As most locals know, Thai food restaurants have mushroomed in the metro area, with likely hundreds offering dishes from this Asian country. Now something rather new in the Thai food world has happened: Welcome a newcomer to the McLean restaurant scene, but this eatery, Esaan Thai Restaurant, means indulging in some exotic — and unfamiliar to most Westerners — Thai food.
Featuring dishes from Northeast Thailand, the kitchen has composed a short but interesting menu, starting with classic Esaan sunny-side up eggs and fried chicken wings with Thai herbs and ending with Crying Tiger, a spicy beef dish found in many Thai restaurants, and fried rock fish with Thai herbs. What patrons will not find are such mainstream Thai dishes as pad Thai, the beloved rice noodle stir-fry, roast duck curry, and Drunken Noodles — none of these are standard fare in the northeastern-most part of Thailand.
So where to start? Try the fresh vegetable roll, six pieces to an order. This consists of finely sliced vegetables wrapped in a leaf, then overwrapped in a rice paper wrapper. The dish comes with two different dipping sauces: one hot/spicy and the other sweet.
Another special dish is the son tum, or green papaya salad, a dish that may show up in area Thai restaurants. It is unique in that it consists of shredded green papaya tossed with dried shrimp, toasted peanuts, and long green beans and dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar. It’s often served spicy-hot, but the staff at Esaan will tame it down, if you prefer something milder. The salad is a Thai classic — unusual, refreshing, and worth eating every day.
A must for any meal here is the classic — and wildly popular in Thailand and in many local Thai restaurants — Crying Tiger, known in Thai as sya rong hai. Translated, this means “tiger crying,” and several theories about the origin of this dish’s name suggest that often the beef (it is a steak dish) was so tough tigers cried when trying to chew the meat. Another version suggests that the accompanying dipping sauce is so hot that it makes even tigers cry. Note: Esaan’s kitchen offers two different sauces, one spicy and one sweet.
Esaan’s version comes from the kitchen as slices of grilled beef on a serving platter. As an accompaniment, brown sticky rice in a woven basket. For folks unfamiliar with sticky rice, it is long grain, opaque, and clumps together easily to serve as an eating tool—it is commonly used by villagers as their version of a spoon. And this type of rice, like its opaque-white long-grain cousin, is steamed rather than boiled.
Finally, patrons should check out another Northeastern Thai classic, the grilled chicken. Here, it comes as a quartered whole chicken — enough for two — plus sticky rice and dipping sauces. The flavors are authentic and delicious, confirming that the chef knows what he is doing.
Note: Esaan recently opened in the corner location of the former Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar…remember the motorcycle out front? It also notes that it is Pasa Thai’s sister restaurant. Pasa Thai is located on the same stretch of stores, just a few doorways down.
Esaan Thai Restaurant, 1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean. Phone: 703-288-9671. Hours: lunch and dinner daily.