You can't throw a stick in Seattle without hitting a Thai restaurant or a man wearing Crocs. Thai food is to Seattle what Chinese food is to New York—so ubiquitous that it's as easy to eat every day as it is to forget about it completely. I lean toward the latter, a tendency I feel ashamed of after eating at Viengthong, whose authentic dishes issue an urgent reminder of the spicy complexities and sweet comforts of Thai cuisine.
Viengthong is not a restaurant that goes out of its way to be noticed. Its location in a small, dingy strip mall one block north of where MLK meets Rainier Avenue seems to insist upon being forgotten. I've eaten several times at Viengthong's neighbor Pho Nuong Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in grilled exotic meats, but somehow never noticed Viengthong. On my recent trip to this little cluster of businesses, I was distressed that Pho Nuong appeared to be shut down. (Phone calls to Pho Nuong and Nails Beauty College, the building's other tenant, indicate that these numbers have been disconnected.) So Viengthong presses on, lonely and quietly.
The inside of Viengthong is cozy and soothing. The dining room is painted lilac and maroon, filled with hanging plants and lovely fake orchids, and each table is covered in a hand-woven tapestry. At my lunchtime visit, there's a group of six women eating together, laughing and chatting as they fill each other's bowls with steaming, lemongrass-scented soup and pass a luscious whole steamed fish around the table. My friend and I exchange a look—it's completely inappropriate, but we're both dying to pull up two chairs and ask if we can join the feast.
Viengthong's menu offers "Lao-Thai cuisines." Laos and Thailand share a border and while the countries' cuisines overlap, Thai food is much more widely known, and is better represented on Viengthong's menu. One shared dish is som tum ($7), a tangy, salty salad of shredded green papaya with tomatoes, lime juice, chili, and peanuts. The papaya is wonderful—pliant but still crisp, each strand tart and plump with liquid. (Warning: We asked for "medium" heat, but Viengthong's som tum is downright fiery hot—so hot it's nearly impossible to finish a serving. It's probably made ahead of time and should not be ordered by those sensitive to spiciness.)
Egg rolls ($6.25 for six) are delightful—filled with ground pork; vague, pleasant bits of shrimp; and cellophane noodles. They are the perfect shade of dark golden brown, taken out of the oil just moments before being overcooked, flaky and smoky on the outside, still juicy on the inside.
Viengthong's pad thai ($7.50) is the real deal—none of the American-friendly, sweetened-with-ketchup noodles you find in many Thai restaurants. Instead, the pad thai is brown and moist, rich with flavors of soy and fish sauces and dried shrimp, and boasting generous, tender chunks of pork.
Barbecue chicken ($7.75)—pieces of white and dark meat marinated in coconut milk, garlic, and black pepper—is flavorful and moist with caramelized skin. Still, I found myself wishing that the skin was crispier and that the meat was on the bone. (The next day, when I had the cold chicken for leftovers, I was pleased to find that it had more of the flavor I had been missing. As is often the case with marinated meat, after another night left to sit in its own juices, the chicken's flavor deepened and became even tastier.)
What brings a whole meal at Viengthong together is the Laotian staple kao neaw, wonderful glutinous, sticky rice served in its own adorable woven bamboo basket ($3). Sticky rice—so nutty, sweet, and warm—begs to bind itself with every flavor on your plate. A handful of sticky rice rolled into a piece of barbecue chicken and some brine from the green papaya salad easily made the tastiest, most memorable bite of my meal.
Our waitress embodies everything I love about Viengthong—she is maybe four feet tall and her hair is at least three feet nine inches long. She is neither friendly nor cold, only vaguely warm, and she makes me want to work for her affection. Whenever she delivers a dish to the table or refills my glass, I make a point to smile and thank her. "Okay," she replies casually, as if to say, "Just doing my job." It seems that she should always be there, as should Viengthong, serving truly great Thai food to the people who choose to remember. As we leave, I vow to not forget.