Food & Drink

Fancy Be Damned

Madrona Drops Upscale Bistros for Unpretentious Thai Food

Fancy Be Damned

Victor NG

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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. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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What is it with lettuce wraps using iceberg lettuce? Why not use butter or red leaf that can actually be folded and rolled without breaking and has some nutritional value.
Posted by MarkH on January 6, 2010 at 1:49 PM · Report this
@1 Iceberg is crunchy and juicy and stays cold, so it's a good match with spicy, hot food as a wrap. The amount of nutrition you would get from 4-5 leaves of floppy, dry butter or red leaf lettuce isn't worth the compromise. Iceberg has its place - not in salads, but in a Thai wrap platter, yes.
Posted by Luckier on January 6, 2010 at 2:59 PM · Report this
Dead on with your assessment of why the other Madrona restaurants flopped. The Hi Spot has the price point for the neighborhood figured out and it's about time another restaurant caught on. I hope Naam Thai makes it. The food is delicious.
Posted by mint chocolate chip on January 6, 2010 at 3:32 PM · Report this
I tried this restaurant three times soon after it opened. No more. Despite my careful, repeated, pleading, they refuse to make the food "Thai hot." I sent food back and it didn't make any difference. They smile at you, nod, and ignore your order.

You know, there's a problem. Last time I ate there, there was a family seated next to me with two small children. The parents told the waitperson they wanted absolutely NO SPICE in their food-- because of the children! WHY THE HELL ARE THEY TAKING BABIES TO A THAI RESTAURANT?!? When a hot dog and chocolate milk is what they really want? I see what Thai restaurants are up against.

A food writer in LA carries a card around with him with this written on it in Thai: "I know I am an American, but please make the food as hot as I ask for." Can anyone get me one of those cards??
Posted by Meun umsik on January 7, 2010 at 11:55 AM · Report this
It takes an awful lot of energy to be a pretentious twit.

Go there, eat and have a nice time, and don't worry about wanting to be authentic - whatever that means.....
Posted by Mrs. Clyde Jenson on January 7, 2010 at 10:09 PM · Report this
Hey "meun umsik," I like your name (Korean for "spicy food"). I live in Korea and frequently travel to other Asian countries, including Thailand.

I have the same problem when I go to Thai places in The States. I tell them I like spicy food, I tell them that I live in Asia and CAN handle it, and still they invariably "whitey it down" for me.

I have a Thai friend who I'll get to make those cards.

Posted by tharp42 on January 8, 2010 at 5:35 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 7
I just tell them I'm from Texas. Usually gets me real spicy food.
Posted by Will in Seattle on January 8, 2010 at 11:27 AM · Report this
Naam's got the price point figured out for sure even though things could be $1 cheaper but its all good. They figured out--quality and price bring in volume, and with that you can make a ton of dough--not even counting the alcohol that people buy there 1-2 beers or mixed drinks per table adds up to a shit ton of profit for a restaurant like that over the course of 30 days. hell draft beers alone are so profitable its ridiculous.

Hooray for Naam, let's see who plows into Cremant and can turn Madrona into a little more of a CD oasis.

Posted by mlk and spring on January 8, 2010 at 11:44 AM · Report this
I never worry much about the hot/spicy factor. Almost any Thai place has a little tray of pepper powder, chilies in fish sauce etc., that you can just ask for. When the food shows just jack it up & you're good to go. Isn't that far better than trying to play "how many stars" hit-or-miss with the kitchen?
Posted by sabaidee on January 8, 2010 at 5:54 PM · Report this
Texas10R 10
"...iceberg lettuce? Why not use butter or red leaf that can actually be folded and rolled without breaking and has some nutritional value..."

Actually, iceberg lettuce contains a blood purifier not found in any other food. I would call that a valuable nutrient
Posted by Texas10R on January 9, 2010 at 9:28 AM · Report this
I love Naam's Miang Kham ($8.95), using Thai Betel leaves, dried shrimp, fresh ginger, lime and ooh! That sauce! OOH!
This appetizer is so fabulous I can see why they run out as quick as they do.
I recommend calling ahead and asking them if they are serving Miang Kham that day and possibly pre-ordering it for when you arrive.
If you haven't had the pleasure of trying this unique dish, you are in for a very tastey treat when you do.
I reccommend ordering something new everytime you go there until you've had everything on the menu at least once!
Only at Naam can you find a fabulous seafood dish for under $13!
They also serve my favorite desert, absolutely refreshing, coconut ice cream!
With so many return customers, they are sure to become a community staple.
See You There!
Posted by Charlie Page on January 10, 2010 at 7:46 PM · Report this
12 Comment Pulled (OffTopic) Comment Policy
Dominic, I too totally agree with your characterization. As a local Madrona neighbor I was thrilled to see a non-pretentious restarant in this spot. Yes, there's a lot of money in Madrona but there's a lot of us who are just house-lucky. It was really disappointing to see the succession of pretentious restaurants (Plenty, Surpeme, Coupage, Cremant, etc) come and go. Most of us ate there once, or occasionally, when we could afford it. Then no more-- certainly not frequently. What we've really wanted all along is a "regular" restaurant we can patronize frequently without breaking the bank, serving dependable tasty food. Naam has nailed it, and their food is quite respectable.

I'm hoping somebody figures that out for the space that housed Cremant, too. A casual French place (as opposed to a pissy one) would be a it.
Posted by Jim98122x on January 12, 2010 at 3:19 PM · Report this
#4... #9 has a good idea. i lived in thailand for a few years, and they usually will have spice on the side for your personal taste. cold dishes like green papaya salad should have a lot of fresh chilis already mashed up in the dish, but ask for "prik nahm plaa" for fresh hot chilis in fish sauce with garlic. this is a very delicious way to add spice to your meal, specifically in fried rice dishes. curry and pat thai usually uses the dried chilis. but don't let them skimp on the fresh ones!

my thai is uber rusty but you could try this on a card: ภัต เผ็ด. ขอบคุณ. (spicy food! thanks!)
Posted by loves hotass thai spice on January 12, 2010 at 9:43 PM · Report this

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