Unlock magnitudes of Thai food rapture heretofore unknown to Phoenix at this new couple-operated restaurant on Roosevelt Row.
Prior to visiting, I had a sneaking suspicion I was going to like Lom Wong, a new Thai restaurant housed in the handsome space formerly occupied by Character in Roosevelt Row.
But I didn’t like it. I thoroughly, unabashedly loved it.
Although I’d read glowing reports about Alex and Yotaka “Sunny” Martin and the brilliant Thai food they’ve been preparing for friends and fellow foodies at their pop-up-style dinner parties since 2019, nothing prepared me for the actual experience, a revelatory feast of the senses that further confirms what Glai Baan suggested to us upon its opening in 2017: Thai cuisine is far richer and more diverse than the same 40 items we’ve been eating here in Phoenix since the first Thai restaurants started popping up in the 1980s.
You might say the Martins are self-appointed ambassadors for Thai foodways, woke apostles who win hearts and minds via the stomach. Many of their recipes have been culled from family members and friends in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, where Sunny grew up. A few come from members of the Moklen community, a small indigenous group of seafaring people from Southern Thailand who shared their knowledge with Sunny and Alex. Photos of them hang on the restaurant’s walls. Everyone is recognized and honored here.
Like most everything else at Lom Wong, outstanding cocktails are a collaborative effort, but the bartender,
Nuthapong “Thunder” Vance, is credited for the most sophisticated piña colada I’ve ever sipped – enhanced, like a few of the groundbreaking cocktails at Glai Baan, with a whisper of fish sauce for a complex, savory quality that sets it apart.
The helter-skelter menu is uncategorized, and descriptions are filled with ingredients you’ll need your phone to look up, but who cares when every dish is so incredibly good? A handful of them exude an appetizer vibe, so if you like to eat in a linear Western way, consider starting with Gai Tawt Won Pen – fried chicken from Alex’s honorary Thai grandmother Won Pen. Six plump drumettes, marinated in herbs and spices, are fried to deep brown crunchiness and sided with nam jim gai, the sweet, spicy Thai red chile sauce you surely already know. This dish could easily make a “best fried chicken” list.
Sai ua, the classic grilled sausage dish from Northern Thailand, studded with pork fat, herbs and lemongrass, is cut in slices and sided with cucumber and strips of fresh ginger for crunchy contrast. Tasting of smoke and spice, this is another terrific snack, offering up the faintest hit of sweetness.
Jin tup is another specialty of Northern Thailand, a region in which pork and beef figure prominently. It’s flank steak, marinated in fish sauce for 24 hours, grilled over special Thai charcoal, then pounded with a mallet until the beef is shredded to something akin to light, feathery beef jerky. Served with a cellophaned packet of sticky rice, it’s rich, salty and completely addictive. Next time, I’m having it with a beer.
Kaeng Phet Charinda, based on Sunny’s mother’s recipe for Thai red curry, is astonishingly light and brothy, the bowl afloat with beef, Thai eggplant and fresh basil. It’s nothing like typical pasty curries for two simple reasons: Sunny and crew hand-pound the Thai red chiles to make their curry paste rather than use something from a jar, and they squeeze their own coconut milk, no cans required. You can see and taste the difference.
I keep thinking, “OK, this dish will be the highlight,” and then out comes something else completely wonderful – in this case, a green mango salad with hand-torn shrimp (the recipe from Sunny’s grandmother) called Yam Mamuang Boran. Tangy with makrut lime and crunchy with fried shallots, peanuts and toasted coconut, it’s cold, sweet and lusciously milky with coconut cream, the salad I’ll want all summer long.
Steamed squid with squid eggs, chile, lime and garlic (chu bai neung boo wak now) arrives buried in a flurry of cilantro. Light and bright, it’s a zippy Moklen dish that everybody at the table loves. Richer and just as wonderful is kaeng hang lay, a Northern Thai curry composed of fatty pork belly, tamarind, garlic, ginger and toasted peanuts in a salty, soy-based broth.
Dessert isn’t the usual mango with sticky rice. One night, two versions of crème brûlée are available – one tinted pink with hibiscus-like roselle, the other perfumed with coconut and lemongrass. The second visit brings a Thai ice cream sandwich from the streets of Bangkok – coconut ice cream and coconut sticky rice sandwiched between two slices of white bread and sprinkled with roasted peanuts. Crazy, but crazy-good.
I’m nuts about Lom Wong, and I’m guessing you will be, too. The Martins’ light, herbaceous food – slightly less spicy but plenty savory – offers a compelling education in Thai culture and culinary traditions, and I can’t think of a more effective way to do it.
Contact: 218 E. Portland St., Phoenix, 360-622-9738, lomwongaz.com
Hours: W-Th 5-10 p.m., F-Sa 5-11 p.m., Su 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Highlights: Kaeng Phet Charinda (red curry with beef, $28); kaeng hang lay (red curry with pork belly, $22); jin tup (charcoal-grilled beef, $19); Yam Mamuang Boran (green mango salad with shrimp, $15); Gai Tawt Won Pen (Thai fried chicken, $15), sai ua (Thai sausage, $20).