Thai Me a River
The language of food can be a funny thing, particularly when opposing cultures and cuisines collide. Many years ago, my younger brother ordered the “French toast” at a Burger King in Montreal and was less than thrilled to receive slices of plain baguette.
I was reminded of that fish-out-of-water story recently, when sampling a new east-of-the-river delicacy advertised as “drunken spaghetti.”
If this were Tuscany, we’d be talking about spaghetti all’ubriaco, that is, pasta cooked in butter, garlic and lots of red wine—hence the boozy title.
But in D.C.’s Ward 7, the term means something else entirely: stringy stir-fried noodles tossed with tomatoes, scallions, spicy chili pepper, and basil leaves, in a sweet soy-based sauce.
If the recipe sounds a lot like the classic Thai late-night staple pad kee mao, or “drunken noodle,” there’s a reason: It’s exactly the same—with one notable exception. The traditional wide, flat rice noodle has been replaced with the standard long, thin cylindrical variety more commonly associated with meatballs and tomato sauce.
On the eastern side of the Anacostia River, it seems, diners prefer something they can more easily twirl with a fork.
“It’s a big seller here,” says Ramaesh Bhagirat, owner of Thai Orchid’s Kitchen, the nearly one-year-old Asian-themed eatery sandwiched between a gas station and liquor store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE near L’Enfant Square. “It’s a thin spaghetti noodle. But we don’t use spaghetti sauce. It’s a Thai sauce. People like it.”
Strangely, you’ll find both drunken varieties, the flat noodle and the spaghetti, on the menu at Thai Orchid’s, listed with identical ingredients and at identical prices. But the spaghetti is considered a house specialty. “We introduced it,” Bhagirat, known to regulars by his English nickname “Vernon,” says proudly.
Could it be that the biggest culinary innovation east of the river in years boils down to a simple box of Barilla?
Bhagirat initially suggests the spicy dish is a bit more complex than that. In fact, the owner seems convinced the spaghetti has its own distinct sauce—at least until I press him on the similarities printed on his own menu. “I better go ask the chef,” he says. “I might be getting myself in trouble.”
Bhagirat’s wife, Aduni Kaeo-Khao, who goes by “Donna,” is in charge of the cooking at Thai Orchid’s. A former police officer in Thailand, she has spent the past several years cooking in various Thai restaurants across Capitol Hill, including Talay Thai and Old Siam. Her résumé also includes a stint at Thai Roma, whose menu blends Italian and Thai influences.
Later, Bhagirat returns from the kitchen. Sure enough, the dueling drunken dishes are entirely identical in terms of ingredients, except for the noodles.
He struggles to explain the popularity gap between pastas. “Maybe because it’s a finer noodle,” he says, “whereas the other one is flat.” He points to an African-American woman awaiting her dinner at a neighboring table. “This person, you can talk to her,” he says, asking his guest, apparently a regular customer, “You like the drunken spaghetti, don’t you?”
“I’ve had the drunken noodle and the drunken spaghetti,” she tells me, adding that she prefers the spaghetti. “I think it does pick up on the flavor a little bit more. And I like pasta that gives me a little more to chew. The noodle is a little thinner. The spaghetti gives me a little more to chew.”
Another frequent customer, Metropolitan Police Department bicycle patrolman E.R. Smith, suggests the spaghetti is simply more accessible to the average eater. “I’m used to spaghetti,” Smith says. “It’s a favorite of mine.” He ponders for a moment before adding, “Maybe it’s the fun of twirling it.”
* * *
The sudden emergence of Thai food in Ward 7, Italian-influenced or not, would seem to indicate a neighborhood on the verge of sweeping revitalization. According to urban planner Richard Layman, a long-time chronicler of new restaurants’ relation to shifting neighborhood demographics, Thai eateries are generally among the “second wave” of retailers to set up shop in an up-and-coming part of town.
Mexican, or Tex-Mex, usually comes first, in Layman’s view. But Thai is an increasingly prevalent indicator of change, he says, pointing to the recent opening of Sala Thai in a shiny new condo building along Georgia Avenue NW in Petworth, for instance.
