On a rainy Sunday afternoon sometime in the spring, my wife Jun and I had a major craving for Thai food. At that point, there were two places in the DC area that we really liked – Little Serow and Baan Siam – but Little Serow (which is still take-out only since the pandemic began) was closed on Sundays and we didn’t feel like driving all the way to Mount Vernon Triangle from our home in Bethesda in the rain. I remember coming across a newcomer in Rockville that Tom Sietsema of Washington Post highly praised, so we decided to take the short 15-minute drive to check out Thai Chef. Several months later, we had now been to the restaurant four different times and even ordered Uber Eats delivery recently.
The central concept of the food at Thai Chef is inspired by Bangkok night market. You will see a somewhat large menu consisting of the usual Thai dishes that people are familiar with such as curry and fried rice, accompanied by “Street Bites” and “Shophouse Selfies” categories that are likely to be more novel for average non-Thai diners. After taking a bite of rocket shrimp wrapped in spring roll skin (and accompanied by homemade sweet and sour sauce) to begin the meal on our first meal, we realized this was no ordinary Thai American cliché. There was no starter dish in the Street Bites section that we ended up not liking, from the wonderfully grilled chicken satay to the surprisingly light pork and crab dumplings.
Then came the catfish dry curry. Jun and I couldn’t stop digging into this exceptional fried catfish filet, lightly battered and sauteed with curry paste that was so addictive. It is no doubt one of our all-time favorite Thai dishes throughout our culinary journey together and whenever we dined at the restaurant, we made sure to order the catfish. If you can handle the spicy flavor, the key to a successful meal at Thai Chef is to make sure to ask for at least level 3 spicy (the spicy scale according to the server is between 1 and 4 with 4 being the spiciest). You won’t regret it while eating a dish of wok fried southern Thai style karahi curry called Southern’s Comfort that was our second favorite dish at the restaurant. If you want to go a little bit more conventional route, of course one of the curry dishes (Jun is partial to green curry) is a safe bet. The only slight miss was the wok-fried 5 spiced braised beef, but perhaps only because the flavor of the brown sauce was not the spicy kind that we were seeking.
The restaurant does not take reservations, but even on a busy time such as Friday evening, you won’t have to wait terribly long due to the relatively quick turnover of the dining space. The décor of the colorful dining space with colorful carousel horses gives the exotic vibe to add to your dining experience (on our first visit, we saw a couple of influencer-type women endlessly taking photos around the space after barely eating their food). There are short cocktail and wine lists, but I had enjoyed washing down all the wonderful food with a cold glass of beer during our visits. We had had more success in dining experience in the DC than in the Maryland suburbs thus far since we moved last year, and Jun and I are very thankful to have discovered Thai Chef. It will be one of our go-to neighborhood restaurants going forward.
KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10)
Address: 29 Maryland Ave #308, Rockville, MD 20850