That question dogged my mind the first time I saw this restaurant while driving through inappropriately named suburb of Crystal City last year. It's located on 23rd Street on the Restaurant Row, surrounded by bar and grills, diners and restaurants dedicated to other foreign cusines. Urban Thai has carved out a niche providing delicious, affordable food in a surprisingly attractive dining space. Usually, when one thinks of Asian food in the `burbs, the first thoughts are of Fortune, the dim sum palace at Seven Corners, or one of the fine Vietnamese places like Pho 75 in Falls Church or the previously-reviewed Eden Center. Urban Thai isn't as big as those places, but might be as good.
Last Saturday night, I took a couple of friends to the UT for dinner, and we started off with Thai version of crack, Lemongrass-Ginger Iced Tea. It's a sweet tea, infused with those two flavors, and as refreshing as a Thai Iced Tea, but not as filling. We settled on two appetizers, the Chicken Satay skewers and the Crab Dip. I grew up in Baltimore, where hearty, creamy crab dips are as plentiful as tourists in the summer. Urban Thai does their version differently - it's made with mangoes and what looked like some avacodoes, with fresh backfin crab on top. It's prepared beautifully, served in a big martini glass with wedges of fried spring roll wrap. It looks like a fun beach cocktail, and draws admiring stares from across the 20-table restaurant. The Satay was delicious with a good peanut sauce, but that crab dip stole the show.
Dinner was just as fantastic, with one of us selecting the Red Curry Duck, a spicy dish with coconut milk and pineapples, another choosing the Bourbon Grilled Chicken and sticky rice, and with me trying the BBQ Pork, a series of grilled pork tenders served with a pepper-and-scallion-filled translucent barebque sauce. That sauce may not pass muster at a Texas rib joint, but it's just as good, and doesn't have the sugary taste found in most American sauces. UT indicates the relative hotness of their meals with their cicular logo, ergo, more logo = more heat. However, I've had their three-logo Drunken Noodle with chicken, and didn't find it to be too hot at all. However, if you ask the server, they'll be glad to spice your dish enough to induce tears.
Urban Thai has all the essential Thai dishes - Pad Thai, Prik King, Pad See Eew, Kra Pow - and a group of specialities, like a spicy Crispy Duck and Panang Grilled Shrimp that never fail to impress. Their noodles are wide, not too doughy, with just the right consistency. The servings are just the right size - big and filling enough to let you know you ate, but not too big as to be imposing or nap-inducing. The vegetarian menu is full of fine options, too. The Grilled Salmon and Mango salad, mixed with the ginger honey vinagrette, or the Green Curry Veggie stuffed full of tofu, bamboo, basil and eggplant, are real meals, not just a dish without red meat. Meat eaters will love the Ginger Beef Broccoli and the Kao Mon Gai Tod, a battered chicken breast served with garlic-and-ginger rice and a spicy soy sauce, is fantastic. They also offer a sweet soy sauce that they'll be glad to bring out by request, and it goes well with their milder dishes.
Urban Thai has a full bar, with a selection of low-to-mid-priced wines. It offers a decent array of mixed drinks, including all sorts of things ending with -tini, and starting with mart- and lychee-. Watching my mom get half-crocked from an Urban Thai mango daquiri may be my highlight of 2006. I wish I could tell you about their desserts but I've never had room for any.
Urban Thai is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner at 561 S. 23rd Street in Crystal City. They accept credit cards, can split and seperate checks, and the restaurant has a handful of seats outside in a covered patio. Take out and some delivery is available. Most dishes are around 7 dollars for lunch and 12 for dinner.
Just be careful with the Lemongrass Ginger Iced Tea. There's no known 12-step program for overcoming that addiction.