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Union Market Gets a Super Spicy Thai Stall From the Lucky Buns Chef

Som Tam opens with Isaan papaya salads and khao soi

Khao soi at Som Tam.
Khao soi at Som Tam.
Tierney Plumb/Eater DC

The latest new stall to appear inside Union Market warms up visitors in the dead of winter with Northeastern Thai curry soups and fiery papaya salads. Som Tam opened this morning in the Northeast food hall, giving owner Alex McCoy (Lucky Buns, Alfie’s) an Isaan place again.

A chalkboard menu describes orders of pounded salads — heavy on green papaya, fish sauce, lime, and chiles — and khao soi made with egg noodles ($10-$15). Thai natives Lekki Limvatana and Satang Ruangsangwanata oversee the new stall, which is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The pair was most recently cooking at the Fat Nomads Supper Club.

McCoy says spice levels run high, because that’s “the way it’s supposed to be made,” and the chefs will hold back upon request.

“But the idea is we are making it the right way, and if you don’t like that, then maybe it’s not for you,” he says.

Thai natives Lekki Limvatana and Satang Ruangsangwanata oversee Alex McCoy’s new stall.
Tierney Plumb/Eater DC

The last piece missing from the stall is ice-cold beer to help beat the heat, but McCoy says he’s close to obtaining a liquor license, so Thai beers like Tiger brand are coming soon.

McCoy has hosted late-night noodle pop-ups at Lucky Buns in Adams Morgan, and Som Tam marks his first major comeback to the Southeast Asian cuisine since his popular pop-up Alfie’s closed in Park View in 2016.

For his window-facing setup near La Jambe, lined with wicker chairs and dangling woven lanterns, “we are using things you don’t usually find in Thai restaurants” stateside, he says.

Fragrant cardamom pods and Indian curry powder help build bowls. Even bottles of Golden Mountain distilled vinegar get imported from Thailand. Delicacies like whelks (sea snails) and salted crab augment a heaping “jungle” papaya salad. McCoy, who travels to Thailand every year, says the proper way to enjoy salted crab is to pick it up and suck meat out of the hard shells.

A heaping “jungle style” salad incorporates rice noodles, cucumber, dried shrimp, fermented fish sauce, crab paste, bamboo, dried chiles, long beans, and whelks.
A heaping “jungle style” salad incorporates rice noodles, cucumber, dried shrimp, fermented fish sauce, crab paste, bamboo, dried chiles, long beans, and whelks.
Tierney Plumb/Eater DC

He eventually plans to to prepare more lessons for uninitiated diners as part of a five-seat tasting menu with limited reservations.

“That is something really lost at a lot of places — here is the food, with no explanation,” he says.

While he says it’s common in Thailand for individual stalls to be dedicated to the art of just noodles or salads, Som Tam is supposed to showcase a strong cross section.

“They really dive into the nuances of each dish,” he says. “We want to show people differences in the regional Thai cuisines.”

Som Tom’s add-ins section of salted duck eggs, salted crab, canned mackerel, and fried pork skins honor Thai stalls that are dedicated to snacks. All of those ingredients can be thrown into any dish, or served solo.

McCoy hopes diners will be able to identify food from different regions in the same way people spot the differences between styles of Americans barbecue.

Across the market, a previously announced Lucky Buns stall is about two weeks away from opening, he says. McCoy still plans to open a standalone Som Tam inside a former ATM vestibule in NoMa this spring.

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