When Pai Boon, 59, first arrived in Seattle in 1985 from Bangkok, Thai food was still considered an exotic cuisine here.
“At the time when I got here, there was, I think, just one,” he said, recalling a restaurant in Pioneer Square. “I think they are gone.”
Now, he is an owner of Ayutthaya Thai on Capitol Hill, one of the 126 Thai restaurants in the city limits (according to Yelp).
For years, Boon remembers, there were just two Thai restaurants on Capitol Hill: Ayutthaya and the now-closed Siam on Broadway. Today, there are more than a dozen.
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In the 80s, he was a student at Shoreline Community College, and later worked at a hotel restaurant in the University District with the original proprietor of Ayutthaya, which opened in 1989. When his friend wanted to sell the business in 1997 to return to Thailand, Boon and a few friends jumped at the chance to buy it.
“At that time this restaurant was doing pretty good,” he said. “People would line up. It usually took a half an hour to get a seat.”
If there are so few Thai people in Seattle (just 850), what is the genesis of the Thai food craze? A 1987 Seattle Times article quoted Gail Jenkins, manager of public relations for Thai Airways in North America, saying, “When Thai Air first began its Seattle-Bangkok service in 1980, there was one Thai restaurant here. Now there are more than 20.”
Boon noticed more newspapers reviewing the cuisine, too. One of the earliest reviews in The Seattle Times was for Bahn Thai, a restaurant that opened on Queen Anne in 1985 (and is still open).
The Times’ John Hinterberger wrote then, “Thai dining is, without question, the hottest item in town, both in terms of current popularity and taste-bud pyrotechnics.” (Of course, Madonna was right on trend: At the height of her ’80s fame, she visited Bahn Thai.)
“When the critics write about Thai food is when I think people started to know about Thai food,” Boon said. “It was popular.”
Though Thailand is warm year-round, he suspected that Thai food was comforting to Seattleites during the cold and rainy months.
“I can tell from my business. In the wintertime I do better than summertime,” he said. “That’s why California, with the warm weather, it’s not as successful as here.”
Curiously, in Los Angeles, where more than 13,000 Thai people live, there are 234 Thai restaurants listed on Yelp — a little over 100 more than Seattle, which has a much smaller Thai population.
Boon remembers when he knew many of the owners of places like Bahn Thai and Tup Tim Thai, also on Queen Anne. But as more opened, he lost track.
Though Thai food is still popular, the number of restaurants in Seattle has been overtaken in recent years by Vietnamese restaurants (Yelp counts 158).
“Before, Vietnamese was just in Chinatown. Now it is all over. They kind of follow the Thai restaurant,” Boon said and pointed out the window to a Vietnamese restaurant. “See across the street there?”
Boon thought Seattle had reached Peak Thai. “From my point of view I think they have too much Thai restaurants,” he said, scanning the room, which was less full than he would like.
According to him, some owners advertised for chefs in Bangkok, paying for work visas and moving the chefs to Seattle. He said though most of the restaurants are owned and at least partially staffed by Thai people, some are run by Laotian, Chinese and Vietnamese people.
In Thai communities around the country, Seattle’s reputation as a Thai food-loving city precedes it. Boon knew of many people who had moved from other states, such as California, and as far as the East Coast, simply to open a Thai restaurant here.
Said Boon, “Everybody knows about Thai food in Seattle.”
Tricia Romano: firstname.lastname@example.org; @tromano