Restaurant Review: Esaan Tumbar
One outstanding restaurant closes; another one opens. Now it's a Thai game.
Chef Benjiamas Tiatasin, 31, makes her professional cooking debut at Esaan, having learned to cook from her family while growing up in her native Bangkok. She came to the U.S. five years ago, settling in Falls Church and working in the front of the house at Pasa-Thai. Then she did stints at Bangkok Golden in Falls Church and its sister restaurant, Thip Khao, in Washington, D.C., learning Laotian cooking from chef/owner Seng Luangrath, a two-time James Beard award nominee for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.
Yutthpon says he discovered Tiatasin’s natural culinary talent back when she was making staff meals at Pasa-Thai. “I knew then I wanted her to be the chef when I opened my own place,” he says. He made a wise choice.
For starters, try an order of Tiatasin’s garlicky fried chicken wings (kai tod samun prai) paired with Yutthpon’s excellent rendition of a Moscow Mule—vodka and ginger beer with a splash of elderflower liqueur. Another winner is Esaan’s take on a summer roll (kuaytiew luisuan), which finds shredded cabbage, tofu, scrambled egg, lettuce and cucumber wrapped in rice paper. The rolls are stunningly green and come to life when dipped in a vibrant sauce of lime juice, fish sauce and Thai basil.
Two somtum salads made with green papaya, raw green beans and cherry tomatoes are also standouts. The somtum kaikem adds peanuts and chunks of salted hard-boiled egg, while the somtum plara incorporates shredded Thai eggplant and pla ra, a fermented fish sauce that’s funkier than nam pla, the anchovy-based fish sauce that Americans have come to recognize in Thai cooking. The latter salad also packs a nice heat wallop.
Of Esaan’s labb dishes, the labb moo—an ambrosial blend of minced pork, chilies and lime, with a slight crunch from toasted rice—is a dish I could eat daily.
Kao-soi, a soup made with chicken stock, coconut milk, Indian curry powder, coriander and ginger, is an impressive interpretation of that well-known northern Thai dish. It’s embellished with egg noodles, a braised chicken drumstick and a garnish of crunchy fried noodles. The broth goes heavier on the stock than on the coconut milk and therefore seems lighter than the versions you’ll find at other Thai restaurants.