On a typical night at Esaan, co-owner Yutthpon “Tu” Wetchapinan will chat with guests who made the trip from D.C. to sample the fiery, fermented flavors at the Northeastern Thai restaurant in McLean. With a one-night pop-up next month in Shaw, Wetchapinan wants to save them the trip while getting a taste of what it’s like to conduct business in the District.
Wetchapinan and a crew of cooks will take over the kitchen at rooftop bar El Techo from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday, May 13, serving a six-item a la carte menu that will include moo nam tok — spicy strips of grilled pork shoulder seasoned with roasted rice powder — and a whole squid in lime and basil sauce that he says is a common street food in Bangkok.
Tiger Fork beverage director Ian Fletcher is also visiting for the night with a lineup of cocktails that incorporate Thai flavors with elements like lemongrass-infused vodka or cilantro and coconut cream. One drink, the Cha Munmea, will mimic a Thai iced tea by mixing barrel-aged gin, allspice dram, black tea, evaporated milk, and sugar.
That’s ironic because the mission of Esaan, which has drawn positive reviews since opening a little less than two years ago, is to veer away from Americanized Thai food; there’s no Thai iced tea, pad thai, or sticky rice and mango desserts on the menu. Instead, there is an “Anthaipasto” section of appetizers like fried mackerel with hot and sour sauce and a somtum bar with six varieties of hand-smashed salads.
Reservations for seatings of the “El Thai-cho” pop-up are available through El Techo’s online portal.
Wetchapinan, a Bangkok native who was a fashion photographer in Thailand before picking up bartending in the D.C. area, says he was drawn to the idea of giving Esaan a trial run in D.C. because of the growing recognition the restaurant has received from local media. The Washington Post gave it a positive review in 2017, and Washingtonian has included it on its top 100 for two years (No. 62 in 2019 and No. 77 in 2018).
He says there’s nothing like his restaurant’s food in D.C. or even New York, although Little Serow and Baan Thai might have a bone to pick with that.
“It’s all about the fresh ingredients,” Wetchapinan says. “We don’t do anything oily. We always put the fresh ingredients like mint, lemongrass, ginger, Kaffir lime, lime juice, lemon juice, and chile.”
Wetchapinan says he’s declined offers to expand in Virginia because he has his eyes set on D.C. He wants his next restaurant to focus on the type of food Thai people in different regions eat at home. For example, he listed sauteed bean sprouts with fried tofu or catfish with potent chile paste.
“I have a lot of ideas, you know? I’m waiting for the money,” he says.