Thai Orchid’s is nonetheless an aberration from that trend. There are no chips-and-salsa joints within sight, and the immediate neighborhood is still a long way from being hailed as the next Logan Circle.
This probably explains why, in addition to tasty homemade curry puffs and various curries on par with the spiciest Thai dishes in town, the place also slings chicken wings and fried whiting fish sandwiches. “Some people that come in here, they don’t want to pay too much,” Bhagirat says.
In fact, the restaurant, which opened last May, was originally conceived as another neighborhood carryout, complete with the typical bulletproof glass aesthetic similar to the many Chinese-seafood-chicken-sub spots you routinely see outside the District’s yuppie corridors. But the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs intervened, enforcing the location’s zoning for a sit-down restaurant.
Left with no choice, Bhagirat took down the glass and set up some tables and chairs, much to the delight of neighborhood activists who complained about the message conveyed by the translucent barrier. “The sight of the glass is not nice,” Bhagirat now admits.
You can probably guess what happened next. One night this past December, three masked gunman entered the eatery and robbed the joint. The perps didn’t get away with much. “Just some money, but that’s nothing,” Bhagirat says, adding that none of the family members who staff his restaurant were hurt during the incident. “We told them, ‘We don’t handle much cash here.’ We don’t get that much traffic. We generate most of our orders online.”
Ironically, the scary stick-up turned out to be the best thing to happen to Bhagirat’s restaurant since it opened. “That’s why we’re getting so popular,” he says.
The very next day, neighbors organized a luncheon at Thai Orchid’s in an attempt to convince the family not to pack up and leave. The event has since morphed into a monthly community buffet, where neighbors are encouraged to sample various Thai dishes many have never tried before. Some newer customers even suggested changes to the menu; fried rice with bits of grilled salmon is one such addition.
“It happened for the best,” says Bhagirat. “I’m glad we have a sit-down restaurant. If it was a carryout, I wouldn’t get to interact with the customers.”
The place is now crawling with cops, too, many of whom rave about the food, some in more glowing terms than others. Asked whether Thai Orchid’s is the best restaurant in Ward 7, officer T.J. Grable, who conducts nightly foot patrols in the neighborhood, replies, “It’s the only restaurant in Ward 7.”
Bhagirat reminds him, of course, of Michael Landrum’s groundbreaking Ray’s the Steaks at East River, located on Dix Street NE. “Well, Ray’s, yeah, but I’m over here,” Grable says, noting the substantial distance in between the two eateries. “I never get over there.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Thai Orchid’s and other culinary upstarts in the area is its roots. Bhagirat, a Guyanese native whose main gig is working for a property management company, has lived in Ward 7 for nearly 20 years. His college-aged children come home craving chicken wings and mumbo sauce like other folks from the neighborhood. So his customers want him to succeed in part because he’s a local.
Yet, despite the outpouring of community support, the neighborhood nonetheless remains Bhagirat’s biggest challenge, too. No matter how good the food is, foot traffic remains light, and Bhagirat wonders how long he can hang on financially without a dramatic retail renaissance along the strip.
He randomly bumped into a frequent customer recently in a setting far removed from the urban decay along Pennsylvania Avenue SE: Best Buy in Bethesda. The patron tried to pay him a compliment, favorably comparing the quality of Thai Orchid’s cuisine to that of a much fancier Thai restaurant in Montgomery County. But her comment turned out to be quite biting, as well.
“She said the food is expensive there, but it is nothing compared to the food that we cook. I was surprised,” he says. “‘And,’ she said, ‘you are a restaurant in the ghetto.’ That’s the exact word she used: the ghetto.”
Bhagirat has tried to expand the reach of the business beyond the borders of Ward 7. He says the place will deliver to the farthest reaches of Southeast Capitol Hill, all the way up to trendy H Street NE.
Which should be the best test yet. After all, if the bar-hoppers along heavily liquor-licensed H Street can’t warm up to a dish so explicitly marketed to their demo as “drunken spaghetti,” who can?
Thai Orchid’s Kitchen, 2314 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 506-8722
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery