Most of us know a Thai restaurant’s menu by heart. DCers who love their spicy Larb Gai and Pad See Ew likely have a go-to Thai place that delivers. But that shouldn’t be Thai Chef in Dupont Circle (1712 Connecticut Ave NW). Why? The specials here are too good not to eat-in in person again and again!
Yes, of course, Thai Chef has your typical curries, rice classics, and noodle dishes. But this fun and festively decorated eatery in the northern part of the Dupont neighborhood is best known for its authentic street food favorites from Bangkok.
“We believe that if you haven’t had [Thai] street food, you haven’t had Thai food,” owner Pornnapa Pongpornprot says, offering a tempting menu of flavorful streetcart favorites alongside traditional Thai chef specialities.
The number one reason to stop in is to taste Thai Chef’s award winning papaya salad. It is absolutely the best papaya salad we’ve tried outside of Thailand. Sliced green papaya is pounded with garlic, tomatoes, roasted peanuts, basil leaves, hot pepper and fresh lime juice for a dish so spicy you’ll imagine you’re in Chiang Mai. And did we mention the chef’s recipe won an award from a Thai princess?
That’s right. Thai Chef’s chef Yong entered a papaya salad competition in the late 80s for Thailand’s royal family and won based on taste and presentation. Using a machete to cut and scrape the papaya into a mortar and pound with his special blend of chili, lime, and spices, then-Princess Sirindhorn declared his recipe the winner, and he has carried it with him throughout his career, now serving it to patrons in DC. We agree with the (then) Princess…. it’s a winner!
But even if you don’t love spicy, there’s plenty on the menu for you. Start with the Moo Ping, skewers of pork marinated in Thai herbs. Perfect on their own, or with the accompanying spicy fish sauce; that’s some sensational meat on a stick.
Pongpornprot will recommend the Kao Mun Gai. To be sure, it is a street food staple, but not terribly adventurous. Basically, it’s seasoned sliced steamed chicken served over herb studded jasmine rice. If you want to treat your tastebuds, you’ll want to smother it in the cucumber, cilantro, and spicy garlic ginger sauce that comes with it for some essential added flavor.
The menu’s seafood is unexpectedly tempting. You can’t go wrong the Thai Chili Shrimp, battered and deep friend shrimp with Thai chili. But for an entrée more unique, we suggest the Catfish Pad Ped, stir fried with young peppercorn, Thai eggplant and rhizome basil. And then there’s our favorite, a surprising standout, the Tilapia Sam Rod, battered and deep friend tilapia with sweet and spicy tamarind sauce.
And then there are the libations. If sipping on a Mai Thai on the sand in Phuket sounds pretty perfect to you, you’ll relish Thai Chef’s $5 happy hour drinks.
Many are crafted with Mekhong, a traditional Thai spirit, which tastes like a whiskey, but may actually be closer in profile to a flavored rum. Choose the Fishing in Mekhong, with rum, Thai tea and lime if you really want to bask in that beachside reverie. The Sabai Sabai, our favorite, is refreshing and light (albeit boozy), and pairs nicely with the spiciest flavors on Thai Chef’s menu. If you’re an instagrammer looking for a photo perfect cocktail, you can’t go wrong with the Purple Rain, though be warned, it’s one of the sweetest sips on the menu. The Coconut Magic would actually be our preference for an after dinner digestif.
And speaking of after dinner… that jubilant cart in the back corner isn’t just for decoration.
This is where the desert magic is made: a standalone dessert bar serving creative Bubble Waffles, a cultural staple served with palm sugar and shaved coconut… or anything else you fancy from a variety of candied topping options and ice cream scoops. And just like from your go-to delivery Thai place, the Mango Sticky Rice is always a crowd pleaser.
Obviously Thai Chef delivers and offers to-go orders, too. But here’s the reason why we suggest stopping in: Their lunch special is one of the best in the city — it literally can’t be beat for appetite or affordability, and even runs during the weekend!
Eat-in diners only can enjoy a soup, entrée, spring roll and a non-alcoholic beverage (which includes Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee) for about $15. This deal alone will keep you coming back again and again.
Gin hai aro na! (Enjoy your meal!)