With Thai restaurants everywhere, why are authentic 'boat noodles' so hard to find?

Eating on the Edge: The noodles get their name from the boats that have long served them on the canals and rivers of Thailand. But around here, the best way to find them is to head to a strip mall.

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Noodles or nails, take your pick. Noodle Boat restaurant sits in a strip mall in Issaquah.

Eating on the Edge: The noodles get their name from the boats that have long served them on the canals and rivers of Thailand. But around here, the best way to find them is to head to a strip mall.

I chased rumors of rare, exotic noodle soup to Gilman Boulevard in Issaquah, the kind of street that almost every town and city in America has. To have a street like it is arguably the very definition of being an American town.

Nearby, big stores like Target, Barnes & Noble, and Bed Bath & Beyond act as tall pines for the small shrubs that flourish beneath, many with universally familiar names or concepts. McDonald’s is next to Gravity Jane Crossfit. Starbucks is next to the Mad Scrapper. Wells Fargo is next to Eastside Kick Boxing and Doubletake Vintage & Consignment. Petco is next to a Gold’s Gym.

Strip malls, their battered reputations aside, exert an equalizing effect in small towns and exurbs, giving relatively isolated communities the same amenities you might find in a large city. So Issaquah has a Jack in the Box, Round Table, Trader Joe’s, KFC, a UPS Store, Chipotle, a Tutta Bella and a Lombardi’s restaurant, a Panera, a Julia’s, a PCC grocery, and a number of yoga studios, making it not so different from, say, Wallingford, if not as quaint. Quaint is a quality that is hard to define, but most know it when they see it.

Main streets of older towns seem to have that quality, a sense of having been there for a while, of having sprouted organically, of having personality. They are cute. The strip malls of Issaquah are not. They have neither historical value (yet) or very much personality (yet) but seem to function nicely. Like all strip malls, they also accommodate our habit for cars, demanding neither guilt nor pain for driving.

As it happens, one of these strip malls contains one of the most remarkable Thai restaurants not just in Issaquah but in the entire Seattle area. Nearly hidden from view, Noodle Boat is set back slightly in a narrow storefront next to a nail salon, at the far end of a homely, beige complex of stores.

Circling the parking lot, working to find it, I am reminded that so much of the best traditional, ethnic cooking is done far from the centers of large cities here and elsewhere — that Lynnwood, Tukwila, Bellevue, and Federal Way, collectively, have the best Asian and Latin food in the county because that is where many immigrants choose, or are able, to live.

That pattern is increasingly obvious and true as central cities become more homogeneous and suburbs become more diverse, changing what we used to think of as the definition of a suburb. Issaquah is not necessarily that kind of suburb, but it does happen to have some exceptional Thai food.

Thai food has become so assimilated into American dining that eating it is a common, everyday experience that does not depend heavily on concentrations of actual Thai people. Serve Thai food almost anywhere and, as a business owner, you’re likely to have a sure hit, even if the food is of mediocre quality.

In short, Thai food is the new Chinese food.

Which is to say, it is plentiful, fairly uniform, often good but seldom great, rarely surprising, and increasingly tame. Just as we bred dogs to emphasize favorable characteristics over undesirable ones, cooks in Thai restaurants have emphasized flavors that play well (sweet, tangy) over those that do not (musky, bitter, overly spicy).

Slather anything in peanut sauce, or sauté it with basil, and you can call it Thai food these days. Shopping malls and airports have Thai food; truck stops are not far behind.

In both execution and variety, Noodle Boat goes further than most Thai restaurants. For example, where most offer only a handful of noodle dishes, Noodle Boat serves 13, including the one that seems almost impossible to find around here despite the hundreds of Thai restaurants all over the area.

The first hint of what makes it special is in its name, Noodle Boat, a reference to the many food vendors in Thailand who prepare and sell lunch from boats in the canals and rivers of Thailand, giving rise to a famous and beloved dish called boat noodles, a beef and rice noodle soup with a rich, spicy broth enriched with pig’s blood. The blood-infused broth and the organ meat usually floating in it are what make boat noodles what they are.

Next to phad thai, it seems boat noodles are the most popular noodle dish in Thailand, yet they are nearly impossible to find in the U.S., outside of Los Angeles. They are as rare in Seattle as Thai restaurants are common.

