My guests have been here before and loved the place upon first bite. So when visiting Seattle for the day, we made a point to have lunch here. At 4pm there was a line and a wait requiring 50 minutes. 50 minutes we spent loitering around the University District. Apparently this is a common occurrence, to see lines and people standing by outside. Though most are here to get their meal taken out. A great way to avoid the wait, and having to dine in their cramped and less than modern setting.
The restaurant was a dark narrow space. An older building that felt less than clean with its dingy corners, dusty fixtures, and edges filled with grout. The brown patchy walls and photos faded with age didn’t help either. The traditional Thai elements lent their authenticity to the place and gave a distraction from the above. These included framed art of Thai deities, a large tapestry of gold figures sailing in boats, an elephant’s bust with trunk extended and tusks out, and lamps of wicker and wooden cages surrouding bulbs. I dared not use the washroom when the front of house looked like this. And based on her last visit, my guest reassured me it was a bad as I thought.
The kitchen was visible from the entrance, with seats around it to watch the action of cooking over large flames. A few feet away, chairs by tables were available for parties of two; but groups larger than that were forced to wait for bar stools to open up. The compact placement of stools and the lack of hooks or racks meant loose belonging, jackets, and bags sat awkwardly on laps.
It was loud between the beats of dance music, the sounds of metal spatulas against frying woks, and the chatter of customers speaking in close confines. The music heard was based on preference of the chef cooking that set. We went from electronic dance to party rap during our stay.
We observed the chefs moving to the beat and keeping pace with the base. Their music must help to keep their rhythm up and their focus on point. Greatly needed to accommodate all the orders and to not have them overwhelmed by the close proximity of guests watching them in scrutiny. Each time the chefs regrouped it felt like a game or match was starting and we were excited to watch. One of the two servers would take all orders, and one of four chefs would cook per batches needed. It is a fast and furious display. Dish after dish pushed out efficiently. With buckets of vegetables sliced and prepped, and sauces pooled with ladles for scooping; it was just a matter of grabbing handfuls and throwing it in the pan.
You could be seated, but not fed until they were ready to start the next set cooking. Therein our 50 minute wait to be seated became a 75 minute to eat. They were fast, but messy. Strands of lettuce fell on the floor and shards of carrots hit the flame. One chef was set to tending six pans. An impressive feat of multitasking. Though at one point he went too fast and a spoon went flying in front of my co-diner. Without a word or apology he reclaimed his tool to use again. I guess he was too much in the zone to acknowledge us. The other chefs were either washing dishes or pre-chopping vegetables as this one man set about to seed 15 hungry mouths. We were told that serving and cooking in sets, allowed the kitchen staff to clean up. Yet sitting immediately adjacent to the stove, I saw no wiping nor removal any of the mess around each coil.
The menu was a wooden board painted in black and printed in metallic gold and red. Two sides of appetizers, soups, entrees, drinks and after meal treats. We had lots of questions when ordering, as the menu offered no description and had no pictures included. You had to know the place, or the food to get what you wanted. You can’t simply order not knowing what, “pour man noodle”, “Phad see you again”, or “swimming Rama” was. Sadly when asked, our server couldn’t really give us any answers.
“Thai ice tea” served in plastic cups. With pre-made servings in to go cup for easy take and travel. I can’t believe I only discovered how good Thai ice tea is a month or two ago.
“Panang curry”. We got chicken over shrimp and tofu. A very flavourful curry without too much chilli spice. The first bite was the best in exciting flavours. It had a lingering heat that went all the way to the last spoon. Rich and nutty in taste with a buttery smooth texture. Necessarily paired with rice, as a one note plate that slowly grew ragged.
“Pad Thai”. Without pictures to aid in my entree selection, I played it safe. I choose the shrimp over chicken and tofu, and was delighted over the generous portion it came in. This was the best pad Thai I have ever had. A sweeter sauce coated the chewy noodle. A few strands were overcooked and other were slightly burnt, it gave the dish it’s only crispy component. I was perplexed by the presence of rice on top and would have preferred more noodles instead.
“Thai curry fried rice with cashews”. We chose the chicken over shrimp and tofu. This was on the over salted side. Tasty, but with too much salt, it took away from that what would be delicious taste. My guest usually doesn’t like nuts in her rice or noodles, but their presence here wasn’t a hinderance. Though it must be noted that she did not finish her plate, and over 70% of what was left was halved peanuts.
Service is not the focal point here and the food definitely speaks for itself. Other than placing our orders and asking for the bill there was no interaction with the staff. Just as well, as there was a bite of a language barrier between ourselves and the authentic Thai staff. Luckily we both had the understanding of food to communicate just enough.
We couldn’t make heads or tails out of the hand scrawled paper bill. And the symbols didn’t mean anything not paired with dish names. We took for granted that we were paying what we owed.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
The place is authentic not only in cuisine, but in culture and community as well. I truly enjoyed my pad Thai and felt it the best I have had to date. The curry and rice fell short, but others dishes yet to be tried deserve a revisit for. Though because of the age of the place, this isn’t the restaurant I would want to come back to for a sit down meal to be enjoyed in. Tight spots and cramped quarters make the privacy of date night impossible, as two couples saw. I judged them on their attempt at hiding their public displays. I rather this delicious Thai food, in the comforts of my home; or in this case as a visitor, my hotel room. Don’t deny your cravings.