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.
The chefs, Anne Sawvalak and Kung Gonpoothorn, who both grew up in Thailand, keep no peanut butter or ketchup in the pantry, and no food processor in the kitchen. Sauces, dressings, marinades are made from raw ingredients (some of which have to be regularly flown in from Thailand) usually in a mortar and pestle.
And then it dawns on you. Since the 1980s when the first few Thai restaurants started popping up like dandelions all over town, you have not been eating Thai food. Not really. You’ve been eating a re-branded form of Chinese food.
That swimming rama you were weaned on is no more Thai than the California roll is Japanese, or General Tso’s chicken is Chinese, or nachos are Mexican. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those dishes. All are delicious, ingenious in their own right and could happen only in America.
If you were to travel to Thailand, and order "swimming rama," and describe the dish as you know it, you would probably just confuse your server.
“I don’t know where swimming rama came from,” said Ayucharoen, who helped her grandmother operate a food stall growing up. “I think it’s an old dish. We have something like it, but it’s not like what you would eat here.”
At the bottom of Thaiku’s menu is a gracious footnote that reads, “feel free to order off menu and we will do our best to satisfy your request,” intended to accommodate the unsuspecting diner who came in planning to order cashew chicken, curry with coconut milk, and a side of pineapple fried rice, and to which I would like to append:
*You poor, bleeping, bastard, if you don’t possess the curiosity and joy to leave the cocoon of your existence for one meal, you should just take your small head and big stomach, get back in your mid-sized SUV with charcoal interior, and drive to the nearest branch of Lotus Blossom Star Siam Palace, or nearest mall food court, where someone can inject your soul with Novocain and hand you a menu more in line with your defeated expectations.
If, however, you think your tongue can stand a little heat, if you want to feel transported, pulled into the light, if you can mentally get past the notion that dinner must consist of a steaming platter of food the size of a pitcher’s mound, you might want to start by trying som tam, the national dish of Thailand.
“In Thailand we eat it at least once a day,” said Ayucharoen, who grew up in the eastern part of Thailand near the Laos border — the food of both cultures overlap broadly in that region.
Som Tam, commonly referred to around here as green papaya salad, can be made with unripe papaya, unripe mango, raw eggplant, cucumber, tomato, long beans, and fermented seafood. Dressings are made with, among other ingredients, garlic, chili, lime, fish sauce, palm sugar, and ground in a mortar and pestle to order. Thaiku serves seven variations of som tam, a sign that it is far more than a side dish in Thai culture.
A bowl of som tam, a few skewers of meat, and a small basket of sticky rice is a pretty typical and satisfying meal in Thailand, stuff you can easily buy from a street vendor. Most of the food at Thaiku is street food, Ayucharoen said, simple, ordinary and inexpensive, the opposite of special where it resides.
This type of food is what Thai immigrants in Seattle make at home. Finding it at a restaurant is next to impossible. There are many Thais in Seattle, Ayucharoen said (most of whom work in restaurants and get off work late), not quite enough however to form a reliable base of diners. In the U.S., perhaps only Los Angeles has enough Thai immigrants to support restaurants that cater to them.
By comparison the greater Seattle area supports plenty of Korean restaurants that cater to Korean immigrants, because they are large enough in number and firmly middle class – in other words they also have the money and the leisure to go out to eat on a regular basis.
Mai Thaiku does draw the occasional Thai expat, but the vast majority of its customers are the yoga moms, project managers, and software consultants who garden and telecommute from the remodeled craftsman bungalows on the ridge, and shop in its boutiques of faux-vintage dresses and mid-century furniture.
In other words, if you can’t get immigrants to eat your food, you might get hipsters to do it. Case in point: Pok Pok, the legendary Thai restaurant in Portland started by American chef-owner Andy Ricker, who similarly transplanted traditional, informal Thai dishes to an American kitchen. Both the Pok Pok in Portland, and its new outpost in Brooklyn, NY, are notorious for the lines that form outside them.
Both places have intentionally rough-hewn interiors to convey informality and gritty authenticity, softened by stylish bars that serve high-end, artisanal cocktails. Like Mai Thaiku, most of Pok Pok’s customers are not Thai.
Theirs is a formula other smart restaurateurs are following. The owner of Mai Thaiku, Jon Alberts, is also an American (whose wife is Thai). He also owns the Copper Gate in Ballard, where Thaiku periodically appeared as a pop-up restaurant in between homes, as well as Ballard’s La Carta de Oaxaca, and its sister restaurant Mezcaleria Oaxaca in Queen Anne – he plans to open another Mezcaleria Oaxaca in Capitol Hill this summer.
Ingredients for the house specialty, som tham, on display in a refrigerator case in the dining room
It took an outsider to recognize what a gift traditional Thai food could be to a place like Seattle. An insider, Ayucharoen said, is more reluctant to push boundaries, and risk alienation. Far safer to follow a tested formula and cater to established eating habits rather than challenge them.
With some luck, the continued success of Mai Thaiku will create like-minded competitors (a consequence Ayucharoen welcomes), perhaps not just other Thai restaurants, but high-end Cambodian, east African, Salvadoran and Filipino restaurants. The IQ and experience required to cook that food is already here. Somewhere in Burien, White Center, SeaTac, or Beacon Hill, the next hot concept is waiting to meet a new audience somewhere in Fremont or Capitol Hill, an audience ready to graduate from pho, tacos, and falafels to something more exotic still.
“If you make food you love, you should do it from your heart,” Ayucharoen said, “because you want to give that to people…not because of money.”