Thai Taste by Kob, 11315 Fern Street, Wheaton, MD
Here’s all you really need to know about Thai Taste by Kob. Chef Phak Duanchandr — who goes by the nickname Kob — asks friends and family going to Thailand to bring back dried shrimp and kaffir lime peel in their suitcases so she can make her curry and chile pastes. At first blush that’s a bit puzzling, given that Thai Taste is literally housed in the back of an Asian market called Hung Phat — insert your own NSFW joke here — and you’d think she could just get the ingredients there or have them ordered. But Kob is particular. The products that ship internationally don’t work for her. She wants to recreate the specific tastes she grew up with in western Thailand near the Myanmar border. So she enlists mules to bring her products from halfway around the world rather than settle for what’s available next door. Thai Taste by Kob, in other words, is a very personal, authentic and homey dining experience — a Rick Eats DC trifecta.
Hung Phat (left) and Thai Taste by Kob occupy the same building just off University Blvd in Wheaton. Kob began her cooking career a bit further south in Silver Spring, where she set up steam tables for carry-out in an Asian grocery.
The Thai Taste space used to be occupied by the Vietnamese restaurant Mi La Cay, and then by Nava Thai, both of which have moved into bigger quarters nearby. If it were in Shaw, the space would be dubbed a “pop-up venue” and the foodie blogs would marvel at the quality of the tenants it “incubated.”
One thing you can say about Thai Taste’s interior is that it does nothing to distract from the focus on the food.
This is Kob’s nephew, Max. Although Max doesn’t wait tables he’s a constant presence in the dining room, greeting returning patrons and advising new customers on ordering and the best way to eat each dish. Put yourself in Max’s hands and you’ll be fine.
Max or your server will drop off these four house-made condiments at your table. They aren’t just for show. Many of the dishes invite you to tailor your food to your specific taste and heat preferences.
Moo Yang (grilled marinated pork skewers) (#6)
Get some of these charred, meaty and juicy skewers to start. The tamarind dipping sauce adds a little fruity heat but isn’t really needed.
Gai Yang (grilled marinated chicken skewers) (#6)
If you don’t eat pork, please start. Sorry, I meant to say go ahead and order these chicken thigh skewers, which are almost as good as the pork version. Note this is not the gai satay (#7) but the gai yang (#6).
Lucky Bag (Deep-fried bags stuffed with curried potato and ground chicken) (#15)
Samosa fans will enjoy these apps that look like little medieval coin purses. The filling is a mildly-spiced potato mixture that benefits greatly from the tang of the cucumber dipping sauce and the condiment tray. The billowy folds on top do make the bags uber-cute for Instagram, but they also make them difficult to eat gracefully.
Thai Taste Crispy Spring Rolls (spring rolls filled with taro, cellophane noodles, ground chicken, and carrots) (#8)
Terrific spring rolls with substantial chew, akin to good Vietnamese spring rolls. The technique of cutting the rolls and browning the exposed filling makes them extra savory. Now if they’d just add some romaine leaves to the plate for wrapping (and color), these would be out of this world.
Shrimp Lemongrass Noodle Soup in Milky Broth (#104)
A wonderful soup that fires on all cylinders: citrus notes from lemongrass and kaffir lime, heat from chiles, earthiness from galangal and mushrooms, funkiness from fish sauce and dried shrimp, herbaceousness from greens and cilantro, and creaminess from coconut milk. One of the dishes that convinced me that schlepping ingredients back from Thailand was worth it.
The only thing this soup needs is better marketing, starting with the unfortunate name. “Milky” isn’t a very appealing adjective in English, often preceding the word “discharge.” If someone’s eyes are milky, you’re more likely to send them to a cataract surgeon than gaze into them. That’s why menu writers use more appetizing words like “creamy” even when milk is involved. The problem undoubtedly is an overly-literal translation to account for the coconut milk. A simple change to “Creamy Shrimp Lemongrass Noodle Soup” would double sales overnight.
Bamee Moo Deang (egg noodles topped with honey-roasted pork, fish balls, bok choy, crushed peanuts and dried chiles) (#89)
A dish that essentially has no sauce, thus making the condiment tray and judicious use of the dried chiles on the plate essential. Roasted pork and fish balls sounds like an odd combination but it works. (By the way, I don’t know what’s in those fish balls and not sure I want to know; they are the hot dogs of the sea).
Chiang Mai Noodles with Chicken (crispy noodles with curry, tamarind, carrots, red onion, bean sprouts, pickle mustard, green onion, and crispy shallots) (#74)
A nice melange of flavors and textures that would make a good one-dish lunch. Personally, I’d rather have soft noodles than crispy, although these noodles do soften somewhat as they sit in the broth.
Gaeng Karee (yellow curry beef with potato, carrot and onion) (#54)
Ok, yellow curry isn’t the most interesting order at the place like TTbK, but along with the Pad Thai below, I wanted a baseline dish for an apples-to-apples comparison with other Thai restaurants. Unlike yellow curry at most Thai restaurants, this one has some character, with a subtlety and depth of flavor that most versions don’t attempt to reach.
Pad Ped Pla Dook (catfish in special red chile paste with Thai eggplant, green beans, jalapeno, red bell pepper, green peppercorns and crispy basil leaves( (#63)
Along with the shrimp-lemongrass-noodle soup, my other favorite dish of the night. Max recommended I get the catfish filleted into pieces even though he said Thai diners prefer the fish left whole on the bone. My first reaction was to get my foodie back up and say of course I want the whole fish — I never have my Pad Ped Pla Dook any other way — and by the way make sure it’s extra-Thai spicy while you’re at it. But I swallowed my pride and went with the filets medium-hot like Max suggested. He was right, of course. The fish chunks allowed me to easily spear the perfect combinations of snowy catfish, veggies, chile paste and rice. The medium-spicy chile paste was plenty hot and encased everything it touched in a delicious sludge.
Pad Thai with Shrimp (#32)
My other standard order was this pretty standard Pad Thai. Not too sweet or too tamarind-y. My wife, Sonia, thought it was a bit saucy but I thought it was fine. Just be aware if you’re sauce-averse.
Shrimp Paste Fried Rice (#61)
Kind of a make-your-own fried rice. The rice itself has a strong shrimp paste taste. You can then mix everything together to create kind of a fried rice salad or keep them separate and let everyone take what they like. By this point in the proceedings, I’d had enough of the condiment tray and choosing my own adventures. I wanted the kitchen to give me a finished product I could just shovel into my mouth. So this was decent but next time I’ll probably go for something like the Thai Sausage Fried Rice (#60).
Mango Sweet Sticky Rice
Classic Thai dessert well executed. Warm, sticky rice infused with sweetened coconut milk, cool mango (alas, slightly underripe), all topped with toasted coconut and coconut cream.
So how does Thai Taste by Krob stack up against Wheaton stalwarts Ruan Thai and Nava Thai? It’s right in the mix. I’ll head to Ruan if I’m craving Yum Watercress salad. Nava if I want a more comfortable room and my favorite Pad Thai of the three. And now Thai Taste by Krob for the shrimp-lemongrass soup, catfish, and the chance to ask Max what came back in the luggage from Thailand that week. The good news is they’re all within a block of each other so it can be a game-time decision when you arrive.