Burapa Thai, Clarendon, VA

Burapa Thai is an established, local mini-chain that has its original location in Lansdowne, and recently opened an outpost in Clarendon.

In February, I went to Sabai Sabai Simply Thai in Germantown, and proclaimed it the best Thai meal I’d had in a long, long time; then, a second visit the next week proved to be the exact opposite – so I had one great meal, and one poor meal.

Ignore the printed beer list at Burapa Thai and go for one of the Echigos (from Japan) they offer. During happy hour (from 4-8 PM), they’re half-price and only $4 each – the white-label Koshihikari is 17 ounces and tastes like a dilute lager (bypass it); much better is the red-label Red Ale; better still is the magnificent black-label Stout. Even if you think you don’t like Stouts, you owe it to yourself to try this (at both Kushi and Sushi Taro, this beer is substantially more expensive).

Burapa Thai is Thai-owned, but has two distinct menus, each in their own holder: one Thai, and the other Japanese. Although I haven’t tried any of the Japanese offerings, the “heart and soul” of this restaurant seems to be squarely in Thailand.

Burapa Tuna ($8) with tuna, galanga, lemon grass, lime leaves, and onions mixed with lime dressing served in white corn cups sounds extraordinarily complex, but it’s really just a plate of seven canape-sized bites which are meant to be picked up with your hands. The tuna seemed canned although the filling of the corn cups (which taste like Fritos) is busy enough where it’s difficult to be sure, and even if that’s the case, it was a pretty tasty appetizer that’s worth ordering once, but perhaps not twice.

Burapa’s menu touts the Lava Catfish ($15) enough so that I was tempted into ordering it, and I’m glad I did because it absolutely blew me away. Sauteed with chili paste and topped with crispy basil. This catfish was in chunks, and was fresh, firm, and so good that I was ready to rush back home and urge everyone here to run – not walk – and get this magnificent dish which was one of the greatest catfish presentations I’ve had.

Instead, I came back the next week to check the consistency of the cooking (and also to enjoy that fantastic catfish again).

The Burapa Tuna didn’t merit a repeat, so instead I got the Som Tum ($8) which is the classic papaya salad. Burapa Thai has three different levels of “heat” on their menu which can be applied to pretty much any dish: “American Hot,” “Thai Hot,” and the embarrassingly stupid “John Hot” (Asian humor at its worst!)

On my first visit, I didn’t specify any heat levels, and my dishes were zesty, but not particularly hot. This time around, I ordered my food “Thai Hot,” and as I sat there and sipped my Echigo, I overheard one patron behind me call my (very nice, very sweet) bartender over. I’m not sure what the gentleman ordered, but the conversation went something like this:

‘I ordered this “Thai Hot,” and I’m really, really surprised at just how hot it is.’

The bartender offered to replace the dish, and the patron said, ‘No, I’m not complaining; just making a comment. This is really hot.’

I took note of the comment, but didn’t know whether this person was just over-sensitive to heat, or what. Then, a young couple on my left had ordered Drunken Noodles, also Thai Hot, and the gentleman said to the bartender, “I can’t eat this dish it’s so hot.” Again, she offered to replace it, and he said no, that he’d be happy to pay for it, but he couldn’t eat it. (She ended up taking it off his check, and he was genuinely appreciative).

Then my papaya salad arrived. I took one bite, and it was as if someone had shot boric acid into my mouth through a fire hose. Unlike Indian food which has yogurt to ease the pain, there is nothing to reach for when a thin, fiery Thai dish scorches you. I went for the ice cubes which only made it worse, then kept looking around … there was no relief to be found. I ate about half the papaya salad, with my mouth absolutely on fire, lips feeling as if they had cracked and were bleeding, and could eat no more. This was probably the hottest dish I’ve tasted in a few years.

I asked my bartender to change my Lava Catfish ($15) from Thai Hot to American Hot, and she said she would (it showed up on the bill as “Thai Hot,” so I can’t be sure what it was). It was much spicier than the first time I had it, but not only that, it was also much, much worse. The catfish was soggy and mushy, the spicing coarse, gutteral, and unevenly applied, and the dish as a whole was poorly assembled and cooked. This food was not just hotter; it was also just plain bad – a perfect example that you can’t mask quality with excessive spicing.

So, like Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, I had one great meal, and one awful meal, and there were clearly two different cooks in the kitchen on the nights I went. I can assure you that you might have great cooking if you come here, but I can also assure you that you might not.

If only life was simple, sigh.

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