Thai food is the latest international cuisine to get the fast-casual treatment in the D.C. area with the opening last month of Tom Yum District. The new restaurant, located in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, is the latest venture of husband-and-wife duo Chef Aulie Bunyarataphan and Restaurateur Mel Oursinsiri of Georgetown’s Bangkok Joe’s and Shirlington’s T.H.A.I.
The couple has created a menu in the popular mode of do-it-yourself dining which highlights the sweet and spicy flavors of Thai cuisine.
Entrées are built at the bar at the back of the dining room, a space with modern design, bright colors, and for the most part communal seating. When crafting a Tom Yum District entrée, built and served in a large take-away bowl, the first selection is the base: brown or white jasmine rice, flat and chewy rice noodles, or a mixed salad of crunchy pieces of romaine lettuce and napa cabbage with carrot slivers.
Next comes the choice of protein. Small chunks of grilled steak and grilled chicken top the list. The steak is lightly seasoned with coriander and garlic which accents the savory meat taste, and the mild chicken is slightly sweet, flavored with lemongrass and turmeric. Chili-seasoned shrimp and sesame-ginger glazed tofu are also offered. The choice of protein sets the price of the dish – $7.95 for shrimp, $7.55 for steak, $6.95 for chicken, and $6.75 for tofu.
A mix of warm grilled squash and onion stands at the ready at the protein station, as does scrambled egg – Thai omelet, as it is listed on the menu – which, unlike the barely discernable variety so often found in Asian takeout, has a nice, salty flavor and makes its presence known in the dish.
The choice of toppings follows, most with fresh and mild flavors and crunchy textures to fill out the work-in-progress entrée. A scoop of the house greens mix, thin-sliced red onion, bean sprouts, sweet and tangy cubed cucumber relish, pickled finger pepper chunks, chili paste, and an herb blend (basil and mint, with cilantro most evident) are the available options.
But the choice that makes the biggest flavor impact is left for the end. Tom Yum District offers up five sauces, and a drizzle of any goes a long way toward making a delicious Thai dish. The spicy sauces in the bunch are marked with purple flames on the menu – the hottest being the three-flicker “Drunken” of oyster sauce, chili, and garlic, a dangerous combination that is at first only salty, but then hits peak heat after resting on the tongue for a moment. The Tom Yum and Panang Curry, at two-flame and one-flame heat levels, respectively, are the most popular. The Tom Yum pairs chili paste heat and bright, citrusy lime tastes. The Panang Curry, a curried peanut sauce, is delightfully sweet with only a touch of heat. The Lemongrass-Ginger and White Wine-Orange Vinaigrette sauces round out the group.
With a sprinkle of crushed peanut and/or crispy fried garlic, the bowl is lidded and handed off. For drinks, one can get a bottle of Singha or Chang, both Thai beers, or a bottle of creamy orange Thai iced tea, bottled for grab-and-go convenience.
With readily customizable dishes at $10 and under that are quick and convenient, it’s easy to see why fast casual spots are becoming increasingly prevalent and popular among the busy younger set. And after getting a taste of what Tom Yum District has to offer in this field, diners will be glad that Aulie Bunyarataphan and Mel Oursinsiri have created an admirable adaptation of Thai cuisine in fast-casual style.
Tom Yum District is located at 1515 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call 703-528-8424 or visit tomyumdistrict.com. Restaurant hours are Monday – Sunday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.