Yes, that’s their real name
Rabieng Thong? What’s in a name, anyway? I can recall my school years like they were yesterday, and I don’t think I had a single teacher who ever pronounced my last name correctly without a linguistic tutorial beforehand. I got some pretty festive variations like “Whirlitz,” “Whoo-letz” and my personal fave, “Whore-letz.” It’s Wohletz (Wall-letz), dammit. So I know how the cats at Rabieng Thong feel. It’s hard to have name recognition when people keep jacking it up.
The idea of both Thai and Japanese food under the same roof was well beyond intriguing, so there I went, to the space formerly occupied by the Queen of Sushi Pattaya Thai. I adored the interior from the jump. It was ornate, eclectic and wildly colorful, with so many cool things to look at like statuettes, tapestries and a huge glass case filled with imported porcelain pretties. The tables were carved wood with glass tops, and there was plenty of neat swirly track lighting. There were even beaded curtains and hanging lights in little cages over the modest sushi bar. I was getting some good sensory foreplay here, so I was raring to eat.
The service was excellent from the beginning when I immediately received a delicious little cucumber salad. Appetite whetting in the finest way, the mixture of intricately carved cukes, seaweed and shreds of crab was soaked in a sauce of vinegar, sugar and chiles (with a barely detectable hint of fish sauce) that I’ve tried to duplicate many times at home, but have never been able to get exactly right.
I had to try the sushi. Deviating from my usuals in favor of the specials, I ordered the spicy scallop roll ($5.50) and the arikato roll ($8.95). The scallop roll slices were a testament to how delicious sushi can be when the chef is good at his job. Plump little scallops were bathed in a creamy, spicy, savory sauce that left a beautiful warmth in their wake. The arikato was rather large and crammed with crispy shrimp tempura, spicy-as-hell tuna, avocado, cucumber and a brown unagi sauce that I’d gladly paint my face with, given the opportunity and a paintbrush. No wasabi was necessary for these bad boys—they were hot enough on their own merit. After so many years of watching diners scrape the green paste across their delicate dinner like peanut butter on toast, I was glad to see people enjoying their tidbits as is.
The dinner menu was daunting. I did my best to make it through page after page of exotic offerings, but I finally opted for an old trick and cut to the house specials. I found several choices that were hard to turn away, like the nok tod kra tiem ($15.95), marinated quail, deep-fried with garlic and special sauce; the pla muck tod ($9.95), squid fried in fresh Thai garlic and white pepper; and the gang phed ped yang ($9.95), duck roasted in coconut milk and red curry. I chose the gob pad kra pao ($15.95), or frog legs stir-fried in fresh chiles, garlic and basil.
These froggy femurs were Buster Poindexter hot, and fat with meat. I tore into them like a bucket of chicken wings, rudely ignoring the rice. I even discovered a succulent, salty brown sauce toward the bottom of the pile of legs, peppers and onions. There are a lot of frogs on crutches out there thanks to my supper, and I am sleeping fine at night.
My only rip with the restaurant was the temperature—with all that searing fare they should really crank up the swamp cooler. I was just as sweaty walking out as I was walking in. (Though, the big menu did make for a good makeshift fanning device, and my ice water was refilled quite a few times.)
On the way out I had a chance to rap with owner and chef Sam (formerly of Azuma), and we joked about the hot stuff. He told me that the Journal recently did a review of his new establishment in which they’d complained about how spicy everything was. Wussies.
“This is New Mexico,” he chuckled.
I had to ask him about the name. He told me that Rabieng Thong actually means “golden terrace,” and that it isn’t pronounced “thong,” but rather “tong.”
“You know people are gonna just call it thong, right?” I said.
He nodded. He gets it.