First Taste: The Thai Kitchen

Downtown Bethesda fast-casual spot delivers Thailand’s greatest hits

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Spicy Chicken Salad at The Thai Kitchen

Rick Chessen

The Thai Kitchen has been open for less than a week on the Wisconsin Avenue strip in downtown Bethesda that also includes Moby Dick and Don Pollo. It’s a good fit. While the three restaurants may serve different cuisines, they have a lot in common. They all combine a fast-casual format with real-deal cooking. More importantly, they’re the kind of restaurants that often help solve that most persistent of human predicaments: what to do for dinner.

Some nights I don’t feel like cooking. Other nights I’m looking for a quick bite before a movie at Bethesda Row. I can’t tell you how many dinnertime dilemmas are solved by a trip to Moby Dick and Don Pollo. Now you can add The Thai Kitchen to that list.

The Thai Kitchen is already turning out food as good as any Thai place in Bethesda– admittedly not as high a bar as somewhere like Wheaton — with faster, friendlier service and better prices. In some ways that’s not surprising. The owners, Jimmy and Chada Saipong, also own the popular Thai Express in Gaithersburg. They’re both onsite for now — Jimmy cooking and Chada facilitating — to get this new venture off the ground.

Jimmy Saipong had been looking for a second location for a year, either in Rockville or Bethesda. When a spot opened up in this particular strip, he jumped on it. Not only were there only two Thai restaurants in Bethesda, but they’d both been around for a long time and he thought people might be open to something new.

Bethesda, Saipong notes, “is a big cake and I’m just looking for a little chunk.”

Owner Jimmy Saipong

Ambience

Structurally, not much has changed from the prior tenant, Fish Taco. Customers can place their orders at a counter fronting a small, partially visible kitchen. Then they can take a number and find an open table (more Fish Taco holdovers) or stand aside and wait for carry-out orders to be boxed up.

What makes the atmosphere special isn’t anything that Fish Taco could replicate. It’s not even visible. It’s something you can only hear — the sizzle and clang of woks as food cooks. There’s an old saying that you eat first with your eyes. But at The Thai Kitchen, you eat first with your ears. And to me it’s a percussive symphony.

Food and drink

The ordering process may be fast-casual, but the food is not. Nothing is sitting out or pre-made. The food is delivered on real plates, not disposable paper or plastic.

The menu largely consists of familiar Thai favorites. This is not cutting-edge or idiosyncratic Thai cuisine like that offered by D.C’s Little Serow or Wheaton’s Thai Taste by Kob. These dishes are Thailand’s greatest hits done well.

The dishes reflect fresh ingredients, careful prep work and solid technique. Jimmy Saipong said he’s altered his recipes a bit to allow for faster cooking, but you’d never know it.

Focus on noodles, curries and salads, which tend to outshine the stir-fries. The pad thai and drunken noodles are not too sweet or gloppy and pick up a bit of char from the wok. The curries are richer and more deeply flavored than watery versions elsewhere. And the larb chicken and the grilled beef salad are well-balanced and not too spicy except for possibly the most heat-sensitive palate.

Grilled Beef Salad

Service

The staff is friendly and patient and pays careful attention to getting orders right. Be aware that the plates will come out when they’re ready, so don’t expect to receive your appetizers first. In Thailand, Saipong notes, there’s no separation between starters and main courses.

Go or skip?

Go. You may still want to head to Wheaton or D.C. for a more serious Thai food fix, but for those in lower MoCo, The Thai Kitchen deserves the opportunity to earn a spot in your dining rotation.

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