In Little Uncle We Trust
PK and Wiley Frank, Chef/owners, Little Uncle
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When Poncharee Kounpungchart, aka PK, and Wiley Frank opened up their tiny walk-up Little Uncle on Madison in 2011, it was instantly hailed as the only place in town serving up fresh, authentic Thai street food. Their menu is modest but perfectly executed—Wiley used to be a sous chef at vaunted Lark—and the duo is so charming that you'll fantasize about taking them out for drinks, forcing them into friendship, and then cajoling them back to your place to whip you up a late-night snack. This summer, they opened a second, brick-and-mortar Little Uncle restaurant in Pioneer Square, expanding both their menu and their loyal following of hungry fans. Here the couple shares where to get great tacos with kids in tow, the fact that they (criminally) only make fried chicken for themselves, and more.
First off, why does your food taste so goddamn good?
We simply make the food we like to eat. Our great employees make a huge difference. Many of our employees did not start out like us—knowing a lot about Thai cuisine—but they are well-trained as cooks, nonetheless. We make sure that everyone enters the kitchen with a blank slate, because assumptions can cloud what we are attempting to put out.
What's the main difference between running a walk-up stall versus a brick-and-mortar restaurant?
The brick and mortar in Pioneer Square is 25 times larger than the slice of cement on Madison; we now have headaches 25 times as big. The larger space gives us more mobility and freedom to do whatever we want. However, the walk-up window allows us a customer interaction like no other. Nearly every dish we send out requires some sort of instruction or explanation. Being able to tell people about our food at the walk-up window is priceless.
In a Sophie's Choice–type situation, which location would you sacrifice?
What dish are you currently working to perfect?
Pad thai—it is a dish that always seems to be a work in progress. The technique can always be improved upon.
What's the best hangover cure from your menu?
Khao mun gai on the Pioneer Square menu—poached chicken, garlic chicken-fat rice, broth on the side, and a spicy sauce on the side. It warms your soul, even if you're not hungover.
What's your worst-ever kitchen disaster?
Running out of food way too early and having to shrug and tell people, "Sorry."
What's your favorite thing to make for yourself that isn't on the menu?
What do you cook at home?
Lad na, rice noodles with a meaty bean-paste-starch-thickened gravy, and kanom jin nam ya, fresh noodle bundles covered in an herbal meat-thickened curry.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in Seattle?
Eating out regularly usually involves getting our two children to go out with us, and everyone agrees on a couple spots: Tacos el Asadero on Rainier (the big silver taco bus), Pho Bac on Rainier or Boren, Northwest Tofu on Jackson, and Mike's Noodle and Henry's Taiwan in the International District. We wish we could grab more beers on the way home at Standard Brewing on Jackson and 23rd. When we make it to the North End, we try to get to Dot's Deli above Fremont.
What about guilty pleasure foods?
We do not get guilty about eating junk food, but we do eat plenty of Cheetos, frosted animal crackers, and those big bags of Filipino corn nuts with bits of fried garlic.
Where do you hope to be in 20 years?
PK will be making specialty sauces to sell wholesale, thus making more time to learn how to make furniture. Wiley will be relaxed, doing plenty of jogging and reading sci-fi novels.
What would be your deathbed meal?
PK: Noodle soups.
Wiley: Chicken soup with plenty of vegetables.
Any role models in the Seattle food scene?
John Sundstrom [of Lark] has always been a mentor to us. We could not be where we are today without his willingness to give us a kitchen to work in. We learn a lot from our peers who are also attempting to build small food- related businesses—we all understand that the stakes are high, and we learn from each other as to how to creatively make our respective businesses stick.
What's the highest compliment on your food that you've ever been given?
We love it when regulars continue to come back and allow us to order for them: "I don't know what I want, will you just make me something?" The trust that our regulars are willing to give us keeps us going from day to day.