I'd like to propose a new kind of Washington institution, Dupont Circle's reliable Thai Chef. It's a Washington spot without all the...Washington. On a weeknight in Thai Chef, I'm joined by my resolutely come-as-you-are friends watching the evening news on the giant plasma TV over the sushi bar. The restaurant is quiet enough for all of us to carry on an ongoing argument without straining to hear, and it hums with enough activity to feel like home. We are twentysomethings at a Washington happy hour, talking politics and drinking beer, but we're not engaged in any form of social competition. And we are eating well.
The unpretentious happy hour serves cheap cocktails, imported beer and sake, and discounted sushi from 4-7 every weeknight. At $4, those cocktails are a steal; the pulpy Mai Tai stands at 16 ounces and contains at least three shots of rum. The Zombie—a greenish blend of citrus, crème de noyeaux, and 151—is a sneaky bastard, and not too sweet. Though sushi prices are posted, actual prices often vary according to available rolls and, apparently, the servers’ mood. On a recent visit, my table bought six drinks and six rolls for just $31. Sushi rolls range from the standard (California, spicy tuna) to the inventive (a “garden roll” made with pineapple, pear, tomato, avocado, cucumber, and asparagus), and taste fresh and slightly vinegary. As with most midpriced sushi, the fish is not the highlight, but interesting combinations and fantastically spicy sauces set these rolls apart. Thai Chef is no-nonsense and straightforward; you get what you pay for. Purists should note that while Thai Chef offers some of the more affordably priced omikase around ($40 for two people), only the last course or so technically is “chef’s choice.”
Dinner at Thai Chef is open season. The lengthy menu is barely representative of what the kitchen will do. While vegetarian and vegan dishes are plentiful, the kitchen easily alters any menu item to suit plant-based diets. Picky eaters also are in luck, as Thai Chef adjusts dishes to the most detailed specifications. The less imaginative can count on classics such as pad thai and duck kaprow. The duck is lightly breaded and fried until it reaches the crispy texture of a carnival funnel cake. The slightly sweet pieces are tossed with garlic and hot peppers and paired with still-crunchy steamed broccoli, making one satisfying and simple array of flavors; it's comfort food. Other dishes on the menu play with the same formula of contrasting tastes, such as ginger and scallion, and garlic and cucumber. Be warned, though: while Thai Chef's zero- to two-pepper heat rating seems arbitrary to me (they're all a little weak), if you request extra spice, they deliver.
An hour into dinner with an acquaintance, I signaled for more drinks and the server bussed our table instead. “There is a line for a table,” he said, matter-of-fact. “You had a turn already.” While my tablemate sputtered, I noticed a few other diners getting the boot as well. “It's business,” the server said. “You know how it goes. Everyone should be served.” Call me idealistic, but I went back again the next day.