and texture bombs detonate. Crispy, moist, deep-fried fillets quickly sauteed with green peppercorn clusters, Thai eggplant, red pepper strips, Thai basil and a complexly composed spicy curry paste feature hints of chile peppers, lemongrass, shrimp paste, ginger (it’s galangal, similar to ginger, I confirm later), Makrut lime leaf, coriander, cumin and cardamom.
The dish is eye-popping, as is Thai Chef itself. The interior of the 3,500-square-foot, bi-level space, which seats 75 inside (and, come spring, 40 outside) is a visual extravaganza meant to evoke a Thai night festival. New York City designer Wirat “Pop” Assawamahasakda, a friend of Fitts’, created the look, even making many of the furnishings himself, including cotton seat covers sporting boldly patterned prints. Every color of the spectrum is represented at Thai Chef in its decor, which includes a floor-to-ceiling collage of window shutters; painted, glass-covered dining tables with a basket weave inset; a wall sculpture of a clock surrounded by neon signs, houses, a sailboat, a lit-up merry-go-round, beads and crystals; and a giant shadowbox wall filled with bric-a-brac, including a phonograph, vintage TVs and radios, thermoses and a dartboard. Most of the gear, including a three-wheeled taxi parked near the host stand, came from Thailand (shipping issues pushed the opening back by six weeks).
Fitts and her parents also own Aroy Thai restaurant in College Park, which opened in 2013, and the flagship location of Thai Chef, which opened in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2017. Fitts, 32, is the hands-on manager. “I went into the restaurant business by working at Aroy after college in 2013 when I realized I couldn’t get a job with the psychology degree I got [from George Mason University],” she says with a laugh.
A giant movie marquee above the restaurant’s small bar in the middle of Thai Chef spells out SCALA in Thai script. It’s a replica of a sign at an iconic Bangkok movie theater that was torn down this year. Fitts started taking mixology classes five years ago because, she says, it’s annoying that Thai restaurants don’t serve good cocktails, and she was determined to do something about it. “I just go in the kitchen and find things to make cocktails with,” she says. That kitchen must be well stocked because her cocktails—there are eight on the list—are terrific. Purple Rain, made with passion fruit juice and Stoli vodka infused with butterfly pea flower tea, has a purple ombre effect thanks to the tea’s hue. Crazy Thai Lady—lemongrass and Makrut lime-infused tequila and rum—comes with a salt and Thai chile rim that packs a kick.
For the food, heavy on street fare that you might find at a night festival, Fitts hired Wheaton chefs Prapavadee (“Lekki”) Limvatana and Satang Ruangsangwatana as consultants, first for the Dupont location, then for Rockville. In addition to creating many Thai Chef dishes, the pair helped choose the restaurant’s quirky, mismatched tableware and assisted with the design and wording of the menu, which is divided into categories: Street Bites, Yum-Zapp (spicy, citrusy salads), Hot Soup, Noods (short for noodles), Shophouse Selfies (entrees), Fried Rice, and Curry. “Lekki and Satang are so good. They turn a simple dish into something so good. I get training from them on the cooking and pass it on to our chefs,” Fitts says.
Garlic chive cake is a standout starter. Dough made with tapioca flour, rice flour and chopped chives is cut into bite-size cubes, steamed and then deep-fried into delicate, irresistible cakes and served with sweet soy sauce for dunking. Appetizers common to Thai menus in the States, such as pork-and-crab dumplings, curry puffs (flaky empanadas filled with curried potatoes and vegetables) and rocket shrimp (minced chicken with four whole shrimp individually wrapped in spring roll paper and deep-fried) are executed with more flair and flavor than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Fried calamari resemble onion rings and are just as satisfying, these served with sriracha aioli. Our table devoured garlic-and-pepper-rubbed chicken wings with a chile tamarind sauce. Cucumber batons, sliced raw green beans and cherry tomatoes dressed with garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar and topped with chopped peanuts make a bright and refreshing salad with back notes of heat from bird’s eye chiles.
You’d be happy with familiar noodle dishes, such as pad si-yu (wide rice noodles sauteed with Chinese broccoli, eggs and dark soy sauce), and standard curries (Massaman, Panang, green, red), but don’t pass up something out of the ordinary. Go for Southerner’s Comfort, a dish of ground chicken sauteed with spicy red curry paste, Makrut lime leaves, green beans and red peppers that’s served with cucumber slices and a halved hard-boiled egg. Another stunner is wok-fried beef—cubes of flank steak are seasoned with five-spice powder, braised in a soy sauce-based broth until tender and then wok-fried with bean sprouts, celery leaves, scallions and garlic oil. It’s an example of the flavor layering evident in Thai Chef’s dishes, including my favorite one there, which is meatless: wok-fried Thai eggplant, mushrooms, red bell pepper and fried tofu cubes in a gravy of black soy sauce, soybean paste and ground chiles.
Even though the entrees come with rice, order a fried rice for the table. The peppery garlic fried rice with shrimp is made by stir-frying cooked jasmine rice, garlic and Thai chile peppers in a super-hot wok to impart wok hei (literally “breath of the wok”) smokiness. Then, scrambled eggs, scallions and wok sauce (made with oyster sauce and light and dark soy sauce) are folded in and batter-fried shrimp are placed on top.
There are three desserts on Thai Chef’s menu, and all are tasty—even a toasted coconut ice cream Pongpornprot buys at an Asian grocery store. Mango Sticky Rice with coconut cream and toasted mung beans provides a sweet balance to a meal frontloaded with heat, herbaceous flavor and tang, as does Taro Tapioca Dessert, chewy purple taro balls and tapioca pearls in warm sweetened coconut milk dotted with sesame seeds.
29 Maryland Ave. (Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 301-339-8045, thaichefdmv.com
Overall rating: A-
Favorite dishes: Purple Rain cocktail; garlic chive cake; cucumber salad; catfish dry curry; Southerner’s Comfort; spicy eggplant; peppery garlic fried rice with shrimp; taro balls in warm coconut milk.
Prices: Appetizers: $7 to $12; Noodle dishes: $15 to $18; Entrees: $15 to $19; Fried rice: $15 to $18; Desserts: $4 to $7.
Libations: Wines—three red, three white and one sparkling—by the glass ($8) and four beers ($7) are available, but cocktails ($13) are the way to go. The Pandan-mic, made with Hendrick’s gin, coconut rum and pandan (a leaf with grass and vanilla tones) syrup, brings to mind a piña colada. The Only Word, a riff on a Last Word (gin, lime juice, Green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur) subs baijiu, a clear Chinese spirit made from fermented sorghum, for gin.
Service: Thai Chef has been short-staffed, especially on busy weekends, but the front and back of the house manage the crowds efficiently. They don’t take reservations, so expect a wait in prime time.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.