By Bethany Jean Clement
Seattle Times food writer
Now that it’s been officially established that Thai food is more popular than pizza in Seattle — we’ve got twice as many Thai restaurant as Washington, D.C., three times as many as Denver, and four times as many as Boston, with one Thai restaurant in Seattle for every seven Thai residents — there’s no doubt that the debate about Seattle’s best Thai restaurant will be resurrected for the millionth time. Everyone’s got his or her favorite, and, this being the United States of America, we’ve got to determine, once and for all, which Seattle Thai restaurant wins the Seattle Thai Restaurant Super Bowl … or something. Right?!
My list of nominees for Seattle’s best Thai starts with Little Uncle, run by Poncharee Kounpungchart (aka PK) and Wiley Frank. It’s both a little walk-up window on Madison and a sit-down lunch spot in Pioneer Square. They serve real-deal, street-and-family-style Thai; people used to sticky-sweet, reddish-colored pad Thai are frightened and confused by the Little Uncle version, but if you squeeze the lime wedge over it and use the little packets of chili flakes and sugar, you’ll see.
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Then there’s Mai Thaiku in Phinney Ridge (which used to be just Thaiku in Ballard); it’s in an adorable bungalow that has a Thai pedicab on the porch. Chef Unchalee “Oh” Ayucharoen is from Chanthaburi in the east of Thailand, and she uses a lot of her family recipes at Mai Thaiku. (The place also has a tiny bar that makes magical-tasting cocktails with tinctures like the “strong medicine” of yohimbe, a West African tree bark; it might be placebo effect, but these drinks make the world more sparkly.)
In a much divier, cheap-eats mode, there’s the old U-District favorite Thai Tom (so divey and cheap, it doesn’t even have a website; 4543 University Way N.E., 206-548-9548). If you’ve never sat at the counter to see and hear (and nearly be splattered by) Thai Tom’s woks, you’re missing out (and if you order something very spicy, you’d better be prepared).
Thai Curry Simple in the Chinatown International District, right across from the light-rail station, is another excellent and wallet-friendly choice; it’s lunch only, but the incredibly nice owners, Picha and Mark, also sell packets of their curry for you to take home, mix with coconut milk and enjoy immensely at dinnertime (or breakfast).
If you’ve got date-night cash and time for the ferry, May Kitchen + Bar on Vashon Island — brought to you by May Chaleoy, who formerly ran the formerly great, now-only-pretty-good May Thai in Wallingford — is fully worth the trip. The interior is lined with carved teak and mahogany panels salvaged from a 150-year-old house in Thailand, and the pad Thai has its chili pepper, sugar, banana blossom and more mixed tableside. (This is also the only place outside of Thailand that I’ve found fried watercress — a haystack of crispy rice-flour-coated goodness with tangy tamarind sauce that makes the prospect of non-deep-fried vegetables seem dismal indeed.)
But sometimes the best Thai food is the Thai food closest to your mouth. It’d be wrong to fail to honor the neighborhood favorites: the Thai place that’s closest to your work and has good, cheap lunch; the one where you can get your to-go dinner order in 15 minutes. The Thai spot geographically closest to me at home is Jamjuree on Capitol Hill, and it’s family-owned, inexpensive, and just right on a cold night. Rom Mai Thai on Broadway is perfectly tasty, too, and features service so vigilant and fast, it’s almost scary (we call it Overly Attentive Thai). At lunchtime outside The Seattle Times offices, the Kaosamai truck smells great, although I haven’t actually tried it yet.
Then there’s that whole other category: the Thai restaurants in (or around) Seattle that you’ve been meaning to try — the ones that lots of people insist are the best — but that you haven’t managed to get yourself to, if only because you already have a half-dozen other favorites already. Bai Tong has been on my list for eons — it’s in Tukwila, Redmond and Issaquah, and its original location near the airport was a hangout for Thai Airways workers back in the day. The terribly named Ti 22, which is in Belltown, was formerly known as Fish Cake Factory, and it opened with a former Bai Tong chef; now someone who worked with that chef runs the kitchen, and it might still be really good, but I haven’t been back since the change. Buddha Ruksa has been a West Seattle favorite for approximately forever, and I’ve been meaning to go there for at least that long. Pestle Rock in Ballard gets a lot of love; I’ve only been there once, and its Issan region cuisine was above average, and it deserves another chance. Manao on Capitol Hill is almost brand new and has a stylized interior that seems like it’d be fun if the food is good (and maybe annoying if it’s not — one wall reads “HOW YA like MANAO?”). Noodle Boat Thai in Issaquah is supposed to be great. Both Savatdee on Roosevelt and Viengthong (no website; 2820 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., 206-725-3884) in the Mount Baker neighborhood make both Thai and Lao food, and reportedly both do it very well. And the hybrid, delivery-only Muay Thai Max makes Thai pizza; the Max in question is Seattle native Max Borthwick, who, back in the day, ran the Thai restaurant Toi downtown — with his mom as the chef and the namesake.
So what’s Seattle’s best Thai restaurant? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer and arguably inane to ask. The luxurious thing about having so many Thai places — and having so many of them be so good — is that you don’t have to have a favorite. You can have five favorites, a list of 10 more you’ve been meaning to try, plus your favorite place closest to your work and your favorite place closest to where you live … not to mention the place (or two) that closed down long ago but that you still miss. In that last category, for me, there’s Toi — in its heyday, the food was as beautiful as the room (it was in the original Dahlia Lounge space). And I still miss my original neighborhood favorite, Siam on Broadway — the first place I ever ate Thai food, always special ever after, with pretty tropical fish in big fish tanks. Later, there was a second Siam in a bunch of train cars on Eastlake, which I also miss … and now there’s a bigger, sleeker, newer version of Siam that’s also on Eastlake, which I keep meaning to try…
This post has been updated to reflect a chef change at Mai Thaiku.