I missed the grasshoppers by a week, so the bartender told me. She mixed me a drink at Mai Thaiku’s intimate Fu Kun Wu bar, while I examined the other bar snacks. One jar held peanuts and dried chilies, another what looked like flat, amber-colored fishing flies. Dried squid, as it turned out.
I was not sorry to miss the insects. The squid tasted salty and chewy, like jerky from the sea. A small plate of them ($1) disappeared in the course of sipping a Radiant Flower cocktail. The pink, gin-based drink, sugar-rimmed and sparked with mint, lemon and peppery schisandra berry, is the thinking girl’s Cosmo.
Fu Kun Wu, famous for its aphrodisiacal cocktails (“limit one per customer”) was a larger presence at the old Thaiku, which had a 10-year run in Ballard, then a one-year hiatus before reopening this spring on Phinny Ridge as Mai Thaiku (mai means new).
The craftsman bungalow bears no trace of the former Gaspare’s. An antique pedicab is parked on the porch; bamboo fringes the front patio. Inside, handsome brass and carved wood Thai furnishings stand out against papaya yellow walls. (Servers also stand out: gracious young women in short-shorts.)
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White tiles frame the open kitchen, where the pok-pok sound of a giant mortar and pestle meets the fury of flames leaping 2 feet high. Chef Anne Sawvalak grew up in Thailand, as did general manager Unchalee “Oh” Ayucharoen. (Owner Jon Alberts is an American married to a Thai.) All of which helps explain Mai Thaiku’s pared down new menu and its focus on everyday Thai-style cookery. It’s the sort of food these women were raised on.
Given Thailand’s hot climate, it makes sense that many dishes here are cool or quickly grilled. Start with Mieng Kahm, a DIY snack of dark green betel leaves that taste like peppery spinach. You fill the leaves with a mixture of peanuts, toasted coconut, finely chopped ginger, lime, chilies, red onion and sauce, then fold and eat.
That harmony is the trick to managing the chili heat. Spicy grilled pork-and-rice sausage is served sliced alongside fresh ginger, cabbage and peanuts. Make sure there’s a little of each in every terrific bite.
There’s a deft balance of salt, sweet, sour and heat in the vibrant Thai-style salads, made with a variety of fruits, vegetables, noodles and proteins. In one, shallot, mint and dried shrimp bolstered the soft, slippery white pulp of grilled eggplant. Another juxtaposed warm, slender bean thread noodles with tomatoes, onions, peanuts, crumbled pork and a couple of shrimp that carried a whiff of iodine.
With the exception of tender, charred baby squid, a standout among several very good satays, seafood was a weak spot. Scrawny raw prawns were the least interesting element of a ceviche that included sliced bitter melon and crisp, chopped gai lan. A whole steamed whitefish (freshwater bass from Southeast Asia) was remarkable mainly for the lovely fish-shaped vessel it was served in.
Puny Penn Cove mussels were no match for a potent, gingery, basil-flecked red coconut curry, one of the few coconut curries here. Another, also very good, is Khao Sou, a mild yellow curry coating fried and soft egg noodles laced with pickled mustard greens and slices of chicken breast.
Instead of creamy, sauces here tend to be brothy, like the fragrant, dill-laden stew of chicken thighs and small green Thai eggplants. It’s chicken soup for the Thai soul — or anyone’s.
Another house specialty is Som Tahm. You’ll find half a dozen variations of that pungent green papaya salad, but one made solely of fruit was particularly memorable. The chili heat in the sauce was thrilling counterpoint to a sweet, multitextured mélange of pear, pomelo, papaya, pineapple, cherry tomatoes and peanuts.
Ordering a side of red sticky rice is a good idea, not just to mute the heat but for its delicious nutty, wild taste. The same sticky rice, drizzled with coconut milk, comes with fresh mango for dessert.
To fans of the former Thaiku, perhaps disgruntled at not finding your favorite dish, the kitchen welcomes off-menu requests. But for those who favor the Thai cooking at Pestle Rock or Little Uncle, Mai Thaiku is for you.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.