Noodle Boat calls its boat noodles “noodle boat” on the menu. Is fairly resembles the waterborne original but is gentler, made without blood and without the more adventurous cuts of beef. One of Noodle Boat’s servers (who is Thai) explained that demand for true boat noodles is simply not high enough to warrant making a large batch of broth (which she said is apparently necessary if you are going to do it right).

Most of Noodle Boat’s customers are not Thai (nor are they Asian). In general, not a lot of Thai people live in the Seattle area, compared to the number of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Koreans. Seattle has a lot of Thai restaurants, not a lot of Thai people. Consequently, Noodle Boat thickens its boat noodles not with blood but with a small amount of coconut milk.

The noodles are served with your choice of pork or beef (tender slices of flank), spinach or Chinese broccoli, cilantro and scallions. The broth is dark, complex, both sweet and tangy, with a hint of star anise. It comes as spicy or as mild as you desire, although it is intended to be a very hot dish.

Traditional boat noodles are served with fried pork rind, liver, tendon, tripe, meatballs, and crushed chilis. In the United States, one of the few places you can easily find a traditional blood-and-guts version is Los Angeles, which has a “Thai Town” along the east end of Hollywood Boulevard. There, a large Thai community created the demand for authentic boat noodles.

The Noodle Boat version is about as close as we get to Bangkok or Hollywood, and raises complicated questions: Is something less authentic also less good? Is authenticity necessarily a virtue? Noodle Boat’s boat noodles ($8.95) are delicious and unique. And in their own way, they are authentic…to Issaquah at least.

Good as they are, however, they are not the boat noodles of legend. Short of a flight to Los Angeles, a good compromise can be found on another big American boulevard that is also known for that blight we call the strip mall. Aurora Avenue North is the landing zone of many strip malls, big and small, old and new. The farther north you drive, the more you see.

Among the many inconspicuous Vietnamese restaurants that set up along this street is the 5 Seasons Grill at North 97th Street. Seldom crowded, the 5 Seasons distinguishes itself in only one way: with a regional noodle soup that, while Vietnamese in provenance, is strikingly similar to traditional Thai boat noodles. On the menu the dish is called “bun bo Hue,” Hue being the central, coastal city in Vietnam where the owners are from and where this noodle soup is popular. Made with offal and beef blood, it is not a soup for the faint-hearted and is not found at many Vietnamese restaurants.

Incidentally, if I seem to want to defend strip malls, it’s because I have always secretly loved them. They represent the ideology of “Main Street U.S.A.” more accurately than actual Main Streets, which are often highly curated, manicured, retail showcases designed to attract tourists and discretionary shoppers.

Strip malls, on the other hand, are places for everyday transactions like dropping off your dry cleaning, buying batteries, or grabbing a slice of pizza. It is still a place where mom-and-pop businesses (something we all purport to love even as we bash strip malls) can afford to set up shop and compete with big box stores and national chains.

Ballard Avenue might be quaint and pretty, but it’s expensive. Well-funded restaurants can afford to open there, but not restaurants like the 5 Seasons Grill or Tropicos Breeze next door (which I reviewed last year). A preponderance of interesting, traditional restaurants reside somewhere in a strip mall on Highway 99. The quality of the food is not uniformly superior, but these places almost always succeed in surprising you.

The Hue noodles are not listed on the same page as the 5 Season’s pho noodle soup, but with a bunch of miscellaneous specialties. Hue noodles ($6.49 for a small bowl, $7.49 for a large) is made with a dark, rich beef broth infused with onions, lemongrass and dried chilis. Instead of flat noodles, you get round. The soup comes with blood cake, beef tendon, sliced pig feet, fish cake, and tripe and meatballs if you want them. It is the most distinct of all the dishes at 5 Seasons, an electrified variation of pho with a different range of flavors.

Although a Vietnamese restaurant, 5 Seasons also offers Chinese dishes and even teriyaki, none of which is very good. The pho, grilled pork, grilled shrimp, and summer rolls are no better than the kind served by every Vietnamese restaurant in town. Its Hue-style noodles, however, are one of a kind, a close cousin to Thai boat noodles, and a risk that probably only a strip-mall restaurant can take.

If you go: 5 Seasons Grill, 9724 Aurora Ave. N., 206-522-5550. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Noodle Boat, 700 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Suite E-104-B, Issaquah, 425-391-8096, www.noodleboat.com. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and for dinner Sun.-Thu. 5 p.m.-9 p.m., and Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.