My introduction to Thai food was in 1988 at Duangrat's in Falls Church, Virginia, an elegant restaurant whose beautifully plated dishes were served by equally beautiful women dressed in traditional Thai gowns. This, along with memories of "The King and I," gave me the impression of Thailand as a place of refinement and elegance. At that time, the cuisine and the country was still considered exotic.
Since then, Americans have become much more familiar with Asian food and culture, enough so to know that dishes like Pad Thai is street food and not everyone in the country wears brocaded silk.
In fact, at M. Thai Kitchen in Edgewater, the only traditional garb is worn by a wooden carving of a Thai woman standing next to a large flower cart at the restaurant entrance. The restaurant is warm and casual as opposed to formal and elegant. Pumpkin-colored walls display pictures of food, spices and woven hangings. In the back, a carry out counter surveys the scene.
Several of empty tables on the rainy Thursday evening we visited displayed "Reserved" signs. We hesitated for a moment before a young woman greeted us and whisked one of the signs off a nearby table and motioned for us to sit down and set a menu loaded with dining options before us.
Alcohol is not an option at this establishment. So we went to work perusing the lengthy and intricate menu. We decided to start with a Combo Plate ($12), which offers two Spring Rolls, three Veggie Dumplings, two Shrimp Bikinis, two Kanomjeeb and three Chicken Satay.
Several minutes after taking the appetizer order, the waitress came back to tell us the Chicken Satay was not available. The language barrier made for some awkward conversation, but we finally understood that we could only substitute with another appetizer from the existing platter selections. We said we needed time to decide and our server took quite awhile to get back to us. When she finally came back, we were able to give her our full order, including the addition of a salad as an appetizer.
Ten, twenty minutes or more passed. We were beginning to wonder where our food was when the starters arrived along with the entrees. Not the kind of surprise you want in a sit-down restaurant. We attacked the appetizers first.
The Combo Platter provided more than enough food for a table of four. Spring rolls, filled with vegetables and bean threads, were crispy and fine for dipping in the obligatory sweet and sour sauce. The dumplings, stuffed with ground broccoli and herbs, were unusual and flavorful, but the exterior was hard enough to qualify for a fried pie. Shrimp wore a one-piece sheath of tasty batter for the Shrimp Bikini, but were large enough for a two-piece bite. The star of the platter, however, were the Kanomjeeb, tender little steamed dumplings filled with fragrant pork, shrimp and mushrooms.
If you haven't tried Thai salads, you should — either as a main meal or starter. With their combination of fresh vegetables and protein, they're especially good as a warm-weather meal. M. Thai's Nam Tok ($7) featured nicely grilled sliced beef tossed with red onions, scallions, cilantro and a zesty lime dressing. The dish was super spicy, but so flavorful I kept coming back for another bite.
By the time we moved on to the entrees, they were getting cold. The service snafu made me wonder if ordering carry-out might be the best option here. Throughout the evening, we saw plenty of patrons heading straight for the back counter.
Like most of the dishes here, the entree servings were generous. Pad Thai with Shrimp ($12), boasted eight nice-sized grilled shrimp over rice noodles tossed in a sauce that was tasty if a bit too sweet. Components typically mixed into the noodles, such as bean sprouts and crushed peanut, were served on the side.
The other entrees were hard to distinguish at first glance. All the dishes looked remarkably alike. Pad Kaprow ($11), the traditional Thai dish of chicken and basil, came with plenty of sauteed basil but also green beans, red peppers, onions and carrots in a spicy chili garlic sauce. Almost the exact same vegetable preparation minus the basil was evident in the Pork Pad Prik King ($11), in which the meat is usually coated with red curry paste and served simply with green beans. The Cashew Chicken ($11), the mildest dish of the three, was still spicy and loaded up with all the usual vegetables along with mushrooms and baby corn.
While all of these entrees were fresh and flavorful, I missed the elegant simplicity of the classic preparations. And the uniformity of the way vegetables were cut and presented gave an overall impression of sameness for many of these dishes.
Owner-chef Mod Top says she cooks from family recipes, which may explain the variations from classic recipes presented here. Call it Thai "home cooking."
In September, the restaurant will celebrate its sixth year in its current location in the South River Shopping Center. It currently holds the No. 1 spot for restaurants in Edgewater on Trip Advisor. Obviously, they are doing something right.
M. Thai Kitchen may not turn out strictly classical Thai, but it does deliver generous portions of tasty Thai at very reasonable prices. For some, that's classic enough.
Janice Gary is an award-wining writer and author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance. Have newsworthy restaurant news? Suggestions for reviews? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE: 181 Mitchells Chance Road, Edgewater, MD 21037
WEB SITE: www.mThaikitchen.com
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m; Sunday,- Noon – 9 p.m
FIRST COURSES: $5 - $12
MAIN COURSES: $11- $15
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards except American Express
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Mod Top