Thai Tom, Pen Thai, Kaosamai Mobile Commercial Kitchen, Buddha Ruksa and May Restaurant and Lounge are just a few of the places to sample Thai cuisine in the Greater Seattle area.
Once upon a time, phad Thai and green papaya salad were culinary anomalies in and around Seattle, and Bai Tong in Sea-Tac (now doing business in Tukwila) was one of too few restaurants catering to Thai food fans. Today Thai restaurants — from the highbrow to the low — are neighborhood staples, while tubs of colorful curry pastes and canned coconut milk line our supermarket shelves. Taking a Thai-food tour, I’ve spent the past month eating at area hot spots, sampling the sizzle and spice and enjoying the heat with the sweet. Did I miss your neighborhood favorite? Give it a shout-out on my blog at www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat.
4543 University Way N.E., Seattle
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Hours:11:30a.m.-9p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1-8p.m.Sundays
Charmed? I’m not sure. But I sure did get a kick out of this high-decibel U District dive where “feel the burn” extends beyond the star-studded curries, rice and noodles to describe the hot seat in this intimate inferno: the counter stool by the wall. Here, the wok action on the crusty stove involves flying spices and sauces. Meanwhile, the BTUs employed to make one of the best phad Thais around are enough to singe your eyebrows if you lean in too closely. But that’s part of the fun at Thai Tom, where the menu’s passed on a scarred wooden plank, 20 hungry Thai-food fanatics is a crowd, six more are waiting by the door and daily specials might include green curry chicken (a tad overcooked for this gal). Add a strong Thai iced coffee — sure to keep the student bodies burning the midnight oil — and you’re still unlikely to bust a $10 spot.
10107 Main St., Bothell
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Now that Pen’s sister-restaurant Chantanee is closed (soon to reopen in swankier Bellevue digs), it’s slammed more than usual with diners here in old downtown Bothell. I can certainly see why. The contemporary copper-toned design is as appealing as what’s on the plate, and Pen offers everything from an expansive wine list to fancy cocktails to my finger-food favorite, miang kum — bits and bites of lime, coconut, dried shrimp, fresh ginger, et al., are meant to be wrapped in spinach leaves for a festival of flavors. Sure, you may go on about the signature crispy garlic chicken or the emerald curry with pork, but what about the crisp, moist “Golden Duck” ($14.95), sizzled and sauced tableside — just like at one of those old-school French restaurants? And howzabout the classic Thai beef salad with its perfectly charred edges? Or daily specials like Dungeness crab fried rice — delicate and airy yet still packing heat? Nice.
Kaosamai Mobile Commercial Kitchen
3 W. Nickerson St., Seattle
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (note: cash only)
Maybe you know about Kaosamai — one of Fremont’s many Thai restaurants. Perhaps you can even pronounce it correctly (“GOW-sa my”). But are you hip to its roving step van — a retrofitted restaurant-on-wheels parked in front of the Shell station across from Seattle Pacific University? Holy basil! That’s some terrific Thai takeout — cheap! I’ll be back for No. 4 — phad kee mao — spicy stir-fried rice noodles tossed with aromatic vegetables and chicken or fried tofu. And for combo No. 14, notable for its Penang curry beef and quartet of vegetarian spring rolls (the phad Thai that comes with it is fine if not fabulous, and the jasmine rice generous enough for sopping every bit of the curry’s coconut-milk-and-lime-leaf-infused sauce). The van’s truncated menu is numbered for ease of ordering, and regulars know to call ahead. Don’t and you may be tapping your toes as they come and go. But the wait will be well worth it. Head into the gas station minimart where you’ll find an ATM and soft drinks (it’s Thai iced tea or coffee only here), though there’s also a 7-Eleven across the street in case you need a Thai iced Slurpee to chill out the chili spice (just kiddin’!).
3520 S.W. Genesee St., Seattle
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
West Seattle loves Buddha Ruksa. And what’s there not to love about this just-off-the-bridge favorite? The addition of an intimate cocktail lounge makes this one fragrant lift-one-over-dinner option. And a lengthy list of lunch specials catapults the low-key locale into a must-stop on weekdays for all the usual curries and stir-fries, served with complimentary soup and a choice of meats/tofu ($8.50 — add three bucks for seafood). The kitchen took an uncommonly tender turn with the chicken in my swimming rama, and impresses with an all-day menu whose specialties include wok-fried long beans dancing with red chili paste, crispy fried chicken with garlic and basil, and my new Thai food favorite: soft-cooked hunks of kabocha squash and fat juicy prawns in a richer-than-rich red curry.
May Restaurant and Lounge
1612 N. 45th St., Seattle
Hours: 11 a.m.- 1 a.m. daily (happy hour 5-7 p.m. and 11 p.m.-1 a.m.)
I found religion at this teak temple of Thai cuisine, a Wallingford gem that gets my vote for the most tantalizing Thai food around. May is an upstairs/downstairs den of deliciousness, with a tranquil dining space above and a bar-centered lounge below. In summer, you may sip a tequila-fueled Pattaya Breeze on the patio while taking in the street scene. Year-round take advantage of happy-hour pricing on wok-fried Siamese watercress (imagine a lighter but no-less-addictive version of Marco’s Supperclub’s fried sage leaves) and the multitude of marvels found in the stacked food carrier called a “pin-to” (grilled squid and spicy bamboo shoots among them). From the simple (housemade peanut sauce on satays) to the sublime (crisp, thick slices of catfish wok-fried with Thai eggplant, wild ginger, green beans and red curry, garnished with a sprig of green peppercorns), this is food that uses more than just heat to fuel the senses.