Mon-Thurs 11:30 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am-9:30 pm, Sun 5-9 pm.
I'd made my way to Araya's during a week spent overindulging in meat, specifically cow. For a dinner party I'd prepared some two-inch rib-eye steaks and slicked them with bone marrow; another day I went out to eat with a couple of friends and all three of us ordered beef entrées. My identity as an omnivore was threatened; I'd been ignoring the vegetable world. I hoped Araya's could straighten me out.
Araya's, a vegan Thai restaurant, is just the kind of peaceable kingdom you'd expect it to be (queendom actually, since like many Thai chefs, Araya Pudpard is a woman). It's got golden walls, potted plants, a blue-sky-painted ceiling, quilted wall hangings, and dancing sculptures. The air is heated to near steaminess, and there's a high dreadlock count among the diners. But there are also a couple of Middle American parents eating happily with--one can only imagine--their newly radicalized college-aged kids. And that's the good thing about Thai food: You can easily go vegetarian, or vegan for that matter, in mixed company.
Normally, when I cook a vegan meal, I end up going the Mediterranean way, using olive, walnut, or pumpkinseed oil here and there to add flavor that might otherwise come from meat, butter, or cheese. The beauty of a Thai meal is that the shift to vegan is almost unnoticeable. Thai cooking oils are vegetable-based, and the food gets its complex flavors from non-animal sources: coconut, coriander, galangal, chilies, and kaffir lime. Besides, most of the meat in Thai food, at least as it's cooked in American restaurants, is vestigial anyway. I often order my curries and noodles with eggplant or tofu rather than chewy, overcooked shreds of pork or chicken. The only really characteristic Thai flavor that isn't vegan is fishy--most notably, the funky back note of fish sauce or nam pla. At Araya, they use thin soy sauce to simulate nam pla's fermented depth.
Vegetarian diners get accustomed to having only a choice or two on menus, but Araya's menu stretches on and on, entirely skipping the standard portobello mushroom "steak." In among the canonical Thai options--spicy coconut-milk soup, panang curry, Bathing Rama--are offbeat curries that skew toward the sweet: avocado, pineapple, and a vast, red pumpkin curry ($12.95) that's filled with smooth hunks of squash, crisp slices of broccoli and bamboo, and several forms of soy, including a kind of soy bologna and a chewier "bean composition." Vegetable cakes (like Asian knishes made of rice paste and stuffed with tasty Chinese leeks) are both pleasant and ponderous ($6.95). Rad na, made with the fat noodles I often prefer to rice sticks in pad thai, is bathed in a thin soy gravy, pleasant and messy to slurp up, with plenty of vegetables to crunch into--broccoli, carrots, and cabbage, for the most part ($6.95). The broccoli is a regular supporting player in Araya's food, popping up in so many curries and noodle dishes that I think it's acting as a signifier of vegetarianness. The pastel cover illustration of the first Moosewood cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, kept popping into my head.
Much to its credit, and like many other U-District restaurants, Araya's also has a cheap lunch buffet ($5.99). As a kid, my parents would only take my siblings and me to restaurants with endless salad bars and endless steam tables. The abundance on display at the local Coco's was thrilling to a little girl with wide eyes and a big belly, and I still get a little all-you-can-eat thrill each time I grab an empty plate and start spooning away. Araya's buffet starts with a salad bar--a sesame'd spinach salad and sweet marinated cucumbers--and then offers soup and egg rolls with peanut sauce. It's the hot table, though, where you can really store up for the day on dishes like a low-key pad thai, vegetable fried rice, and a gentle green vegetable curry. Of course, there's more broccoli in everything.
Sweet and broccoli-heavy as it can be, the food at Araya's, much like early Moosewood, has a kind of homespun wholesomeness that seems like good medicine this time of year. Unlike Moosewood, however, there's no cheese.