The odds weren't in restaurateur David Chouang's favor on June 3, 2005, when lightning hit the Bangkok Pavilion restaurant in the Windmill Square Shopping Center and set fire to the roof, which crashed into the restaurant's interior.
Bangkok Pavilion had grown a bit shabby over the past two decades and had definitely needed a makeover, but this act of God required a hell of a lot more. Chouang had to rebuild the venue nearly from the ground up, which took 18 months, a lot of money and a ribbon of red tape. But last November, Chouang opened a new set of doors, having moved the main entrance slightly to the south, where windows once looked out onto two parking lots.
Chouang bought Bangkok Pavilion in 1992 from its original owners and has built a loyal following, even as his competition more than quadrupled around town. Chouang's place has a shaky claim to being the metro's first Thai restaurant. It may indeed have been the first to serve Thai fare exclusively, but the old Willy Restaurant at 15th Street and Grand served both Thai and Chinese dishes long before Bangkok Pavilion opened in the suburbs. (The former Willy has now gone strictly Siamese, at a joint called Thai Paradise.)
Bangkok Pavilion does have one undisputed claim to local history. Back in the 1980s, this business launched the career of Ann Liberda, who started as a waitress and then left to create her own mini-empire of Thai Place operations. Her success certainly eclipsed that of her former employer with each opening of another new Thai Place, the Bangkok Pavilion seemed a little more dated and dowdy.
The new Bangkok Pavilion is significantly brighter than its predecessor, with pale-gray floor tiles, creamy yellow walls and blue laminated tabletops. One corner has been set aside for the buffet tables, the opposite side for a tiny bar with a TV mounted on the wall.
"It has all the charm of a Perkins," my friend Carol Ann said as we sat down for our first dinner in the rebuilt restaurant.
Well, there is an institutional sparseness to the décor, relieved only by a smattering of silk ferns here and there. Chouang apparently saved all his flair for the menu, which lists among its dishes "Kiss Me" (pork, chicken or beef sautéed in garlic and sherry) and "Lovely Sweet Honey Bunch" (shrimp slathered in sweet-and-sour sauce).
We ordered Shrimp in a Blanket for a starter simply because the menu promised a "rich and tangy flavor you'll long to remember and order again and again." A better name for this appetizer might be Mummified Shrimp. The crustaceans are tightly bound in a wonton wrapper and deep-fried until the outside looks like ancient papyrus. The crunchy shrimp might have been tastier if the frying oil hadn't been a shade on the antique side itself.
"I'm not sure I want to order this again and again," Carol Ann said as she dipped a crackly crustacean into a bowl of sweet chili sauce.
For dinner, she contemplated ordering the chicken version of Kiss Me because, she confessed, "I don't get to use those words a lot lately."