First Look & Taste Test: Soi 38
farrah skeiky | Apr 21, 2014 | 11:00AM |

Words and photos by Farrah Skeiky

JP Caceres works speedily but more delicately than one realizes behind the bar at Soi 38. It’s generally how he works everywhere– he’s a flurry of activity, involved in every step of a drink’s life from the crafting of bitters and syrups to the carefully crafted ice that makes or break the beverage. If you look away for too long, you’ll miss a step– but he’s happy to tell you what’s going on in his brain and how that translates into what’s in your glass. Excited, even. Careces has tapped into Thai drinking traditions both well known and obscure, and is eager to educate each guest that graces this bar.

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The gorgeous space brought to us by Nat Ongsangkoon & Dia Khanthongthip houses Thai street food inspired by Bangkok’s night markets. For many, street food is comfort food, and it’s the most authentic and straightforward manner of communicating a country’s culinary story. With 4,000 square feet, Soi 38 juxtaposes a bright main dining floor of soft gold and wooded hues amplified by mirrors against an elegant bar with a permanent nighttime ambience. The range of art is impressive: murals of elephants and dragons continue across the length of the ceiling connecting both sides of the room, and light fixtures range from refined to modern. The bar is backlit by a giant dragon’s eye that illuminates a counter painted with gold patterns. In short, Design Republica’s architects captured multiple attitudes of Thai nightlife in one space quite successfully indeed.

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At Soi 38, your Tamarind Whiskey Punch isn’t served in a pitcher; instead it’s shared by the table by way of one of many delicately patterned teapots. If you’re not one for sharing, one of Caceres’ bottled cocktails might be right for you. You can choose from the Zen Dragon, the Thai Manhattan, and Pretty Little Lime. The adorable bottles are taken one step further when poured, and presented with a carefully selected ice cube that best suits the drink inside. Ice is so crucial to Caceres that he’s established an ice program essential to the successful serving of his cocktails.

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We’ve got to balance out all these drinks with something, so let’s get back to food. There’s a fantastic balance of fried street fare and classics turned casual, all thoughtfully composed by chef Mitchai Pankham. The fried chicken is quartered and served with sweet and spicy sauces housed in bottles identical to those of the cocktails, which allows diners to decide how best they’d enjoy their meal. The seafood medley is divine, but what steals the show here is the spicy, smoky sauce its cooked in. Flame-grilled Chinese broccoli compliments the spicy pork belly its served with, and fried lamb bites pair beautifully with cabbage and snow peas.

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Spice is everywhere in Soi 38, but it’s an essential pillar of the experience, not a nuisance. The nuanced flavors put to bed any ideas of spice simply as heat. We see this in the Thai chili bitters present in some of the cocktails, and in the separately served sauces that create a personalized fried chicken experience. It ties together the two attitudes of the two dining areas, it ties the drinks to the food, and it ties the restaurant to an expanding neighborhood that, frankly, is in desperate need of some spice.

Soi 38 is located at 2102 L St. NW, and opens soon. Look for updates on their facebook page.

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