Issue: April 2006
Orient Express

Exotic Mai Thai restaurant on the Alexandria waterfront was as delicious as it was convenient.


     Paul and I have come to savor Thai cooking. The delicate spices and sauces add zest to just about anything, and the curry can be hot enough to curl your tongue. We were delighted, then, when we spied Mai Thai at the foot of King Street in Alexandria. “But wait,” Paul cautioned. “This is in such a great location it doesn’t have to be good to attract customers.” We decided we’d keep exploring the cobblestoned streets of Old Town before finally settling on a place to eat. That’s when we ran into Kenyon Hiser. He was loading his car, which sported a nautical bumper sticker, and we had started chatting. “My wife and I go for Thai food,” he told us, when we asked him where the locals dine. “When we cruise we take carry-out from the Thai Old Town Restaurant [at 300 King Street], but when we want something special, we go to Mai Thai.” So, there it was: a recommendation. “They’ve got killer specialty drinks,” he added. “The kind with umbrellas.”

     It was a Sunday afternoon just before Christmas and there were plenty of holiday shoppers, but Mai Thai’s hostess seated us right away. (In summer, she said, we’d need reservations.) We ordered up a Malibu Monsoon (rum and triple sec) and a Thai Tiger (ginger and vodka) and seriously perused the menu. Good thing, too. By the time we’d finished our drinks, we couldn’t have seriously perused anything. I had a paper umbrella twined in my hair, and Paul was telling me about the time he’d gone snorkeling with a bevy of Japanese co-eds but didn’t see any fish. Hmmm.

     The appetizers arrived in the nick of time. The shrimp salad with crispy coconut and grapefruit had been flagged with a one-pepper icon on the menu (three peppers would have been hottest). I’m a spice weenie, but I can generally tolerate entry-level hot, so I blithely sampled the dish. The “one-pepper” dressing hit my tongue like lava, so fire-eater Paul got to savor it on his own. I can’t imagine what a three-pepper appetizer might have done to my mouth. “Pleasingly spicy, without being overpowering,” is how Paul described it. I stuck with the soup: Tom Ka Gai, chicken steeped in coconut milk and lime juice, with lemongrass, galangal, mushroom and assorted spices. Altogether soothing (and sobering).

     The entrees looked and smelled wonderful, almost too good to eat. Paul had ordered Panang Gai-chicken with red-curry peanut sauce. It wasn’t the best, he said (he’s picky), but it was “solid good.” I had ordered the honey-ginger duck, and it was to die for (even Paul thought so). The duck was crisp and succulent, served with mushrooms, sprouts and scallions on a bed of steamed spinach. The ginger sauce made me want to lick my fingers (and I was using a fork). Portions were ample, but not overwhelming. We had plenty of room for dessert: banana wrapped in wonton and fried, served with coconut ice cream-like a crispy pie a la mode.

     The service was excellent; the setting was spartan but comfortable-a huge dragon hanging from the ceiling was the principle decor. The food was elegant and inspired, and it made a pleasant change from the crabcakes and seafood Paul and I generally look for when we coast into a waterfront restaurant. I forgot to take the umbrella out of my hair when we left, but that’s beside the point. 

     Mai Thai is located at the foot of King Street, by the Alexandria waterfront. Boaters can tie up at the Alexandria City Marina (703-838-4265) on a first-come-first-serve basis for a four-hour stay ($5) or overnight (reservations accepted; $1/ft plus $2 for water and electricity). The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Appetizers $4–$8; noodle and rice dishes $9–$12; entrees $11–$19; desserts $4–$5. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. 703-548-0600.