These two restaurants have very different styles and very different vibes.
This week a Thai twofer on Capitol Hill, each restaurant very different, both with much to offer from the Land of Smiles.
When the news broke last month that Little Uncle had been named one of the country’s 50 Best New Restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine, co-owners Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart (known as PK) found out the way most of us did, via social media. PK was on a rare vacation with their two children; Frank was holding down the fort at their 6-month-old Capitol Hill restaurant. “It was a busy week,” he says dryly.
Little Uncle ★★★
1523 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-549-6507 or littleuncleseattle.com
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$ (plates and noodle/rice bowls $3.50-$15, tax inclusive)
Drinks: House-made sodas; bottled & canned beer; wine; limited spirits
Service: Order at the counter; food arrives swiftly; bus your own table
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Busy is nothing new at Little Uncle. Fans flocked to its earliest incarnation as the pop-up Shophouse, then regularly clogged the sidewalk when Little Uncle opened as a walk-up window in 2011, half a block from their new 24-seater. (Manu’s Bodegita recently took over the takeout spot, dispensing Dominican-inspired sandwiches, ceviche and tacos.)
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A sit-down Little Uncle seems long overdue, but these chefs have sensibly taken small steps to success. The bigger kitchen means more variety among the dozen items on the menu. A liquor license allows them to spike their vibrant house-made sodas and dark, bitter tonic with spirits, as well as offer a handful of beers, wines and cider, chosen to complement the pungent Thai cuisine.
They still do a fair amount of takeout at the new place, where seating is a mix of counter and tables (including a few outside). Customers order and pay at the counter; signs ask that you bus your dishes. The food is delivered when it’s ready, on white tin plates with a blue logo. Table caddies hold paper napkins, forks, spoons and plastic chopsticks.
On my visits, Frank expedited orders while PK worked the register, handily placed next to a display of their proprietary line of Peeks Pantry red curry paste and bun jam. (Taste that garlic-and-chile jam on steamed buns packed with soy-glazed pork belly or with five-spice seasoned chanterelles.) Their small-batch cooking, coupled with quality ingredients, yields the most nuanced Thai dishes in Seattle.
Their model is the mom-and-pop restaurants of Thailand, where PK lived until she was 9. A restaurant in her hometown of Lopburi inspired their version of phad Thai. They resist embellishing it (don’t even ask for chicken); peanuts, roasted chile flakes and raw sugar come on the side, though the tantalizing, tamarind-laced rice noodles need little doctoring. (Extra chilies, peanuts and sauces are available for any dish upon request.)
If it’s chicken you crave, have the khao soi gai. Tender white meat and egg noodles mingle with ginger and pickled Chinese mustard greens in a coconut milk broth rosy with red curry paste. For pork fanciers, a robust pork and chicken broth buoys limpid bean thread noodles and a double hit of meat — ground pork and slices of roasted, marinated pork shoulder.
Dungeness crab fried rice, currently the priciest dish on the menu, is well worth $15 for a sprawl of nutty brown and wild rice loaded with sweet crab, scallion, cilantro and ginger. It lends itself to sharing, as does the garlic chive cake, which was unfortunately more gooey than chewy in the middle, and lamb roti, a delightfully crisp, crepe-like pastry filled with curried meat and onions.
It took two, as well, to finish a mug of shave ice, a sweet, chill denouement, drenched in hibiscus syrup, layered with blueberries, peaches and rhubarb, and crowned with basil seeds and candied pomelo.
You could fit four or five Little Uncles under the 14-foot, raftered ceiling at Soi, located in the 100-year-old Davis & Hoffman building at Tenth and Union. This is another husband-and-wife-run Thai restaurant with a chef who grew up in Thailand. Porntip Wiborg helped her mother run a food stall there. Here, she and her husband, Gabe Wiborg, got their start the same way, selling Thai food at the Fremont Farmers Market. Porntip returned to Thailand for formal culinary training before the couple opened their first restaurant, Banyan Tree, six years ago in Kent.
1400 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-556-4853 or soicapitolhill.com
Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; happy jour 3-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-close Sunday-Thursday, 11 p.m.-close Friday-Saturday
Prices: $$$ (lunch $9-$14; dinner $8-$21)
Drinks: full bar; whiskey flights; inventive cocktails; house-made ginger beer; draft and bottled beers; wine
Service: brisk, cheerful and informative
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
The year-old Soi (pronounced soy) is their second venture. You won’t find phad Thai or satay here, as you do at Banyan Tree. The curries, noodle bowls, barbecued meats, salads, snacks and street food explore other regions of Thailand, particularly the Isan cuisine of the northeast. (Weekend brunch, recently introduced, offers a selection of roti and congee as well.)
Pop the top off a bottle of “Cheap Sunglasses” — a carbonated tequila cocktail tarted up with pomegranate shrub and rhubarb bitters — then order some “drinking food.” I suggest fried chicken skins dipped in a bowl of fish sauce thick with crushed peanuts, or golden, fist-size corn fritters dunked in sweet chili sauce. Chiang Mai-style curry sausage is another great choice. It’s lit with chilies, but not so much that it muffles the pork, lime leaf and lemon grass.
The same restraint is evident in the coconut milk curry bathing prawns and in the sweet, Panang-style curry smothering braised chicken wings, boned and stuffed with ground, marinated chicken.
Rotisserie-roasted Cornish game hen was a tough, flavorless little bird, but grilled pork collar was terrific. The supple, spice-rubbed slices of neck and shoulder meat were glazed with soy and sugar, then finished with a bracing garlic-lime sauce that you’ll want to mop up with the last of the sticky rice.
Crispy rice highlights an exhilarating salad, naam khao tod. To make it, seasoned rice is deep fried, then tossed with bits of sausage-like sour pork, iceberg lettuce, peanuts, ginger and more. Dressed with lime juice and fish sauce, it conveys sour, crunch and spice in equal measure. For another salad, available at lunch, water spinach is dipped in a rice flour slurry and deep fried. The brittle leaves and stems make a delicate nest for saucy minced chicken that packs all the sweet, hot, funk that makes the best Thai food so alluring.
Soups didn’t have quite enough of that oomph. Prawn and pork wontons floated in lackluster chicken broth. The khao soi, heavy with coconut milk and pickled cabbage, could not compete with Little Uncle’s.
Overall, Little Uncle’s food has the edge. But Soi earns points for a handsome space, as comfortable for couples as it is for groups; for a broad beverage program that fuels a party atmosphere; and for a menu that follows a road less traveled.