When you enter through the cage-like wood portico, the sultry reimagining of a groovy hotel bar incites the kind of villainy that Miami Vice’s Tubbs and Crockett could only dream of. “Soi” is the Thai word for “side street,” and Soi 38 has the allure of the Bangkok night markets that founders Nat Ongsangkoon and Dia Khanthongthip aim to replicate.
It’s Foggy Bottom’s answer to Georgetown’s Mai Thai, and, like Foggy Bottom, the restaurant is innovative and cosmopolitan. The space is tiered with sunken floors, elevated platforms, and cocooning booths, like a winding network of cobblestoned back alleyways. The subdued lighting emanates from hanging, woven chandeliers and lotus-inspired paper enclosures, with gold-on-black murals lining the walls. Fortuitously, the network of alleys all lead to one destination: the bar. Situated at the back of the restaurant, customers must wind through the dining area to get to their alcoholic destination, which, no matter where you sit, makes you a sideshow attraction in the marketplace of Soi 38.
My companion and I started with the Thai cuisine-inspired cocktail list. Soi 38’s take on a Manhattan was presented in a small glass bottle with a paper tag, which made it feel—dare I say it—prepackaged. My lemon ginger tea was delivered in a charming white ceramic tea set, but its presentation did not distract from the tea bag. For a locale that seemed so preoccupied with presentation, I expected loose-leaf tea.
The tea foreshadowed what was to come. We began with Tom Ka Gai, the traditional Thai coconut and lemon grass chicken soup, and the Yum Goong Fu, a lime and chili fried shrimp dish served over lettuce. The Tom Ka was a standard take on the Thai classic, with its coconut milk base, and chili paste seasoning. The Yum Goong Fu was crunchy and piquant, but the taste of the shrimp was difficult to discern among the spicy cacophony of fruit, nuts, and garnishes.
We followed with Pad Cha Talay and Gaeng Phet Ped Yang, a seafood dish and duck curry, respectively. The Pad Cha Talay, a dish of squid, scallops, shrimp, and mussels in a ginger and red chili sauce, was overall very good, however, the squid was slightly overcooked, which threw off the textural uniformity of the dish.
The duck curry remedied all of the Pad Cha Talay’s missteps with its classic interpretation of a Thai curry specialty. The dish’s pineapple, appropriate spice level, and well-rounded depth of flavor complemented the well-cooked duck, but nothing elevated the dish beyond a predictable, if well-rendered, iteration of the Thai staple.
Soi 38’s food and drink were conventional, without standing apart from the tastes of Bangkok’s winding marketplaces. There was no “great sea urchin ceviche,” no dish that curb-tomped hopeful competitors. The food is good and well-prepared, but not daring enough to warrant any further attention. While Soi 38’s aesthetics might suggest grand capers and vivacious villainy, the kitchen is anchored in conventional flavors, never taking a step off the main street of Thai cuisine.
2101 L Street NW
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. all week