- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

For aficionados of noodles — not pasta, but the authentic Asian noodles — Bangkok Joe’s is a treasure. The Thai restaurant, which opened about six months ago at Washington Harbour on the Georgetown waterfront, is the sister restaurant of Shirlington’s T.H.A.I.

Bangkok Joe’s chef-owner, Aulie Bunyarataphan, and her husband and co-owner, Mel Oursinsiri, determined that the restaurant would feature Asian street food to reflect America’s melting-pot cuisine, incorporating Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and French culinary influences.

Dishes are filled with surprises in both their ingredients and their presentation. Not everything succeeds, but most dishes, and in particular the dim sum and noodle offerings, are terrific.

The restaurant is on K Street at the entrance to the Washington Harbour complex. It’s a contemporary, colorful, attractive space with deep red and black walls and a huge orange wall sculpture that looks like rows of dumplings but actually represents swirls of the Buddha’s hair. The lighting is dramatic; a bar has wonderfully comfortable upholstered high stools with backs plus booths of two sizes, accommodating one or two, or four diners. A black bowl of bright red chopsticks on each table and booth adds a splash of color to the black-and-white decor. If you dine at the bar, you can watch the deft hands of the Thai cooks creating the dumplings.

The menu offers a dozen dumpling choices, buns and rolls, some deep-fried, some pan-fried and still others steamed. On Saturdays and Sundays, the chef challenges her guests to eat the entire dumpling menu in an hour. If the attempt is successful, the meal is free; if not, the diner pays for what has been consumed.

For those with less greedy appetites, there’s a weekend dumpling special at $30, which includes a choice of four savory dumpling dishes, a sweet dumpling for dessert and a glass of champagne.

Stars on the dim sum or dumpling menu include wonderfully delicate winter squash pot stickers. The paper-thin pan-fried won-ton skins are filled with a mix of sweet potatoes, squash, onions and egg and served with a tangy ginger-soy dipping sauce.

Lobster and pine-nut dumplings are steamed and served with a diced Asian fruit compote. The filling is encased in the same delicate skins and served in a spicy sauce of soy and chili oil. The combination is sweet, sharp, hot, cool, tangy and mild.

Smoked duck won tons are crisp triangles served with a salad of grilled portobello mushrooms and chopped tomatoes. The edges of the dumplings were crisp, but the filling had lost its crispness by the time the dish arrived at table.

Crisp crab finger rolls, a mixture of shrimp, chicken, mushrooms and noodles around a crab claw, were recommended by our waitress. They are stunning to the eye. Three plump deep-fried dumplings are arranged prettily on a rectangular plate with a sweet chili dipping sauce and are picked up by the protruding claw. Unfortunately, the crab was not fresh and disappointed with a decidedly fishy flavor.

The French influence comes out in such dishes as a dumpling that combines foie gras and shrimp with a balsamic soy sauce.

Noodle and rice dishes are served in huge white china bowls. The menu explains the different types of rice and egg noodles: sen mee (rice vermicelli) and sen yai (wide rice noodles used for such dishes as pad Thai), or lo mein (fat Chinese egg noodles) and won ton (thinner egg noodles called “bamee” in Thai).

Drunken chicken is an excellent combination of sen yai with chicken in a deliciously spicy sauce of basil, chili and garlic. Panang is a Thai curry, combining peppers and spices with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves. At Bangkok Joe’s, Panang curry is more of a creamy peanut sauce over fresh wide noodles with a curry undertone, plus a sprinkling of bean sprouts and perfectly cooked fresh spinach. The dish is topped with three small skewers of grilled chicken or shrimp. The mild curry is unusual and very good.

Rice dishes similarly are large bowls of jasmine rice topped with chicken, beef, pork or seafood, each with a different combination of vegetables and sauces.

The menu includes half a dozen salads, such as a sesame chicken noodle salad, a Thai chicken salad, a spicy beef salad and an Asian Caesar.

The “not your ordinary Joe’s” category offers more traditional entrees, but with Asian touches, such as lemon-grass-crusted halibut, five-spice filet mignon with soy spinach and chili-basil sauce or duck with won-ton noodles, lotus nuts and chrysanthemum-tea cinnamon sauce.

We tried the Thai crab cakes with lemon-grass mayonnaise. The two good-size crab cakes were adequate, but the lemon-grass mayonnaise tasted like ordinary mayonnaise from a jar, and the accompanying fried shoestring taro root had no flavor. The Asian slaw, on the other hand, was quite tasty. The dish is uninteresting. Bangkok Joe’s is basically a noodle house, and that’s what the kitchen does best.

Fresh ripe mango and sticky rice with a dollop of coconut cream on top and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds makes a delicious finale. For diners with a taste for more complex desserts, the kitchen prepares Thai pepper creme brulee, flambe bananas, fried roti dough stuffed with taro-root paste and “pandan” leaf creme caramel.

In years past, T.H.A.I. in Shirlington has celebrated the Thai new year with long-noodle dishes. This year, for a month beginning April 12, the tradition continues at Bangkok Joe’s. Guests will be able to perform an ancient Songkran ceremony of flushing away negative energy by sprinkling scented water on a special Buddha displayed at the entrance of the restaurant.

During dinner hours, they also can choose from a traditional Thai menu designed to promote longevity and good health; eating the long noodles used in the Thai new year celebration is believed to enhance longevity. Diners can celebrate by pouring a little celebratory if not necessarily holy water on the Buddha and order a delicious dim sum and Thai new year spaghetti, a combination of shrimp, minced chicken, Thai anchovies, onions, scallions and chili and garlic sauces.

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