Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thai Square, nestled in a strip mall and surrounded by car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, is so modest on the outside we missed it while driving on Columbia Pike in Arlington. We were glad we backtracked because Thai Square serves some of the best Thai food in the Washington area.

“Some people have said they eat even better here than in Thailand,” says owner Soon Roaural. “The food is not too fancy, just very authentic.”

The not-too-fancy part is evident in all aspects of the restaurant. The interior is as plain as the exterior. A few framed Thai tourism posters adorn white walls. The service, which is speedy and attentive, is also of the no-frills variety. Questions most often get answered with one or two syllables, which seldom suffices if the query is about food preparation or ingredients.

Prepared by chef Pornip Chaiyadara, the food, too, is no-nonsense, but delicious. Only one dish — out of at least half a dozen — arrives with any form of garnish (a sculpted carrot) during our visit. Guests don’t seem to care about that. The restaurant, which seats 48, was packed until 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday. Even with a reservation, we had to wait about 20 minutes to be seated.

Mr. Roaural, who says he occasionally is asked to cook for visiting Thai dignitaries, including the queen of Thailand, says his many regulars come from all over the metropolitan area.

“It took a while — we’ve been open for 9-1/2 years — but now we have a lot of regulars. It’s all word of mouth,” he says. Several positive reviews in local and national newspapers and magazines also have helped, he says.

So, what is it that brings people? Best-sellers include crispy squid with basil and crispy honey-roasted duck with basil. The boneless duck is tender and covered with a thin layer of batter made from flour, soy sauce and oyster sauce. Though deep-fried and seasoned with basil leaves and chili peppers, the meat is succulent and not too spicy.

Among appetizers, the chicken satay is an excellent choice. The tender marinated chicken is nicely seasoned and comes with a delicious crunchy peanut sauce and a vinegary cucumber relish that nicely offsets the full, fatty flavors and texture of peanuts and chicken.

We also liked the sun-dried beef with chili sauce and the steamed pork, chicken and shrimp dumplings, which are served with sweet-and-sour soy sauce.

The absolute appetizer highlight, however, was the tom kha kai. The broth in this signature soup is more creamy than most, and the soup is generously peppered with chicken, fresh mushrooms and galanga, a type of ginger.

It is obvious that everything at Thai Square is cooked to order and full of fresh flavors. The meats were tender and the vegetables crispy in pad Thai (which could have been a little spicier) — evidence of a quick, recent stir-fry. Another nice entree choice was the Panang curry with beef (also available with chicken).

Serving sizes at Thai Square are adequate but not abundant, which allows guests to sample several treats on the more-than-100-dish menu. Prices are low, with most entrees costing less than $10.

The dessert menu is short, with four choices, all involving rice. The best choice is the traditional sticky rice with mango. Skip the rice gelatin.

The wine and beer menu also is short, but it does include Singha, the Thai beer.

This restaurant is a poster child for unpretentious and yet wonderful food. Without a flashy location and look, it took a while before Thai Square got noticed, but now that throngs of people form lines at the door on weekend evenings, does Mr. Roaural plan to expand?

“You know, it’s hard. I want to ensure the quality, and that’s hard to do if you grow,” he says. “We’re an old-fashioned restaurant — simple and authentic — and I think we’ll stay that way.”

RESTAURANT: Thai Square, 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703/685-7040

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters, $2.95 to $10.95; main courses, $6.50 to $7.75 (lunch), $6.95 to $12.95 (dinner); desserts $2 to $3.95

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Parking lot

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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