Bangkok Joe’s is in many ways a gutsy move for its owners, Aulie Bunyarataphan and Mel Oursinsiri, who also own T.H.A.I. in Shirlington. It’s located at Washington Harbour in Georgetown but faces away from the water, under the Whitehurst Freeway. And its bold ethnic cuisine contrasts with the all-American fare at the neighboring establishments.
The space itself was a bit of a challenge as well. A former bank, the interior is unusually long and narrow. For design assistance, the owners called on Jordan Mozer & Associates, whose credits include the Venetian and Bellagio resorts in Las Vegas and Barney’s department store in New York. They developed a sophisticated color scheme where red, black, gold and silver dominate. Symbols from Thai lore, such as swirls from Buddha’s hair and elephant trunks, function as recurring motifs throughout.
If possible, request the windows-side booths on the far side. The long row of two-tops on the near side can feel a bit too much like a communal table.
Many patrons choose to sit at the other notable design element in this restaurant — its dumpling bar, the only one of its kind in metropolitan Washington. This stainless-steel centerpiece has barstools on one side and a fryer and steaming rigs on the business end of things for the chef.
Bunyarataphan, who also functions as chef, describes her cuisine as “Thai street food with a modern twist.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in her page-long list of dumplings, divided about equally into steamed dumplings and deep-fried wontons and rolls.
Among the best were the mushroom and ginger dumplings, with water chestnuts, carrots and scallions with a shiitake-sesame cream sauce. A lobster and pine-nut version, wrapped in a nearly transparent wrapper, also worked well, although the accompanying sauce was so cloyingly sweet I left the other pieces dry.
The crispy crab finger roll was a half crab claw wrapped up with shiitake mushrooms, eggroll-style, and served with a sweet chili dipping sauce — a presentation as inventive as it was delicious.
The shrimp and crab gyoza, as well as the smoked-duck wonton, are large, crispy shells that pack a lot of flavor. The same cannot be said for the Panang chicken bun, which resembled a small loaf of Wonder bread, steamed to pasty consistency and filled with a scant amount of shredded chicken.
Like many an Asian menu, this one offers a wealth of options, whatever your appetite or budget, from such pan-Asian favorites as fried rice and General Tso’s chicken to well-presented entrees of whole fish and rack of lamb.
The noodle bowls and rice bowls offer an array of combinations that can be tailored to any palette. Panang, for instance, is a traditional curried peanut sauce with large, flat noodles, spinach and bean sprouts and choice of chicken or shrimp. Rice bowls are available in 11 different varieties. Among them are ginger beef and broccoli with soy sauce and wild mushrooms and tofu with ginger sauce. And of course expect the traditional pad Thai and drunken chicken.
On one visit, a colleague and I sampled the special dinner menu for the Thai New Year (“Songkran”). Meang-Kum, an appetizer that supposedly grants health for the coming year, was a delicious combination of shrimp, coconut, ginger, peanuts, lime and hot peppers, served on collard-green squares. The mix of bitter, hot and sweet flavors and crunchy textures worked very well. “Tri-colored gems,” three brightly hued dumplings — one each of pork, shrimp and crab — looked wonderful on their long, rectangular serving dish but were disappointing in that the crab and shrimp tasted old.
For dinner, I chose “Crying Tiger,” which our waitress informed me was one of the most traditional Thai dishes on the menu — flank steak marinated Essan style and served with red onion, basil and a sprinkle of rice powder that gave it a pleasant texture.
The Thai New Year spaghetti was an enormous bowl of spicy noodles topped with a grilled whole lobster. “Eating long noodles means you’ll have a long life,” explained the waitress.
Service, in fact, was excellent on all of my visits. The staff is both knowledgeable and happy to take the time to help guests understand unfamiliar items.
Located across the street from the new Loews cinema in the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, Bangkok Joe’s has had a built-in clientele throughout the winter. But it faces away from the river and thus is removed from the Harbour’s summertime social scene. It will be curious to see how the restaurant fares among those bent on drinking a daiquiri in the open air on a muggy night. Given the often uneven cooking from its neighbors on the water, my suggestion would be to head for Bangkok Joe’s for a unique, if only occasionally spectacular, meal, then head outdoors for your nightcap.