Boy, is my face red. And it’s not the only one. My dining companions are rosy-cheeked, too. Yet we haven’t even made it past the appetizers at Pestle Rock, a Ballard restaurant that specializes in the chili-spiked cuisine of Isan, a hardscrabble region in northeast Thailand across the Mekong River from Laos.
Though proprietors Nanta Jawpliphon and her brothers, Sutha and Pricha Jawpliphon, hail from Bangkok, they learned Isan recipes from their mother. Isan cooks are resourceful foragers; fresh herbs and chilies form the foundation of their dishes. The rhythmic sound of those ingredients being ground together with mortar and pestle (listen for it from the kitchen) inspired the restaurant’s name.
Pestle Rock’s bill of fare differs from typical Thai menus that focus on the cuisine of central Thailand. Don’t come here looking for pad thai, though you will find other noodle dishes, as well as soups, salads, stir-fries, curries and pedigreed proteins charcoal-grilled with great care. Chili-pepper symbols (one to three) designate the degree of spiciness, a level that can’t be adjusted for a diner’s preference precisely because those flavors are so thoroughly integrated into the dish.
Perky, pony-tailed Nanta frequently pops out of the kitchen, where she and Sutha cook. The trick to balancing the heat, she explained, is to get a little bit of everything in your mouth at once. An example is the fiery grilled sausage house-made with finely ground Carlton Farms pork bolstered with vermicelli noodles. Eating a slice together with its accompaniments — crisp pickled vegetables and peanuts — does indeed quell the fire.
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Make sure to order a side of sticky rice, which serves a similar purpose. In Isan, food is commonly eaten by hand using the sticky rice as a tool. “Our barbecued and grilled items, as well as salads, would be the kind of food that they use their hands for,” says manager Cameron Roberts. “For entree dishes they use forks and spoons, but only allow the spoon to go into their mouth and use the fork to put things on the spoon. They rarely ever use chopsticks.”
(Roberts, a Seattleite who studied in Thailand for five years, speaks the language fluently and leads an engaging, conscientious staff.)
Fingers work fine for crisp, deep-fried pork ribs and for a dainty little game hen, both imbued to the bone with sweet-hot marinades: herbs, spices, honey — and in the case of the ribs, rice whiskey. The bird is roasted, then finished on the grill; each bite achieves equilibrium with a dab of two sauces — sweet red chili and bold, hot-and-sour “jaeo.”
Supple medallions of grilled “Piedmontese petite tender” beef up a pungent chili-lime-dressed salad of fresh herbs (mainly mint, basil and lemon grass), onions and nutty-tasting toasted rice powder. Crunchy shards of wild boar pulled from its charred collar are equally good given similar treatment.
Spring specials (check the blackboard) include “Pia Goong,” a cold salad boasting large Gulf prawns (some just a tad undercooked) amid a carnival of aromatics: red onion, lemon grass, ginger, galangal, garlic, mint, lime leaf and cilantro. Triangles of chili peppers are literally red flags: this is a two-alarm dish, but wrapping each bite in a romaine leaf mellows the heat.
Curries show a deft balance. Bright yellow, soupy Kao Soi buoys leaves of chicken breast and ribbons of egg noodles, some fried as a garnish. Creamy, slightly sweet Panang curry cloaks grilled wild salmon set over crisp-tender steamed vegetables. Chunks of long-simmered lamb and potatoes bolster a dark, delicious Massaman curry. Startlingly complex and almost chocolaty, it gives the folks at nearby La Carta de Oaxaca a run for their mole.
The rustic booths, bricks and reclaimed boards of the erstwhile Snoose Junction mix well with the country Thai décor. Canning jars on each table hold fresh flowers. Pantry shelves display stores of dried herbs, spices, tamarind pulp, noodles, fish sauce and coconut milk.
A cozy nook in the back holds a few deuces and a small bar where they mix admirable tamarind margaritas and cucumber mojitos, and introduce the curious to lao dong. I’m told the black, faintly bitter, homemade liqueur is an herb-infused vodka. It’s supposed to aid digestion, but won’t do much for that capsaicin blush.
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.