Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Battle of The Pike's Thai Restaurants

Here's a question: when choosing a restaurant, do you decide based on the ambience or on the authenticity of the food? One would think that the food would take precedence, but after taking an informal poll of friends, it seems that the atmosphere is just as important as the food in the decision-making process.

In my neighbourhood, there are two restaurants vying for the title of "best Thai place ever!", namely Bangkok 54 and Thai Square. I have had the pleasure of dining at both, and to me the difference is as clear as black and white. Herein lies the issue: with two places being so starkly different, how can anyone possibly figure that one place is better than the other?

Case #1:


I ended up at Thai Square after working out one Sunday morning. I ran my requisite 4 miles and afterwards, I was famished, tired and just wanted to go somewhere where I can sit, relax, eat and read. I quickly grabbed my book and walked over to Thai Square.


Located across from the old Brown's Arlington Nissan dealership, this place was no-nonsense, no frills. Outside, you won't find neon lights, just "Thai Square Restaurant" printed in blue block letters. Inside, the decor (and I use the term lightly) was sparse. Bare white walls, with an occasional Thai tourism poster here and there.

I sat down by the window and was handed the menu. After a quick scan, I went with the fried tofu and the tripe soup. The tofu arrived and it was cooked to perfection! Each tofu square was a light golden brown. The inside was soft and pillowy, giving the perfect contrast to the slightly crispy shell. The sauce was a sweet chili sauce with chopped peanuts. Salty and sweet. Awesome!

I ordered the beef tripe soup thinking it would be like a stew and it would come in one small bowl. Silly me! The soup ended up being a hot pot! It was not what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised. The brothy soup had plenty of tripe, Napa cabbage, bean sprouts in it and there was layer after layer of flavour. Savoury and slightly tangy, it reminded me of a Filipino soup called sinigang, which is primarily flavoured with tamarind. I don't know if that was the case with the tripe soup, because I also saw some lemongrass. Regardless, it brought me back to my childhood, when my mom would give me a bowl of soup when I was sick. This soup was the next best thing to Mom's sinigang.

In my book, a meal is not complete without dessert. I went with the Bua Loi, which has taro, coconut meat, lotus seed in a warm coconut cream. Unfortunately, it was a little too much on the sweet side. That was too bad, because I couldn't taste the delicate flavour of the coconut meat. Still, the fun mix of textures with the gummy taro balls and the crunchy lotus seeds made up for this.

What Thai Square lacks in pizzazz, it surely makes up for in the food. If authentic and straight-forward Thai cuisine is what you're after, without any gimmicks, then Thai Square is your place.

Thai Square
3217 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
703.685.7040
Thai Square on Urbanspoon

Case #2:

I have walked / run / driven by Bangkok 54 so many times, it was just a matter of time that I would go in. My stopover at Bangkok was actually last minute; I had planned to go to P. Brennan's for an early dinner, but the light was green and I crossed the street. I heard that Bangkok 54 gets pretty busy, but it was early in the evening so I managed to beat out the dinner crowd. 

The front signage was big and bold, and peeking through the windows, I saw modern ceiling lamps. The contemporary style carried over into the inside, with sleek lights, dark wood tables and chairs and a wall fixture featuring cutouts to display various Thai tchotchkes. Just past the front door was the bar, which was already populated by local hipsters and young urban professionals. Looks like Bangkok 54 is popular with the happy hour crowd!


I wanted to compare Bangkok 54 with Thai Square, so I decided to order the same items. First course was the fried tofu. I figured it would be at par with Thai Square's. Tofu is already bland, how can anyone possibly ruin it? Surprisingly, Bangkok 54 did. The tofu was not fried long enough, so it didn't develop a crunchy shell. As well, there was a lack of seasoning. It's amazing what a little salt and pepper can do!

For my main meal, I searched for the tripe soup. However, one item on the menu caught my eye: the House Special Duck Roll. I am such a sucker for duck, despite how fatty it naturally is, so forget the tripe, duck roll it is. When the duck roll arrived, the smell was so intoxicating I couldn't wait to bite into it! Oh. Em. Gee. Where do I begin? The duck was not greasy (as it has the tendency to be) and was super tender and well-seasoned. The green onion added spiciness and the cucumber was a refreshing contrast in the mix as it cut through the heavy meatiness of the duck. The best part, however, was the roti! It reminded me of a freshly baked croissant. The roti was buttery and flaky, and complemented the fixings by tying all the flavours and textures together. I'm pretty sure this was not a traditional Thai roll, but at this point, I could have cared less. The sauce the roll was served with was a combination of sweet mustard and hoisin sauce. That sweet and salty combination: so Asian, so perfect.


I also ordered the Bua Loi at Bangkok 54, and was greatly disappointed. Though the presentation was beautiful, the actual dessert faltered. The cream was way too sweet and the consistency was slightly lumpy. There was no play in texture at all, with there being only taro balls. Completely monotone, in my opinion.

Fancy in decor, fancy in presentation, does not a great restaurant make. After all, it is about the food. Unfortunately, Bangkok 54's attempt at modernizing a Thai restaurant was not enough to detract me from the poorly-seasoned appetizer and half-hearted concoction of a dessert. 

For this gal, food wins over ambience, any day.

Bangkok 54
2919 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA   22204
703.521.4070

Bangkok 54 on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

witold said...

Your review reflects my experience. BKK 54 is more about flair. Not bad by any means, but disappointing renditions of what should be standard, easy to make, Thai dishes.

Khristina... said...

Exactly. Don't get me wrong, I like fun, imaginative food, but sometimes, the essence of the dish gets lost in the pizazz. That's why hole-in-the-wall places are some of the best eateries out there!

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