It's Worth Getting Sloppy For This Grilled Cheese Taco
Rabid fans have followed Poncharee Kounpungchart and Wiley Frank from their humble beginnings as a pop-up restaurant inside Lark (where Frank worked at the time) to a take-out window, then a giant underground spot in Pioneer Square. Now, finally, they seem to have found the perfect home for their curry pastes from scratch (also available to purchase and take home), top-notch noodles (try the khao soi, where both boiled and fried noodles swim in coconut milk), and house-made sodas (hibiscus-lime, anyone?).
With six different kinds of papaya salad and only two straightforward curries on the menu, Thaiku is far from your average Thai joint. When everyone else tried to please the crowds -- offering a rainbow of curries and a choose-your-own-adventure menu of meats -- Thaiku took advantage of the dearth of places serving great, cold Thai appetizers, salads, and satays to make a name for itself. Sides of sticky rice are perfect for eating with the pickled freshwater crab and papaya salad, and the goong che nam pla, billed as a Gulf prawn ceviche, will help you re-think just what Thai food is.
Only a restaurant this good can get away with closing by 8pm every night and only taking cash. And only a restaurant this good could seem to hide on purpose, in a little parking lot a half-block off a major thoroughfare. But you assuredly cannot hide from the internet, and the internet loves this hole-in-the-wall. They love the waitress with the ponytail that goes beyond her bum, and they love the Lao-Thai specialties here -- especially the barbecue chicken, which marinates in coconut milk, garlic, and black pepper before getting charred into crisp-skinned paradise.
Thai food goes swanky and stylish at this spot, hip enough to share a street with Renee Erickson’s Capitol Hill trio of culinary darlings. The dark wood and concrete give it a modern, moody tinge, but the menu delivers spice, funk, and flavor straight from a Thai side street (which, incidentally, is what the name means). Come for the “drinking food,” such as pork jerky, house-fermented sour pork ribs, and crispy fried chicken skin, but stay for the fiery barbecue pork collar, which charms with caramelized palm sugar, then slays with bold heat.
Waiting in line for a spot at Thai Tom is as much a part of Seattle culture as shunning umbrellas and donning flannel. Once inside, the coveted counter seats give a front row view of what can only be described as an intricate dance by the chef: ingredients shuffle, woks and flames fly, and at the end, dishes come out cooked and served at the speed of light. The food is simple and classic Thai-American fare -- pad Thai, swimming rama, basil chicken, and assorted curries. But with the blazing heat of the stove, and superior skills of Tom and his chefs, it comes out better than anywhere else (faster and cheaper, too).
Few Thai restaurants in town are name-checking their meat vendors on the menu, even fewer are funneling that meat into fiery house-made sausages. But Pestle Rock manages to marry Northwest values -- like knowing how our meat was raised and that our meal will come accompanied by a good IPA on draft -- with traditional Thai expertise in the kitchen. So you can rest assured that your crab fried rice will feature local Dungeness, and your guay tiow tom yum soup with Carlton Farms ground pork is both gluten-free and damn delicious.
You’ll find a few savory dishes each day at this tiny Thai treasure, but really, you come here for the kind of desserts that don’t usually make it to this side of the Mekong. Flaky, thin pancakes called roti, filled with condensed milk and sugar, traditional Thai shaved ice, and snow ice. Toppings vary from Ovaltine and soft bread to crunchy water chestnuts and jackfruit. The owners -- who also excel at Thai curries at their International District outlet, Thai Curry Simple -- make art with jellied desserts and paint beautiful pictures on their canvasses of shaved ice, so let them guide you through their various combinations of sweet, crunchy, and crazy toppings.
We do not take recommending a trip to Vashon for food lightly. Yet, we’re dead serious that this list would be incomplete without May’s inclusion. The chef, May Chaleoy, first opened a restaurant of the same name in Wallingford -- and if you’ve been, you’ll have a glimpse of the stylings of the Vashon spot -- but the restaurant’s touted expertise went with her when she jumped ship (ferry, actually) out to the island. Now, you’ll find her simplistically named phad metmauanghimmaphan, crispy prawns, and incredible fried watercress (yum phak boong) cooking up on Vashon Island. So next time you want to board a boat to go to dinner, here’s where to head.
Whether you choose the King of Garlic, the Queen of Banana, or any other wacky-named dish on this menu, you will definitely make a royally great decision when you eat here. The epic 11-page menu covers most of Thailand, but the specialties here come from the center of the country -- a nice addition to Seattle’s wealth of strong Issan (northern) Thai restaurants. Start with a do-it-yourself wrap of assorted bits and bites (peanuts, coconut, chili, dried shrimp, and more) in cha-pu leaves with the mieng kum, then move on to the namesake noodle boat -- rice noodles in an herb broth -- or the aforementioned queen of banana: a mess of steamed banana blossom with shrimp, dressed in chili paste, lime leaves, coconut milk, and herbs.
