Fancy Be Damned
Madrona Drops Upscale Bistros for Unpretentious Thai Food
The Stranger could have reviewed the new Thai restaurant in Madrona back when it opened in July, but that would have been hasty—any upstart in that space could close by the time we printed the paper. In the last decade, the brick storefront on 34th Avenue and East Union Street has housed countless high-end bistros—so many that we can't recall them all—all of which went tits up before anyone could learn their names.
There was the gourmet delicatessen called Plenty, which was plenty delicious and plenty expensive. There was Supreme (serving "luxurious comfort food"), Drey's (adorned with flowing curtains and suede booths), and then Sapphire (the name says it all). Later there was Coupage, a Korean/French fusion restaurant that served $30 foie gras burgers with truffle fries. It closed last August, after 18 months. All of these erstwhile eateries were, as far as reasonable diners were concerned, fancy. And the new Naam Thai, with its blond-wood decor and elegant lighting, looks pretty fancy itself.
It's not that Madrona fancies itself especially fancy. When I was growing up a few blocks away in the 1970s and '80s, the corner of 34th and Union was, well, gritty. The intersection was anchored by a humble little grocery store called Joe's, run by a strident Chinese couple. There was also "the drug store," which dispensed a steady stream of Skittles, Faygo, and insulin. There was the hat maker. The burger dive. The Laundromat. That was Madrona. Back then, if someone suggested filling the space where Naam Thai opened—a video arcade where I once won a Centipede tournament—with an Asian/European-fusion bistro that serves duck-liver sandwiches for $30, the neighborhood would have cried laughing. But all these years later—after property values soared and Seattle convinced itself that Madrona wanted a fancy place—Coupage still flopped.
Naam Thai shares the elegant trappings of its predecessors. An architect in Singapore designed the entire place, says co-owner Deedee Techa. The massive wood panels on the back wall are drilled with swooping patterns. A huge steel cauldron jammed with ice and bottles of high-end spirits sits on the bar. Four of the tables are sprawling "day beds"—cushioned platforms with a table that cantilevers above the padding.
But to its great credit, Naam Thai lacks pretension. It's reasonably priced (most entrées run around $10). And it's mostly full. "The food is good enough to attract a lot of people, and pricewise, it's more affordable," says Techa, a 39-year-old former resident of Bangkok, who moved to Seattle to get a master's degree in finance at Seattle University. "I ended up with cooking because I think I'm better off, and good at it."
More importantly, six months after opening, she knows what the customers want. Forget the decor's implication of trendy, extravagant Asian fare. Naam Thai mostly dishes out straightforward, Bangkok-style street food: noodles, soup, curry. "Our customers come to a Thai restaurant looking for curry," Techa explains, "so we try to keep that on the menu." And Naam Thai does many of its dishes exquisitely. The Kee Mao noodles ($9.95) demand that you finish every bit. Sautéed brown here and there, the wide rice swaths are succulent and dressed in fresh sweet basil and a bit of egg. Tom Kha with chicken ($7.25), a basic coconut soup that's a Thai staple, had clean flavors while still featuring the pungent galangal and lime leaf. Guests can slurp their soup from the comfort of one of the day beds, which entice you to recline on a triangular pillow, kick out your feet toward guests sitting at regular tables, and try not to feel self-conscious about your socks.
There are delightful surprises: A grilled sirloin steak salad with lime-chili dressing ($9.95) is intensely tart, and the country-style pad thai ($9.95), with no ketchup but plenty of tamarind sauce, is a welcome departure from the Americanization of most Thai food. But other dishes are exactly what you'd expect from any Thai place in Seattle—generally well executed, but unmemorable: red curry with coconut milk ($9.95), chicken satay with peanut sauce ($7.95), and spinach with peanut sauce topped with overcooked chicken ($9.95).
On the downside, the menu has some adventurous items, but servers wouldn't recommend them to curious diners, instead steering us to fried spring rolls. Left to our own devices, we ordered the Miang Kham ($8.95), which requires the diner to wrap up peanuts, fried shallots, and dried shrimp in Thai betel leaves—but they were out both nights I went. Instead, we had chicken lettuce wraps ($9.95), featuring unremarkable chicken and shiitake mushrooms rolled in a leaf of iceberg lettuce.
And while Naam Thai has a full bar, many of the drinks are overshaken and slightly watery. That said, Kiki's Special ($7) is still worth it: sweet with lychee, fragrant with lemongrass, and a bite from the lime.
Adventurous, high-end cuisine is not the point of Naam Thai, nor should it be. Techa and her business partner, Kannika Treerittaweesin, are just serving up delicious, inexpensive Thai food. On two weekday nights, the restaurant was more than half seated (more than I ever saw at Coupage or its upscale predecessors). Moreover, caravans of Subarus and Toyotas heading back to their Madrona houses were pulling up, a driver hopping out, paying for a bundle of food to go, and hopping back into their cars. Techa says half of all orders are take-out.
Within a stone's throw to the south, the Madrona Eatery & Ale House bustles with beer, and the homey St. Clouds clamors with children eating mac and cheese. Naam Thai fits right in as an unpretentious utility. It might be just what the neighborhood wanted all along.