Bangkok 54 off of Columbia Pike in Arlington has topped lists for the best Thai food in metro DC over the last several years. Touted among critics for its authenticity and contemporary decor, the restaurant has responded in turn with elevated prices for standbys such as Phad Thai and Chicken Satay. After several years in business, and with a crop of new Thai restaurants making their mark, Bangkok 54 deserves a fresh look.
On a recent evening the dining room was only a third full, yet servers struggled to keep up with diners’ requests. An order for Tom ka soup, a traditional broth made with coconut milk and lemongrass, arrived instead as a bright red consomme. When returned to the kitchen, the original bowl was simply doctored up by the addition of some coconut milk rather than remade to its original recipe. Crispy springrolls, described on the menu as stuffed with shredded vegetables, were a thin encasement of shredded cabbage with little else for substance or flavor.
Two quintessential Thai entrees, green curry and Phad Thai, were equally lackluster and underwhelming. The curry, typically compiled with tender Asian eggplant, arrived with one small adornment of the nightshade atop what was a bowl of saucy shredded chicken. The Phad Thai was as meager in its topping of crushed peanuts which amounted to the size of a dime, and had no requisite lime juice to use for flavor enhancement. In both instances, the complex aromatics that typically characterize Thai cuisine, along with discernibly fresh ingredients, fell short.
To make matters worse, service was at times inattentive and towards the end of the meal, rushed. No sooner had chopsticks landed before the plates were immediately whisked back to the kitchen and replaced with a bill for the meal. At an adjoining table, frustrated patrons resorted to leaving the table and speaking with the bartender directly when their server repeatedly misunderstood a drink order.
Given its complacency, Bangkok 54 is no longer the embodiment of stellar Thai food it once was. While it passes for mediocre ethnic fare, it leaves a lot to be desired for those seeking a truly authentic, inspired and rewarding South East Asian dining experience.
<As previously published by Molly Zemek on May 27, 2010 in the Arlington Food Examiner.>