FOOD: Let’s Talk Thai

Falls Church Times Staff

February 5, 2010

In my more than eight months as a Falls Church Times staffer I’ve written about an endless number of cuisines.  But I haven’t covered a Thai restaurant yet, which is odd, because I ‘m addicted to Thai food.  In my mind, no cuisine on Earth can match Thai in terms of balance and contrast.  A great Thai meal hits more points on your palate than you thought were there.

Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered a place in the City of Falls Church that has me itching to go back.  My recent meals at Sweet Rice and Pilin Thai were okay at best—definitely nothing to write home about.  I would never point a City resident towards them if they were looking for spicy, flavorful, knock-your-socks-off Thai food.

Instead, I would tell them to get in their car and head a few miles down Route 7 to Rabieng, a hard-to-see spot in the Culmore section of Falls Church.  Though Rabieng has its flaws, most things I’ve had there are a notch above the competition.  Foods marked with a chili pepper or two on the menu are actually spicy.  Coconut milk-fortified curries are rich and complex, not watery and bland like so many other restaurant versions.  And, perhaps best of all, in an age when every Thai restaurant seems to have the same boring menu, Rabieng offers signature creations and regional dishes that set it apart.

The restaurant has been around since the mid-1990s, making it a veteran in the Thai circuit.  It’s actually an off-shoot of the fine dining Thai palace Duangrat’s, which opened in 1987 as the first “fancy” Thai restaurant in the region and still sits right around the corner.  But Rabieng is more casual and more affordable, with many of the same menu items for a few bucks cheaper.  If you go all out for a dinner the most you’ll spend, after tax and tip, is 25 bucks a person.  I’ve never even ventured over to its bigger sister for that reason (though I recently learned of a $9.95 lunch special at Duangrat’s, so that will soon change).

A few of the dishes I’ve enjoyed at Rabieng over the years are borderline transcendent.

One is the panang curry with slow-cooked dark meat chicken.  Now, this is a Thai restaurant staple, usually described as “insert protein here” with coconut and peanut curry sauce.  Rabieng’s rendition is spicier than most, luscious with coconut milk, and so good that you’ll be thinking of ways to bring it up in conversations with friends and complete strangers (well, at least that’s what I do).

Just as good is the roast pork in a red curry sauce with pineapples, tomatoes, and rambutans, which usually appears as a special.  The dish is a riff on a Thai classic generally made with roast duck, but Rabieng’s uber-tender slivers of pork are a great stand-in.  Even so, the meat takes a back seat to the dreamy red curry sauce, which is silky with coconut milk goodness and spicy-sweet.   It’s a textbook example of how complex a red curry can be, somehow harmonizing shrimp paste, chilies, lemongrass, shallots, cilantro roots, and a host of other ingredients.  The best bites are the ones with a little pork, a little rice, and an inordinate amount of sauce.

Beyond those two excellent curries there are plenty of other good bets.  The wok roasted cashews, flecked with scallions and fiery Thai bird chilies, get better with every bite.  Tidbit, a long-time signature appetizer, is another good way to start the meal.  The dish consists of pressed fried rice cakes and an accompanying sauce of coconut, peanut, and pork, which sounds odd but tastes like a satay sauce gone wild.  My only caution would be to avoid too many fried appetizers, as some of them—like, say, the spring rolls and fried calamari—taste mostly of the oil they were cooked in.

You’re better off getting one of the many salads, most of which are laced with a bracing chili and lime vinaigrette and have a similar hot and sour flavor profile.  Or, if the weather is right, go for a soup.  I delved into that section of the menu for the first time on my most recent visit and I’m sorry I waited so long.  The Chicken Galangal soup, Rabieng’s take on the classic tom kha gai, is easily the most balanced one I’ve come across in a restaurant.  Usually it’s too salty or too sour or too hot.  At Rabieng it’s a pleasant balancing act of all three.

Stir-fries can be a weak point, especially if you order more generic-sounding options like something in “brown sauce” or “with ginger.”  But anything with chili, garlic, and basil, the Thai Holy Trinity that first hooked me on the cuisine many years ago, is pretty tasty.  There is also a respectable (but oily) rendition of drunken noodles, one of the hottest dishes in the Thai repertory.

Seafood is a gamble.  At times it can be fresher than you’d expect from such a small, well-priced restaurant.  But just as often it’s a little old and a little off-tasting.  If you’re feeling lucky and want to chance it, go for the Southern Satoh Shrimp, a spicy, saucy stir-fry with just the slightest hint of funkiness from dried shrimp and sator beans, also known as “stink beans” because of their pungent flavor.

It’s rare that I recommend saving room for dessert at a restaurant.  Most places are out to get you with over-priced, skimpy portions of rather blah sweets.  But at Rabieng you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t save room for the Mango with Sticky Rice or the Coconut-Tapioca Pudding.  Both are Thai standards done with uncommon finesse.

If you walk into Rabieng on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you’ll be handed a “Thai Dim Sum” menu, which sports a number of Thai-inspired small plates priced at about five bucks per plate.  Though there are some great eats among the bunch, especially the incendiary chili-basil fried rice topped with a fried egg, I prefer the standard menu items.  Still, the chance to gorge on three or four plates per person is a fun dining out excursion that I’d recommend to eaters that can never decide what to get.

The bottom line: Order strategically and a trip to Rabieng can be a memorable one.  Just be sure to prepare yourself for some serious heat—most of the good stuff will leave a pleasant burning sensation on your tongue.  Also be sure to drop by Duangrat’s Market next door before or after your meal.  Though dingy and disorganized, the small grocer is a great source for Thai pantry items and the closest Thai market to the City of Falls Church.  The selection of ready-made curry pastes (including the well-regarded Mae Ploy brand), Thai cooking implements, and eclectic Thai snacks is impressive.  I find myself there quite often, usually so I have an excuse to swing by Rabieng.

Rabieng is located at 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA, 22041.  703-671-4222

February 4, 2010 


5 Responses to “FOOD: Let’s Talk Thai”

  1. Jim Breiling, North Arlington on February 5th, 2010 12:04 pm

    Jimmy, you’ve done it again: Found another place previously unknown to me that would be an interesting dining experience. Thanks!

  2. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on February 5th, 2010 2:37 pm

    Duangrat’s is fabulous – best Thai in the area. You should try it as soon as you can. I never thought it overly pricey, but I guess the ambiance and food make you forget about the price…. I’ll try Rabieng some day, so thanks for the recommendation.

  3. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on February 5th, 2010 5:51 pm

    Darn it – Rabieng is one of the places I tell very few about. You’ve let the cat out of the bag! I’ve enjoyed going there for years (prefer it over Duangrat) and have wanted to keep it a secret… We’re lucky in this area to have some great little ethnic restaurants.

  4. Cathy Quinn Falls Church on February 5th, 2010 8:36 pm

    Pilin has been a good restaurant in town for a number of years and has a loyal following – I am not adventurous and stick with Pad Thai with Chicken – eat in or carry out. Since I really like to see Falls Church City establishments encouraged, I would really like for you to go in and talk with them and then have them suggest Something you might like. You could then pass it on to us.
    Thanks for your work. Cathy

  5. Dana Edwards on February 5th, 2010 10:02 pm

    I love Rabieng, but I’d have to say that Sweet Rice’s mango with sticky rice is wonderful. They use black rice, and with the orange mango it’s just as pretty to look at as it is good to eat.

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