Food & Drink

Review: The Dara Brings Excellent Thai Food to Fells Point

The restaurant in the old Red Star space kept much of the pub’s cozy interior, but the menu—from a Bangkok-born chef—is a far cry from pizza and wings.
Digging into the khao soi. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

Walk down the cobblestones on Wolfe Street, under a sign of a red star and into The Dara, and you’ll find yourself in what feels like a lofty cabin, with high ceilings, exposed beams and bricks, a wood stove near the door, and a wood-and-mirror bar extending down one side of the restaurant. There’s dim lighting and bottles gleaming invitingly. Yet, you’re not in a country inn or an unusually tasteful gastropub but, happily, in a Thai restaurant in the heart of Fells Point.

The Dara opened last October in the old Red Star space—“dara” means star in Thai, Lao, and Khmer—keeping much of the pub’s cozy interior, as well as the star sign outside.

It may look like a pub, but what’s on the menu is a far cry from pizza, chicken wings, and mozzarella sticks. Instead, The Dara brings excellent Thai food from a Bangkok chef to a neighborhood of bars and Italian joints, a welcome addition not only to Fells Point but to a city with not nearly enough Thai food, especially after the sudden closing of Thai Restaurant in Waverly, which shuttered in January after more than 40 years, though the owners recently announced relocation plans.

The Dara is the first restaurant from co-owner-chef Putthipat “Jeff” Wannapithipat, who was born and raised in Bangkok, where he also earned a hospitality degree. After graduating, he worked in hotels and cruise ships, then came to the U.S., where he cooked in Las Vegas Thai restaurants, ultimately landing in Baltimore and cooking at Bodhi Corner and Thai Street in the Broadway Market, just a few blocks from The Dara.

The Dara chef Jeff Wannapithipat.
Curry noodle soup.

There are many of the expected dishes on the menu—pad Thai, drunken noodles, pad si eew (stir-fried noodles)—and a few that are distinctly Baltimore-friendly, like a crab fried rice; the gaeng ga-ti pu, a curry made with jumbo lump crab; and a soft-shell crab dish with mango, toasted rice, and lime.

But there are also offerings that trace to Wannapithipat’s hometown of Bangkok (“the capital of street food,” he says), such as shaw muang, a dish of chicken and preserved radish dumplings; and a gorgeous bowl of seafood tom yum soup, a lemongrass-doused seafood still life. The curries—massaman, panang, and a spicier green curry—are wonders, each with a distinctive flavor profile, torqued with chiles and the makrut lime leaves Wannapithipat imports from Thailand. The bowls are garnished with fresh herbs and marked with coconut milk like latte art, further distinguishing dishes that are often unremarkable in less capable hands.

Dishes like the Hatyai fried chicken are paired not with the standard jasmine rice but a careful mound of butterfly pea flower rice, flavored and tinged a lovely blue by dehydrated pea flower powder, also from Thailand. In other words, these are traditional dishes that hungry diners wandering along the Fells wharf will recognize and comfort in, yet they far exceed expectations, even of those folks who are familiar with the regional dishes.

Hatyai fried chicken with butterfly pea flower rice.

And maybe best of all—better even than the duck larb, the curry with crispy pork belly, and the rib-eye jim jaew—there is an exemplary version of khao soi, the Northern Thai yellow curry-coconut noodle soup. Khao soi is often difficult to find (perhaps unsurprisingly, Thai Street serves possibly the only other khao soi dish in town), likely because it requires so many different components, but it is furiously addictive once discovered.

Made with egg noodles, fermented greens, a second batch of crispy noodles, and a whole chicken leg, the dish is spicy, thick, rich, and deeply soothing. The Dara’s version is deftly spiced, strewn with crunchy noodles, and loaded with a chicken drumstick, crispy shallots, and slices of lime. The dish is so thick that you can stand that drumstick vertically in the bowl while you twirl up the curry-doused noodles. Try it, if only to plant a flag and mark the dish as your own, as you will not want to share.

The cocktails made behind that impressively long bar are as inventive as the food, a half-dozen concoctions showcasing ingredients like house jasmine and tamarind syrups, Thai tea, mango foam, and an abundance of lime. As befits a former pub, the place also has a long beer and wine list, with local beers, Singha (of course), and non-alcoholic drinks that feature that pretty butterfly pea flower.

The Jupiter in Taurus cocktail.

Long before the Wolfe Street building began turning out bowls of curry and crab fried rice, before it was a gastropub, it was a restaurant and meeting place—and apparently a brothel—for sailors, built in 1873. It was called “The Red Star,” according to a plaque on The Dara’s second floor banquet room, because women would paint red stars on the sidewalks to guide sailors needing solace to their doors, as the red lights that were the more customary marker were prohibited.

So here we are in 2024, sidling up to the bar to order a Jasmine Gold Rush (bourbon, jasmine syrup, honey, lime, bitters) and a crab curry, the red star still outside to mark a place to find some of the most exquisite (and legal) comfort available these days on the Fells Point waterfront.

The Scoop

THE DARA: 906 S. Wolfe St., Fells Point, 443-438-6311. HOURS: Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $11-16; noodles, rice bowls, and entrées: $16-35; desserts: $7-9. AMBIANCE: Cozy wood-cabin chic.