ROUNDABOUT: Beef jerky and jasmine-rice sausages are wrapped with romaine, chile and lime in Ratchada’s Thai sampler.
A parade of carved elephants still marches trunk-to-tail inside the front door. Traditional dance headdresses, gilded and jeweled and glittering in their multitude of spires, still appoint the dark wooden walls. The square, open dining room still looks like the habitat of some colonial art collector. The Thai sampler is still on the menu and served in the same elegant blue-and-white platter with different compartments cupping crispy spring rolls the size of Kit Kats, two types of dumplings, a chicken-peanut mix rolled like saltwater taffy in clear rice-paper crepes, and luminous papaya salad shot through with just the right amount of fish sauce.
Except for the new name, illuminated in a red halo above the door, little seems to have changed at 1117 S. 11th Street. One day in December, what was once Cafe de Laos, a long-running outpost of Thai and Lao cooking on Vietnamese-dense Washington Avenue, became Ratchada when two former servers, Tom Suparsi and Jib Jongboon, took over.
The staff is much the same at Ratchada, which is named for a Bangkok neighborhood, and they’ll still nod along to your “hot” requests but order you what they think is best anyway, like a bunch of overprotective moms. “I think I remember you from Cafe de Laos,” one particularly pleasant server said to me as he punched “medium” on the computer for the heat level of my take-out curry. Apparently not well enough.
You’ve still got to press these well-intentioned profilers a bit, to assuage their fears that you’re not going to ship your Massaman or jungle curry back to the kitchen because you can’t handle its face-incinerating spice. I can’t blame them for being overcautious. I’m sure in the past they’ve been plenty burned by returns.
“Hot” is still a three-tiered hierarchy: There’s hot, very hot and Thai hot. One time during the Cafe de Laos era, I insisted on Thai-hot red curry, and to this day, it’s the spiciest bowl of food I’ve ever consumed, even hotter than anything I ate in Thailand. Halfway through the dish, I’d taken on the look of a rubella victim: sweaty, ashen and halfway delirious.
So now I stick to “very hot,” and that worked just fine in the som tom centerpiece of the Thai sampler, the heat of the crushed red chilies colliding with the sweet of palm sugar, sour of lime juice and salty of fish sauce and peanuts in the chaotic harmony that underscores Thai cooking. They flamed the tom zap, the lemony soup from the north poured over chopped spare ribs that separated from their bones like bananas from their peels, and the tom kha, the quenching coconut soup from the south best provisioned with tender curls of pink shrimp. They electrified the laab duck, finely minced bits of tender meat, unctuous fat and candy-shell skin greened with cilantro and scallion, blended with bell pepper, red onion, pineapple, lime, fish sauce and roasted sticky rice — an uncommon ingredient made from roasting raw grains with lemongrass, kaffir-lime leaves and galangal and grinding the mix into a toasty herbal gunpowder. The flavorful, dynamic mix was piled over lettuce, though to call it a salad would be like calling a T. rex a lizard.
As Ratchada’s chef, Suparsi proved confident in manipulating these big-personality ingredients and translating the recipes of his homeland for a clientele with varying levels of comfort and familiarity with bird chilies, fish sauce and lotus rootlets. The Lao dishes are even more intriguing. Was that ... dill? ... scenting my beef om Laos, a vegetable-dense, tapioca-thickened curry built on a paste of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, shallot and that roasted rice powder? Sure was. Apparently the frilly, piquant herb is as popular in Thailand’s northern neighbor as it is in Scandinavia. Meanwhile, a tropical perfume pervaded the hor mok Laos, a version of the above mummified in banana leaves and steamed; get it with chicken.
Fermented shrimp paste, which makes fish sauce smell like a meadow of roses, stained threads of papaya an inky charcoal color in the Lao-style version of the som tom. As with its Thai counterpart, the salad is orbited by other snacks in the Laos sampler, among them chewy, aromatic beef jerky and nubby jasmine-rice-and-pork sausages, both made in-house and powered by lemongrass and kaffir lime. Romaine leaves, slivers of fresh ginger, crushed chile and brilliant bits of chopped lime filled one compartment of the dimpled platter, awaiting DIY wraps that amounted to my favorite bites at Ratchada (also my favorite bites at Cafe de Laos, for what it’s worth).
Rich and fragrant with coconut milk, the red curry called Samui for the coastal Thai island is one of the new additions; a catch of calamari, scallops, shrimp and plump New Zealand mussels in shells with iridescent turquoise rims and a bit of grit. There’s crab meat, too, but Suparsi was out of it the night I ordered; I tried to switch to the Andaman curry, featuring lobster tail, but he was out of that, too. The takeaway: Tuesday is probably not the best day to order seafood at Ratchada.
Another newcomer brought Thai iced tea recast in a luscious house-made cheesecake, but I found it hard to resist a dome of glistening mango, sweet and floral, paired with a trapezoid of coconut sticky rice dyed green with pandan leaf. Some things, thankfully, never change. At Ratchada, most things haven’t. And I’m OK with that.
RATCHADA | 1117 S. 11th St., 215-467-1546, ratchadatlc.com. Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 2-9:30 p.m. Appetizers, $4.95-$13.95; entrees, $9.95-$22.95; desserts, $5.95-$6.95.
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