By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Falls Church | Thai | $$
Things that don’t happen in real life: elephants jumping. Things that do happen in real life: finding a great meal at Elephant Jumps.
The Thai restaurant tucked into a shopping center down the street from Mosaic District is a discovery into a world beyond pad see ew (though the version here is certainly better than other neighborhood Thai spots). Specials on the blackboard are a good idea, as are hoy jaw, a mix of shrimp, crab and pork wrapped, fried and sliced into bites of savory crunchiness; fried shrimp in kicky, beguiling tamarind sauce; and a whole red snapper decorated in purple onion strips, shredded mango, whole cashews and a lot of sassy, in-your-face flashes of flavors. // 8110 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church
McLean | Thai | $$
There’s no pad thai on the menu here. In fact, many of the Thai staples American diners have come to know are conspicuously missing. While some might be put off by this, others will appreciate the opportunity to climb out of the green curry rut and revel in the spicy, sour, herbal and fish sauce-scented dishes of Northern Thailand.
Carnivores should not even consider leaving this place without trying the spicy grilled pork shoulder—slices of tender meat loaded with dried and fresh chiles, fresh mint and cilantro, onion and fish sauce. Cracked, toasted rice lends a nice crunch to the jumble. Other menu wins include a starter of tiny chicken wings brightened by lemongrass and an array of aromatics; a whole fried rockfish piled high with cashews, ginger and chiles all swimming in a puddle of pungent fish sauce; and a dessert of coconutty, sweet sticky rice (sporting a fun blue color thanks to butterfly pea flower) topped with a creamy Thai custard. // 1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean
Falls Church | Lao & Thai | $
Not many non-new, non-city, non-trendy restaurants command a full dining room on sleepy summer evenings in the middle of the week. Most aren’t Padaek. Under the glow of Lao food trailblazer and legacy codifier, Seng Luangrath, who spreads her countries’ culinary feats at Sen Khao in the food court at Tysons Galleria and Thip Khao and Hanumanh in the District, Padaek is a yellow-walled, tiny spot making the case for custardy fish grilled in a banana leaf or wok-fried rice noodles in a caramel fish sauce. But really, it’s all about naem khao thadeau, or how it’s better known in foodie circles, crispy rice. That’s all anyone needs to hear and it’s obvious the next step is to order a bowl of Luangrath’s soulful mix of crunchy, porky, sour, sweetness. It’s fascinating even after all these years. Or, what the regular at the next table over told his new-to-Padaek friends: “We might have to get two.” // 6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church
Ashburn | Thai | $$
Like any new town center trying to figure out that right blend of retail and restaurants, there is always the short-lived failures, the seasonal pop-ups and the ones who have come to anchor the place and give it character. One Loudoun should be thankful for Sense of Thai St. During dining hours, it shows off a varied world of Thai food, especially in haunting dishes like the crab phak curry, a creamy, spicy sauce with noodles as delicate as a whisper. Backed by an experimental bar program (summer means tiki time), Thai iced coffee is a composed drink with the addition of roasted rice and caramel. And come night, well, it’s a legit party. In a town center. Reston, you paying attention? // 20413 Exchange St., Ashburn
Arlington | Thai | $$
Before even sitting down, a server might helpfully ask where you left your car. That’s because tow-free parking spaces are hard to come by in the area, and this place clearly wants to make sure all that’s remembered after a meal here is how great the food tastes. Start with an order of hae kuen, a sort of pork and shrimp sausage wrapped in bean curd skin adding a delicate crunch, or the nam sod, a bright and spicy salad of pork, fresh ginger, cilantro and lime. There’s a reason you’ll hear tables around you ordering the crispy honey-roasted duck with basil, a dish that deftly marries sweet, savory and spicy.
The crackle on the batter-fried duck is downright masterful, despite it being tossed with a glaze. Fresh chilies, garlic and fried basil add to the party. Chicken with cashews are a fine rendition of the Thai menu staple and loaded up with the namesake nut. For dessert, consider straying from the usual mango with sticky rice in favor of the warm bowl of sweetened black beans, rice and coconut milk registering as comfort food even if you’ve never had it before. The coconut milk teases out the sweet earthiness of the legumes, and the combination totally works. Your spoon will keep dipping back in no matter how many times you try to stop yourself. // 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington