Halibut Cheek // Photos: Lanna Nguyen

Southeast Asian Cuisine Meets Southeast DC At Phing Tham

After quietly opening in late fall, Chef Andrew LaPorta’s Pesce Too pop up restaurant has transformed into a permanent space for his love letter to Southeast Asian cooking: Phing Tham.   

Instead of focusing on a specific country for his latest endeavor, the cozy second floor restaurant (located in Bullfrog Bagels’ upper level) celebrates the entire region and at its best with fresh ingredients and simple preparation.

Drawing from his time spent living and working in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia, the dinner menu is split into two main sections reflective of the concept’s name: Phing and Tham. The former is a nod to traditional cooking methods using a charcoal grill, and features a range of seafood and other proteins prepared accordingly. The latter refers to the sounds made from salads as they’re prepared with a mortar and pestle. 

Menu highlights include halibut cheek with pigeon pepper and garlic; glazed spare Ribs made with black bean, a chili rub and an Instagram-worthy Giant Prawn with garlic and shrimp oil. Grilled octopus is pulled from one of Pesce’s list of fan favorites, but prepared with a honey chili glaze instead of the polenta and cherry tomatoes that it’s currently served with at the Dupont Circle seafood destination. 

Steamed clams with Chinese sausage

Guests can pair their proteins with flavorful, punchy salads and vegetables including mango mixed with brown sugar and chili; green papaya with tomatoes and cilantro; and long beans prepared with chili, garlic and tomatoes. The à la carte options of these smaller plates allow guests to pick and choose a variety of dishes to taste their way through the menu.

The bottom third of the menu features a shortlist of larger, shareable selections. Here, LaPorta has added a rotating curry of the week – the base of all curries are made by his wife, who is from Laos. Expect to find staples like mee ka tee with pork, egg, shredded cabbage, long beans and bean sprouts over rice noodles on the revolving list of curries (plans for a fish head green curry are in the works). Whole grilled fish served with bones in tact and a platter of lettuce, herbs and accoutrements to make lettuce wraps is a hands-on dining experience. Rounding out the Table Plates is a large format dish of steamed clams with Chinese sausage in a ginger broth served with sticky rice. LaPorta makes the Chinese sausage himself and plans to add more varieties down the road. 

A rainbow of house-made sauces neatly arranged on a tray accompany all dishes – the greens, yellows and reds of chilies, fish sauce and soy act as spice augmenters. Although most dishes LaPorta sends out of the kitchen are “unapologetically spicy,” guests can dial up the heat level with everything from Sambal Olek to a condiment simply named “Green Sauce,” which combines layers of flavors from roasted green chili, Datu Puti, and soy. These spicy sidekicks are a familiar sight and nostalgic in a sense. One in particular has been dubbed by LaPorta as “SE Asian Mother Sauce” and is a staple in many Asian households – a combination of fish sauce, garlic and red chili. 

To help balance the heat from the menu, bar director Sarah White has devised a cocktail list to complement LaPorta’s dishes while cooling off diners. The Smooth Operator with gin, cucumber, ginger, aloe, lemon and bubbles is one such libation. A cocktail titled Southeast x Southeast mixes whiskey, coconut, kaffir lime, lemongrass and bitters to create an almost broth-like beverage and doubles as a dessert drink. A cheeky menu addition, The OG Truly, pokes fun at the recent millennial trend – and is in essence, a vodka cranberry.

Southeast x Southeast

Part of LaPorta’s mission with Phing Tham is to showcase traditional Southeast Asian cooking styles, incorporating spice but not for the sake of spice by presenting quality ingredients and letting them speak for themselves. He’s making dishes authentically flavorful without overthinking and adding too much, something he’s noticed in other restaurants of similar fare around DC. His goal is to remain true to the essence of what makes this type of cuisine shine: simplicity. 

Phing Tham is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Bar opens at 4:30 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, visit here.

Phing Tham: 317 7th St. SE, DC; 240-855-8178; www.pescetoo.com