Friday night my boss emailed me, “You must go and get his sour bamboo shoot curry, and the fermented fish curry, possibly the best dishes yet…! (not available every day, though)”
He didn’t have a subject line, didn’t mention the restaurant, he didn’t have to because it was obvious.
I was planning to go to Elephant Jumps for lunch on Saturday anyway.
Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide has an updated review:
This place has improved so much I feel it deserves another review. It was already one of the best places on this list, nowadays it is probably the very best place. It has consistently original and authentic Thai food which is refined and improved on a regular basis.
…If you are ever upset that I am not writing more restaurant reviews, the answer is that I am eating here too much.
This restaurant is in the back corner of a strip mall in Merrifield, Virginia.
There are about 36 seats, though not tightly packed-in. So it’s a decent sized place and I’ve never had to wait for a table (although I usually come in for lunch on weekends).
There are three places to find out what you can order. There’s a bound regular menu, a laminated two-sided sheet with their ‘new’ (authentic) menu, and there’s a specials board.
Click on each page of the authentic thai menu and the specials board to enlarge:
I started with Yum Pla Dook Foo, a dish of fried ground tuna, peants, and a mango sauce.
Their crispy rice salad is a standout. I’ll order it whenever it’s on the specials board.
Tyler had told me to get the sour bamboo shoot curry and the fermented fish curry but those aren’t regular items even on the authentic Thai menu, they were dishes they had made for themselves earlier in the week and were experimenting with.
They had a little bit of the fish curry left, and had made a green curry beef for the staff and shared that with me. I haven’t yet tried the bamboo shoot curry.
The green curry was excellent. I had only ever ordered the ‘roti green curry chicken’ here and that green curry was lighter, perhaps with coconut milk. This was more intense in flavor.
The fermented fish curry was very good, made with pork in it rather than catfish. Contra Tyler, I’m not sure it’s their #1 dish, but I’d definitely order it again if they’re making it.
It’s served with rice and with lettuce, cucumber, and thai green peppers.
One item they had on special, that they used to have all the time but that I hadn’t seen up in quite awhile, is soft shell crab. I ordered it with the basil sauce (there’s a choice, at least there used to be, and I like the black pepper sauce as well but the basil is better I think especially with the crisp dry basil leaves surrounding the dish).
One technique whenever going into an ethnic restaurant you haven’t been to, and don’t know what to order, is just to ask what they like best as the staff meal. You’re not asking what you should order (the waiter or waitress doesn’t know what you will like and might just answer with what is popular). You’re asking what they like. And that has a greater chance of being better, or at least more authentic or what the restaurant does best.
Almost everything is good, and there are certainly great dishes on the regular menu (I really like the Beef Steak Spicy Herb Salad, the Crispy Salmon Salad, and the Roti Green Curry Chicken). But I usually order off of the new authentic menu, plus whatever they’re experimenting with that may or may not be listed as a special.
The best thing to do, if the owner Tom is there, is to say that you read Gary Leff’s blog and that you’d like him to pick what you should have. Just know that dishes that should be spicy will be spicy, and there will be authentic flavors. If ingredients like shrimp paste turn you off, don’t follow this strategy.
My favorite staple items:
- Appetizer: either Larb Muang or Ka Nom Jeen
- Curry: Hung lay curry, it’s a Northern slow cooked pork dish
- Noodle: Pad See Ew Moo Mug – with pork and egg and with an amazing smoky flavor
- Dessert: it’s an intense flavor, but it’s very authentic, they do durian with sticky rice. You’ll love it or hate it.
They have do have more common thai food items here, like pad thai and panang curry, but I feel like if you’re ordering those it’s a bit of a waste to come here.
If that’s likely what you get at thai, that’s great, but I expect you will come here and think that the place is nothing special – good enough perhaps – but you won’t ‘get’ the buzz. That’s not a criticism, it’s just fair warning about understanding your preferences and how this place will or won’t impress.
Last weekend I came out when I arrived back in town (largely to wash away the lesser Thai food I had eaten elsewhere during the weekend). I had durian ice cream for dessert.
Not everyone loves durian, it’s an acquired taste, in parts of Asia hotels will even have signs forbidding you to bring the fruit on property because of the smell (it’s very much muted as an ice cream).
The point though is this isn’t just a place that has a menu and serves the same thing day in and out, they’re constantly experimenting and improving and trying to perfect dishes — to make them as authentic as possible with the supply chain available in the U.S., while making them approachable by American palates. They’re sort of what Avis used to claim to be, but for Thai food instead of rental cars.
Tom, the owner who works in the front of the house (his wife is in the kitchen) has been experimenting with different ice cream flavors, he mentioned working on a thai tea ice cream. At the end of the meal he brought out a dish of coconut ice cream with jack fruit and peanuts in it. It was excellent. He mentioned that it was a little saltier than he wanted to get it, and I did notice the salt, but I thought that it cut the sweetness quite nicely.
For fine dining, despite controversies, the most enduring system is the Michelin guide. Their star system means:
- one star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)
- two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)
- three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).
There’s no Michelin guide for strip mall ethnic restaurants. And I guess most people won’t think of a Thai restaurant in a strip mall as ‘worth a special journey’ the way I flew to Spain just to eat at el bulli and went to London for lunch at the Fat Duck.
But unquestionably Elephant Jumps is ‘worth a detour.’ If you find yourself anywhere in the DC area, you should go. It’s in the suburbs, you need a car, it’s worth it.
A bonus for frequent flyer miles hobbyists? The restaurant is sandwiched in between a Staples and a CVS.
The CVS always used to be fully stocked with Vanilla Reload cards. Always. Sigh.
(See also my original post on Elephant Jumps.)