The other night my wife and I dined at Mai Thaiku, the newly opened Thai restaurant in Phinney Ridge, the neighborhood we live in here in Seattle. I began the evening with a healthy open mind dosed with some trepidation and a haunting memory of a Thai food horror. That memory would soon be shattered and my opinion of the food redeemed, uplifted, rekindling a love of Thai cuisine.
Let me explain. Nigh on ten years ago I foreswore Thai food. Back in my post-college days as a free-wheeling rock-and-roller in Santa Barbara, California, I would often frequent one of a handful of Thai restaurants on State Street that shall remain nameless (mostly because time has erased my memory of its name). I was hip. I was cool. I was international. I liked my Thom Kha Gai and my Pad Thai and the myriad other dishes they served up. But one night, in the Spring (we’ll say it was the Spring, to set the mood, although I have no recollection of the season, and it’s often hard to tell anyway in that temperately mild seaside college town), while dining with one of my closest friends, they brought me my regular Thom Kha Gai. Only it wasn’t regular. It smelled…funny. It smelled worse than funny, it smelled like ass. I mean that literally. I was loath to eat it. And as soon as I made that connection, with the odd way that the mind works, I ended up associating all Thai food with that horrible smell.
I tried to redeem Thai food over the next decade, I really did. Unfortunately, during most of that period I was living in Baltimore, which suffers a dearth of good Thai food. Sure, there’s Thairish, but, I mean, seriously? That’s one step up above bar swill. And there’s Thai Restaurant, which is, well, decent, but certainly not redemptive. I believe I tried Thai food when visiting London, but all I remember from that experience was being up half the night, sick, either from the heat intensity of the chilies, or from some more nefarious cause.
Fast forward to a Wednesday evening in February of 2013 here in Seattle, on Phinney Ridge, the night damp, approaching drizzly. We were in the grip of hunger, and Mai Thaiku was crowded, with about a half-hour wait. We managed to snag two seats at their bar, Fu Kun Wu, which offers alcoholic herbal elixirs, fusion cocktails, and classic standbys such as Singha. Nearby jars of strange herbs and roots were pickling. Odd cabinets near the ceiling were filled with peculiar items, evocative of both Thai Buddhist devotion and a strange apothecary theme. My wife ordered a beer, and I decided to try the Mekhong Rye, a fusion Manhattan made with Old Overholt and Mekhong, Thailand’s national spirit that’s a combination of sugar cane and rice alcohols with secret herbs and spices, and named after the river that flows from China through Southeast Asia and into the South China Sea in Vietnam. It was smooth – the Mekhong Rye, that is – and tasty. The bartender recounted a story of many mornings in Thailand waking up to splitting headaches and empty bottles of Mekhong.
Finally a table opened up in the small two-room dining space, and we were seated. The alcohol, along with the quirky votive-apothecary-graffiti style of the restaurant, complete with a black silhouetted with a question mark inside and a red bespectacled buck-toothed smiling and winking crab, put me at ease.
I wanted to sample everything on the menu, it all sounded fantastic, and also more healthy than I remembered Thai food to be, with the typical heavy-coconut-curry Thai dishes all but absent from the menu. Pad Thai was listed, most likely as a peace offering to the uninitiated, and there were a number of vegetarian items to appease non-meat-eaters (although if you are a vegetarian I’d check first to see if there’s fish sauce involved in their making), including a soup (I believe) of three types of mushrooms.
Since ordering every single food item was not, however, an option, we settled on five different dishes ranging from appetizers to skewers to a noodle and a soup entrée, which seemed to represent a broad selection of their offerings. Bamboo shoot salad with cabbage and green beans. Vermicelli and eggplant with pork rinds and candied anchovies. Their signature “Crying Tiger” marinated beef flank steak with dipping sauce (upsold to us by a brilliant waitress). A perfectly cooked skewer of four little squids. And, by far the coup d’état, a pork rib soup with a rich broth of Thai chilies, galangal, lemongrass, and herbs. On the side, smoky and beautifully multicolored sticky rice.
The wait was not short, but we expected as much from a restaurant bursting at capacity. We kept the drinks flowing, and the food arrived at our table as it was ready, in no particularly discernible order. But we didn’t care. Each dish shined, fresh, rich with flavor, complex with chilies and herbs and ginger, combining different textures, not too heavy, not too salty! By God, or Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, this is what I was missing, and what Thai food is supposed to be.
Thai cuisine resoundingly redeemed. No ass soup in sight.
The dining experience lasted two hours. The wait time was worth it, and gave us a chance to take in the ambiance, watch the other patrons, the waitresses, and the team cooking behind the counter.
Post-Script: Only later today did I learn that this is the second incarnation of Thaiku (sorry, but you’ve got to cut me some slack, I’ve only been in Seattle eleven months). It previously lived in Ballard and its bar, Fu Kun Wu, was named in 2006 and 2011 to Esquire magazine’s best bars in the United States. Apparently closing in December of 2011 due to a property dispute with the landlord, I’m glad it’s resurfaced in Phinney Ridge, within easy walking distance of my house. I anticipate many more nights sampling their incredible fares and hopefully, one day, ordering off-menu, to which they’ve noted in the fine print that they’ll try their best to accommodate, and which gives me the hope that there are many more Thai dishes that the chef has waiting in the wings, simply biding their time.