Restaurant Review: Esaan Tumbar
One outstanding restaurant closes; another one opens. Now it's a Thai game.
Presto, change-o! A magical feat of legerdemain has taken place at 1307 Old Chain Bridge Road in McLean. Many were sad (myself included) when Tu Yutthpon and his brother Otto closed the doors to their excellent but short-lived Social Fine Dining & Oyster Bar in 2017. But there’s lots to love about the establishment they’ve opened in its place.
Esaan Tumbar specializes in the bold and zesty cooking of the northeastern Thai region of Isan (alt spelling Esaan), which is heavily influenced by the cuisine of neighboring Laos. The “tum” in tumbar refers to somtum, the green papaya salad that is a mainstay of Isan and Laotian cuisine.
The kitchen turns out several renditions of somtum, and of larb (spelled labb here), a warm dish that traditionally combines some kind of cooked protein, such as shrimp, beef or ground pork, with lemongrass, red onions, lime juice, fish sauce, dried red chili powder, cilantro, mint and ground toasted rice.
Esaan’s menu is drastically different from its predecessor’s, which skewed more modern American, but the décor of the tiny 40-seat restaurant remains largely unchanged. You’ll still find the same hip, eclectic seating, reclaimed wood walls and even the motorcycle that sits near the front entry, plus some new accents—large display jars of red onions, garlic and dried red chilies (staples of Isan cooking) and a framed photograph of a young Thai King Bhumibol the Great (who died in 2016 at the age of 88).
In many ways Esaan seems the more natural venture for the Thai restaurateurs, who also co-own Pasa-Thai a few storefronts away in the same strip mall. Tu Yutthpon says the sibling eateries are more complementary than they are competitors.
“Pasa-Thai is Bangkok Thai food. What we are doing at Esaan is different,” he says, noting the absence of dishes like pad Thai on Esaan’s menu. “Bangkok cooking has a lot of different curries and noodle dishes. I think Isan cooking is more healthy. It uses a lot of herbs and not much oil.”