Thai Palms is one of those places you catch out of the corner of your eye as you head through an unfamiliar neighborhood and promise yourself to visit one day. The restaurant, deep in Rainier Valley, stands out in a stretch lined with tiny strip malls housing Asian and East African mom-and-pop businesses.
Owners Noi Seneboutaratha, who’s Laos-born but grew up in Thailand, and her husband, Thao Tu, who’s Vietnamese, opened the restaurant in 2008 in hopes of introducing the community to Laotian cuisine — which is heavy on sticky rice and salty fish, not everyone’s thing for taste and dietary reasons. But given the restaurant’s Asian customer base of Hmongs, Thais, Vietnamese and Laotians, on top of patrons with other backgrounds, catering to a diverse clientele means being willing to adapt even something like a papaya salad to suit individual preferences.
The owners seem happy with the challenge. The result five years later is a fusion eatery that bends toward more-familiar Thai flavors (think straightforward seasonings and the inclusion of peanuts) with nods to Seneboutaratha’s homeland (saltier, flavor-dense dishes, with additions like blue crab). The menu will include more authentic Laotian offerings as customers grow increasingly willing to experiment, Seneboutaratha says.
The menu: The extensive menu boasts salads, soups, curries, noodle dishes, fried rice, vegetable stir-fries, seafood and meat and poultry entrees. Standards like the popular green-papaya salad ($8.99), pad thai ($6.99) and spareribs ($9.50) dominate, but a handful of Laotian specialties such as nam khao tod, a pickled pork dish with ginger, tangy rice and lime ($8.99), are slightly more adventurous. Many dishes can be ordered Lao-style (with sticky rice, salty fish or blue crab) or vegetarian-style on request.
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What to write home about: My dinner guest and I shared a huge bowl of lime- and coconut-accented tom kha gai ($8), which came with chunks of chicken. It was the perfect antidote to a cold, blustery evening — soup that warmed the soul. The drunken noodles ($8), or pad kee mao, was an intoxicating mix of sweet, spicy and tangy, with stir-fried wide noodles that melted in your mouth.
What to skip: The stir-fried basil spareribs in chili paste ($9.50), while succulent with a kick of heat, disappointingly lacked basil flavor.
The setting: Not surprisingly, palms play a prominent role in the décor, from the carpeting in the narrow, casual dining room to the plants. Don’t expect luxury surroundings. Service was painfully slow on the night we went, but it was a rather busy Friday dinner rush.
Summing up: A pot of tom kha gai ($8), basil spareribs ($9.50), drunken noodles ($8), steamed rice ($1) and a pot of tea ($1.50) came to $28 plus tax and tip.
Tyrone Beason: firstname.lastname@example.org