- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Not so long ago, the 14th Street NW corridor between Thomas Circle and U Street was not a place where you would go unless you were looking for trouble. All that has changed, and nowadays you could be looking for furniture, a gift for a friend, the Studio Theatre, an organic apple or tomato at Whole Foods or a place to have a good meal.

Like mushrooms, the eateries are springing up: fast-food places, coffeehouses, chain restaurants and real restaurants. Fourteenth Street is in.

Thai Tanic — how can one resist a name like that? — is a tiny, authentic and funky Thai restaurant on the block between N Street and Rhode Island Avenue. There’s nothing disastrous about this Tanic. Its location makes it a perfect place for a pre-theater dinner. Post-theater may not work, as the restaurant closes at 10.

The narrow space is filled with postage-size tables, each reflecting streaks of shiny color and adorned with a single purple orchid. Chairs are upholstered in shiny red-with-sparkles vinyl fabric; the long bar on the right side as you enter has black lights that shine on a half moon and tiny stars the length of the bar; decorations are a couple of mirrors and an Indian wall hanging. It’s cheerful and jazzy and funky.

In keeping with current trends, Thai Tanic makes and serves a variety of special fruity drinks with amusing names. It also has a variety of domestic and Asian beers and wines by the glass and by the bottle at reasonable prices.

It’s the food that shines. (Caution: When the menu says a dish is hot, it really and truly is — almost as hot as the real thing in Thailand.) While many of the dishes also are available at Thai restaurants elsewhere in town, everything here tastes fresh — both made with fresh ingredients and freshly made, rather than dished up some time after the preparation. There’s a long list of regular menu items — appetizers, soups, entrees, chef’s specials, vegetarian dishes and noodle and rice dishes — and a half-dozen specials (bizarrely spelled) that change every two weeks or so.

Appetizers are excellent. We first tried por pea shrimp, Thai spring rolls. The crispy rolls are stuffed with minced shrimp and pork, a tiny dice of vegetables and cellophane noodles and are served lukewarm with a sweet chili dipping sauce. Equally delicious are uncooked spring rolls filled with a similar combination but served cold, a special appetizer of the week.

The potpourri mussels are outstanding. Tiny fresh morsels are steamed in a spicy broth with lemon grass, basil and lots of ginger. The portion is large (about three dozen), the mussels fresh and tender, the broth hot without being fiery and the whole a wonderful starter. The mussels available as an entree are a different, larger variety.

Kanom jeep is an excellent combination of minced pork and water chestnuts wrapped in wonton skin, steamed and served with a delicious sweet sauce. Chicken satay is skewers of boneless breast meat marinated in Thai spices and grilled. The satay is served with the traditional accompaniment of a mild peanut sauce and cucumbers in vinegar. These starters are on most menus, but Thai Tanic prepares them extremely well.

Yum woon sen makes an interesting, spicy appetizer. In this dish, good-size shrimp, minced chicken and red onion in a hot chili-and-lime dressing are served on cellophane noodles. It’s more like a main course than a starter, but good either way.

Both the hot versions and mild dishes among the main courses are equally good, the sign of a serious kitchen. Pad Thai, a national dish (at least in American concepts), is one of the best in Washington. The noodles are stir-fried with just the right amount of sauce so they do not stick together and then topped with small pieces of chicken and large, well-cooked shrimp. The dish is sprinkled with chopped peanuts and a handful of bean sprouts; a slice of lime is served on the side. It’s a tasty version of a classic dish.

Drunken noodles make another fine preparation, but beware: Thai Tanic’s version is on the fiery side. Like many of the dishes, the noodles are topped with a combination of garlic, chili, basil leaves and onions with tomatoes added. We chose the version with chicken and were not disappointed. There actually was more of the topping than the wide noodles themselves.

The only disappointment was a special of tangerine duck. Large slices of duck are deep-fried and served with a sweet-sour tangerine dipping sauce. The duck was fat and tough.

On the other hand, Penang beef and green chicken curry are delicious. The beef dish is redolent with spices; the sliced meat is simmered in a combination of curried peanut sauce, coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves. The result is a lovely, creamy dish with hints of cumin and only the faintest suggestion of curry.

The green curry definitely is strong, highly spiced and prepared with coconut milk and basil leaves, but the taste is distinctly different without the cumin and peanut flavors.

Pad preaw whan is a Thai sweet-and-sour pork or chicken dish. We tried the chicken and found it delicious. Unlike Chinese sweet-and-sour preparations, pad preaw whan is not deep-fried, nor does it come dressed in a thick sauce. Rather, the meat, small chunks of pineapple, fresh tomato, onion slices, cucumber and red and green pepper are served in a light, sweetish tomato sauce. The sweetness is delicate and blends with the acidity of the tomato. It’s well worth trying.

Desserts are standard mango and sticky rice, coconut custard and deep-fried bananas. The latter, like the crispy spring rolls, are prepared with a light touch. The sticky rice is drizzled with sweet coconut milk. Had the mango been ripe and juicy, it would have been a delicious dessert, but mangoes are not always perfectly in season.

Thai Tanic has set a good course. The food is fine, the service is particularly pleasant, and icebergs are rare on 14th Street.

RESTAURANT: Thai Tanic, 1326 14th St. NW; 202/588-1795

HOURS: Daily lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5 to 10 p.m.

PRICES: Appetizers and soups $3.50 to $9; main courses $9 to $14; desserts $4. Lunch prices are about $1 or $2 less.

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Master Card, American Express and Discover

PARKING: Street parking not too difficult

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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