1. Little Uncle1523 E. Madison St. #101, Seattle
2. Mai Thaiku6705 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle
3. Viengthong2820 Martin Luther King Jr Way S, Seattle
4. Soi1400 10th Ave, Seattle
5. Thai Tom4543 University Way NE, Seattle
6. Pestle Rock2305 NW Market St, Seattle
7. Wann Yen1313 NE 43rd St, Seattle
8. MAY KITCHEN + BAR17614 Vashon Hwy SW, Vashon
9. Noodle Boat Thai Restaurant700 NW Gilman Blvd #E104, Issaquah
Founded by chefs Poncharee Kounpungchart and Wiley Frank, Little Uncle serves up authentic Thai food inspired by the family-run restaurants of Thailand they admire most. From a take-out window to a giant underground restaurant in Pioneer Square to its current counter-serve spot in Capitol Hill, Little Uncle has transformed over the years, but offers the same traditional and tasty dishes, from noodle bowls to pad Thai to shareable plates like crab fried rice. Their from-scratch curry pastes are still available inside this bright, bare-bones space, too, including for-purchase.
Unlike many of Seattle's Thai restaurants that are overrun with curries and coconut milk, Mai Thaiku is a neighborhood favorite for its interesting take on Thai appetizers, salads, and satays. Go for the pickled freshwater crab and papaya salad, or the goong che nam pla (a Gulf prawn ceviche), which aren't complete without a side of sticky rice. There are Thai takes on classic cocktails inside this homey, wood-laden space, too, like a rum/lime/mint mojito spiked with yohimbe and ginseng, punnily known as a Yohito.
Viengthong may be hidden in a small strip-mall a block away from a major thoroughfare, but this cash-only hole-in-the-wall has garnered a loyal following who swear it's the best Thai around. There are Tom Yum soups and fresh salads, but fans swoon over the Lao-Thai specialties, particularly the barbecue chicken, which marinates in coconut milk, garlic, and black pepper before its charred to a lovely crisp. You'll be surrounded by plant life and trellises as you feast in the unfussy dining room.
This Thai spot stands out with big décor and a beautiful space, as much as it does with the Issan (Lao/Northern Thai)-focused cuisine, and while the menu does roam a bit around Thailand, the hits -- and the specialty khao soi and papaya salad -- are from the north.
You're not a true resident of Seattle until you've waited for a counter seat at this Thai hole-in-the-wall that gets you up-close and personal with badass chefs working their magic behind flaming woks. The menu at Thai Tom is all about pan-fried dishes, including pad thai, basil chicken, and pad see ew, plus assorted curries with steamed rice. The service is speedy, the flavors are spicy, and the prices can't be beat.
Thai food in Seattle was once only for takeout and holes in the wall, but luckily this Northern Thai restaurant boasts true culinary skill, offering high-quality meats made into specialty sausages and seafood afloat in spicy broths. Try the guac tow tom yum: Thai cuisine is famous for its marriage of spicy, sweet, sour, and salty flavors, and this pork soup exemplifies the best of it.
With a small but mighty menu, Wann Yen in University District is a favorite for those with an adventurous dessert palate. The shaved ice dessert spot offers six flavor combinations, like a mixture of tropical fruits with red date, toddy palm seed, sweet yam, and cendol (which more closely resembles green beans than a frozen treat, but that’s besides the point). Mark and Picha Pinkaow opened Wann Yen to recreate some of their favorite Thailand hangouts stateside, visible in a multicolored wall of Thai goods for sale and the inclusion of Thai toppings, like ruby water chestnuts, jackfruit, and lychee. If you’re here on a hungrier stomach, Wann Yen also has a couple of savory options; the highly acclaimed Khao mun gai chicken is poached, served over ginger rice, and accompanied by garlic dipping sauce and winter melon soup.
The dishes at May Kitchen + Bar on Vashon Island are as authentically Thai as the restaurant’s 150-year-old carved mahogany and teak walls (they once stood in a home in Thailand). The pad thai here is a far cry from the peanut butter-laden, too-greasy noodles that illogically cement to one another in your local joint’s takeout container. Prices at May Kitchen are slightly above average, but when noodles are served al dente inside of a banana leaf, which your server carefully unwraps tableside and hand mixes with chilies, Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and bitter banana flowers, it’s certainly worth the price of admission. The interior décor, like light fixtures affixed with gilded lotus petals and an old-fashioned clock, will distract you from your hungry stomach as you await your noodles, even as the pervasive jasmine rice scent taunts you.
Situated in an Issaquah strip mall, you wouldn’t Noodle Boat to have all that unique Thai food, but with a menu including quirky dishes like Queen of Banana, King of Garlic, Hot Meat, and “Whatever You Called?” you would probably have to reconsider your theory. The options are separated into appetizers (small bites like chicken satay and spring rolls), soups, salads, noodles, rice, and curries. The pro move is to get the hor mok; Noodle Boat ops to stir-frying the curried fish custard instead of steaming it. The restaurant also understands that some like it hot, so they leave the spice level up to you. The hardest decision you’ll make here is how much fire you can manage. ‘Cause if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Noodle Boat kitchen.