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What's really 'mai' (new): An authentic Thai restaurant in Seattle

A Phinney Ridge restaurant serves the kind of food you'd find in Thailand. With too few immigrants to provide the clientele, the most obvious target market may be hipsters. And anyone willing to live a little.
Mai Thaiku's main chef is Anne Sawvalak.

Mai Thaiku's main chef is Anne Sawvalak. Photo: Hugo Kugiya

 Kung Gonpoothorn (right) at work in the kitchen of Mai Thaiku.

Kung Gonpoothorn (right) at work in the kitchen of Mai Thaiku. Photo: Hugo Kugiya

This is a braised chicken dish called gaeng om gai.

This is a braised chicken dish called gaeng om gai. Photo: Hugo Kugiya

Grilled prawns: One of the many grilled meat "street food" style items.

Grilled prawns: One of the many grilled meat "street food" style items. Photo: Hugo Kugiya

The Thai New Year holiday, called Songkran, ended last week without much notice in Seattle unless you happened to eat at the Mai Thaiku on Phinney Ridge. The restaurant is the reincarnation of Thaiku on Ballard Avenue, which closed last year when its lease ended.

The original restaurant was one of the better of many indistinguishable Thai restaurants, whose numbers have grown to Starbucks-like proportions in Seattle. The reborn Thaiku, however, is something else, a risk, a leap of faith, a counterintuitive gambit, which, if successful, represents a watershed moment in dining.

To say Mai Thaiku is the best Thai restaurant in the state is a reasonable conclusion, but misses the point. Mai Thaiku might just be the first Thai restaurant in the state.

Mai Thaiku (mai means new in Thai) opened in February on Greenwood Avenue North in a repurposed bungalow previously used as an Italian restaurant. It was smartly designed with outdoor dining on the front porch, a discreet side door that opens into a jewel-box bar, a working fireplace and a kitchen fully visible from the dining room.

The menu is spare rather than encyclopedic, as many Thai restaurant menus tend to be. It asks a simple but provocative question: Can Thai people cook everyday, Thai food crafted for Thai palates and serve it to Americans on the main drag of a homogenous, white, upper-class neighborhood, and succeed?

 “We can’t just do the same thing anymore,” said Unchalee “Oh” Ayucharoen, manager of both the old and new Thaiku. “We wanted to do something different and we didn’t want to compromise. … I think Seattle is ready.”

The manager of the Mai Thaiku restaurant, Unchalee "Oh" Ayucharoen.

During Songkran, customers at Mai Thaiku were greeted at the door by a gentleman attired in traditional garments – he was a friend of the staff and a frequent customer turned temporary employee for the occasion. He explained to guests the significance of Songkran, an unfamiliar concept around these parts unless you live in the city’s southern reaches where there are a few Thai temples, called wats.

Songkran is celebrated over several days, much like our Mardi Gras. And like Mardi Gras, Songkran is an excuse for drunken, public revelry, at least in Thailand’s large cities. In Bangkok, celebrants invade the streets smeared in talc, armed with water guns dousing anyone in sight.

Its origins rooted in ancient astrology, Songkran falls in mid-April near the hottest day of the year in Thailand, and marks the end of the dry season. Logically, water plays a key role in the holiday, a symbol of purification, cleansing, and renewal.

After wishing customers a happy new year in Thai fashion, Mai Thaiku’s greeter offered to ladle water infused with spices and flower petals over their hands before seating them. Dessert, either sweet squash or baby bananas in coconut milk, would be on the house that evening, a waitress explained.

Most of Thaiku’s menu consists of cold dishes and what many would consider appetizers, various types of salads and skewers of grilled meat. There is a small list (five) of noodle dishes, and a slightly larger list (six) of “house specialties,” the closest thing on the menu to what most would consider entrees.

Noodles in curry broth, called khao soi 

Absent are the ubiquitous variations of yellow-red-green curries, and the spicy-sweet, mix-and-match stir-fried dishes made with the standard assortment of protein (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu). Very little coconut milk is used in Mai Thaiku’s kitchen, except in the desserts.

Most dishes are uncooked — Thailand is a fiercely hot country after all — and flavored with ingredients like tamarind, galangal, fermented fish, dried shrimp and pickled crab. The cooked food is either grilled or braised in a thin, fragrant broth. Nothing is deep fried, and the wok gets very little use here. Dishes are meant to be shared. The portions are light, which encourages eating a variety.


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