by Sophia Hsu
Tucked away on Avenue A among all of the new Asian restaurants that seem to have sprung up (or rebranded) within the last year is Somtum Der, a second location of the well-loved Isan establishment in Bangkok. Supanee Kitmahawong, one of the masterminds behind the local Thai restaurant chain Spice among many others, spent an afternoon discussing with Asian Fusion what makes this Northern Thai cuisine so special to the Thai people, the heart and soul that was poured into this location, and why she chose now to debut authentic Isan cuisine.
As you walk in, a collection of shiny glass jars catches your eye. Each massive jar full of brightly colored and diverse ingredients such as dried chili peppers and peanuts that can be added to that well-known Thai green papaya salad called somtum, fitting for a restaurant named after this Thai national dish. Every inch of the restaurant, from the bamboo fishing net lampshades to the Bangkok DJ-mixed background music, from the ample communal tables, to hand-picked local ingredients for the menu, Ms. Kitmahawong and her Somtum Der Bangkok partner Mr. Thanaruek Laoraowirodge made sure that every detail got plenty of attention.
Why open a second location in New York? Supanee explained it this way. Where most restaurants start in New York, or at least in the United States, and spread to other metropolises around the world, she wanted a little bit of home here in New York, her adopted home. After discussing the venture with her friend and owner of Somtum Der Bangkok, they agreed that New Yorkers were ready for something more authentic; we were craving something different from all of the red, yellow, and green curries saturating NYC’s Thai cuisine scene.
Isan cuisine is something many Thai crave at least once a week. The elements of Isan cuisine are predominantly Lao influenced. Sticky rice, or also known as glutinous rice, is served with every meal instead of the long grain jasmine rice common to Thai restaurants. Grilled meats are favored over curries, and the flavors tend towards more fire and lime.
When I asked Supanee for just two or three dishes that were signature dishes but perhaps received a little less press, we ended up with a table full of beautifully crafted dishes that tickled our noses and made our mouths water. Unique dishes such as savory sticky rice grilled Der-style on a bamboo skewer and a traditional grilled pork salad known as larb unconventionally stuffed into a crispy spring roll were two favorites among the dishes. The crispy fried chicken thigh was an amazing revelation in what a little brining and the right balance of batter can do. Of course, the namesake dish somtum, prepared with a flavorful mackerel, really caught our attention. All of these dishes covered all of the parts of the tongue, salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and yes, even umami. When paired with a Thai beer, a roselle or chrysanthemum drink, or one of the imaginative cocktails from the full bar like the Mekhong punch, a rum punch made with Thailand’s famous Mekhong rum, or a Thai tea-tini, you get a full experience. And for those whose tongues may still be a little singed from the entrees, cool off with a snow ice with syrup or my favorite, the Thai tea panna cotta.
Visit http://somtumder.com for more information and to browse their full color photo menu.