Last month, chef Andrew LaPorta of Dupont Circle lobster destination Pesce rebranded his short-lived seafood pop-up in Capitol Hill as Phing Tham. Now a permanent venue, the restaurant sells charcoal-grilled meats, salads, and “unapologetically spicy” curries that the self-described “diplo-brat” grew up eating in Southeast Asia.
LaPorta was born in Malaysia and spent a good amount of his life traipsing across Indonesia and Thailand. His wife is from Laos and makes all the base for all the curries at Phing Tham “because I am not going to make it as well as she does.”
The mix-and-match menu at Phing Tham (317 Seventh Street SE) intentionally jumps across cuisines (Lao, Thai, Vietnamese) and price points, with grilled dishes and vegetables ranging from $8-$21. For example, octopus served with a honey-chile glaze takes well to the flames. LaPorta is making his own Chinese sausage to go with the clams.
“You go to Asia and people are cooking on a wide and long grill filled with charcoal,” LaPorta says. “That is exactly what we cook on here, set up on the table.”
“Phing” refers to the traditional grilling method. “Tham” is the tonal sound of salads mixed with a mortar with pestle. “We are presenting both in their most basic and delicious forms,” a chalkboard sign outside proclaims.
The chef serves halibut cheek at Phing Tham, a rave order he started getting in about a month ago, at both Pesce and Phing Tham. At the latter the fish gets paired with thin mango spears. At the former, it comes with New Zealand cockles and a bean and basil sauce.
Jumbo Madagascar shrimp — a rare find in D.C. — gets simply cooked with chili, garlic, and fish sauce. That trio also has a featured role across much of the menu.
“Fish is just like Southeast Asian food — it’s about the simplicity and quality of ingredients,” he says. “If you get those two things right then it’s really hard to screw it up.”
LaPorta’s Pesce pop-up opened in February but shut down by late summer in the space above Bullfrog Bagels. LaPorta is friends with bagel shop owner Jeremiah Cohen, who lets him takeover the cozy 36-seat upstairs space and patio five nights a week, from Wednesday to Sunday.
“My original theory was I brought a little of Pesce up on the Hill. I had miscalculations in terms of the audience and price points,” LaPorta says, noting Capitol Hill is missing Dupont’s hotel crowd. “I think that people weren’t so interested in sitting down to an $18 appetizer and then a $36 entree.”
LaPorta, an alum of 1789, Filomena, and Palena, bought Pesce three years ago. He closed the deal with Régine Palladin, the widow of Jean Louis-Palladin. The revered French chef who co-founded the fish house 28 years ago. Opening an affordable Southeast Asian eatery was an idea LaPorta has had on the back burner for years.
He plans to expand the food menu at Phing Tham if the restaurant catches on.
Drinks include palate-cooling cocktails ($10) from mixologist Sarah White. One example, a Southwest x Southwest, blends kaffir lime, coconut, and whiskey. There’s also a sweet-and-spicy lychee margarita. An $8 combo of a Narragansett beer and a whiskey shot is intended to appeal to Hill interns.