There are stunning flavors all around. Plates vibrating with chilis and herbs and plates decorated in saturated hues of purples and greens and reds. And then there’s a plate with merely a dozen chicken wings.
They are tiny, slim and crispy, shockingly so. They aren’t bogged down with a gloopy, sticky sauce. They shine with the aromatics of lemongrass and galangal, bright and punchy and shame their bar-staple cousin with their straightforward simplicity.
Not that Esaan is a showy place. It replaced a tiny vehicle with a flare for bouts of molecular gastronomy, the short-lived though dynamic Social Oyster Bar & Restaurant. The interior remains nearly identical with a red scooter propped against a back wall, though that rooster-themed hook on the wall must be new, a nod to the country cooking of Northeastern Thailand, where chickens roam in backyards.
Tu Yutthpon isn’t from this region of Thailand, though he knows Thai food: he’s a native of Bangkok. Yutthpon has been thinking about his restaurant Esaan for a while, he says. He originally hoped to set up in D.C. but when the space emptied suddenly, he convinced his brother, who owns the location along with Pasa Thai, just a few storefronts away in the same hidden shopping center in McLean, “to open something we know how to do.”
And their adherence to regionality translates to no pad thai or Panang curry. All of the Thai staples we know in this country can be found at Pasa and so Yutthpon made it a point to not only serve food from this specific section of his homeland, but also some dishes he says, “you can not find anywhere else.” His example are those wings. It’s not traditional, but he uses the flavors of Esaan. Plus, he slices the wings in half, giving them their signature miniature size and, as he likes to point out, “something different.”
The majority of the menu lists salads, a lot of which are variations on the famed papaya salad: shredded payapa (which grows all over Thailand), green beans, peanuts and tomatoes. Like most of the food here it’s spicy, crunchy and light. Though in this iteration, imagine the salad as akin to an aperitif, a sherpa to guide you to the next course, a burst of flavor to excite you for what’s next.
The next course could be a soothing bowl of soup, kao soi. A coconut curry base provides a richness, but, as always, chiles pack it with heat. It’s a balancing act so often done right here, just like the noodles floating on top of the soup arrive fried and crispy and ones below remain soft. A chicken drumstick sticking out from the center, tender, dark and pull-apart, contrast to the pickled, punchy cabbage crinkles.
A cornish hen could also follow, brought out in quarters. It’s golden (with the help of curry powder) and charred and comes with no knife. Not only because it’s easy to tear it away, but because that’s not how tables are set: there’s only a fork and a spoon. And no chopsticks, either.
Yutthpon, who co-owns this place with his brother Otto Wetchapinan and Benjamas Tiatasin, works to move Esaan beyond the neighborhood level, beyond steamed rice (dishes here are served with roasted black sticky rice, though if you ask, they will bring out the white variety).
A special at lunch began as a serene plate, items huddled in their own lot: onions, green mango matchsticks, shredded omelette, sausage chunks, rice embedded with dried shrimp. But then it’s time to force a collision, whirling it all together with a spray of lime, turning the deconstructed into the reconstructed and it becomes whole. It’s now a cohesive dish smacking of the now recognizable trademarks of Esaan, the flashy, the fresh.
The salads continue with the minced-meat based larbs, which might be familiar to those who know Lao food, or have dined at Padek (formerly Bangkok Golden) and others starring grilled meats.
The beef version, tossed with raw strands of red onion, plus scallion, cilantro and chilies in squirts of lime, reveals soft, meaty strips surrendering to the heat and brightness of its supporting players. It’s real world spicy, and a cuddle from the bundle of black sticky rice barely tames the fires. It’s a searing treat. A sip of the house-brewed chrysanthemum tea, the Chinese-imported flower, plus sugar and honey, is there for a sweet-floral refresh.
One of the lone dishes without heat is an egg dish: two sunny-side up eggs, the whites stretched to the ends of the pan, with minced pork and two types of sausage piled on top. Though this is typically a meal served at breakfast, it works as a nighttime starter, scattering and twirling the yolks over the bits of meat and scallions for bites comforting and subtle. There’s decorative loops of sriracha squeezed onto the serving platter, and easy to ignore. Just this one time, it’s OK to pass on the heat.
1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean
Open daily for lunch and dinner