The story is a simple one, with the backpacks, paperbacks, conversations and revelations and hard work and luck all left to the imagination. As www.satayseattle.com says, "In the summer of 2008, two friends, Peter and Patrick, traveled through Southeast Asia. While staying with Peter's relatives in Malaysia, they got hooked on the local street food... Upon their return to the States, they missed the tastes and flavors they enjoyed in Malaysia. This got them thinking, and with the help of Peter's aunt, they set out to bring the authentic flavors of Malaysian street food to Seattle."
The place is simple, too: It's just called Satay, and it's got bright walls, brighter lights, and the distinct feeling that maybe Patrick and Peter got a deal on the rent after far fancier Avila shut down here. Satay's tables and chairs seem possibly sentient, like they've been blindly grouping and regrouping of their own accord rather than guided by human hands. The order-at-the-counter service is equally haphazard—sometimes Peter or Patrick remembers to tell you that the silverware and water and hot sauce is up a couple stairs on the mezzanine, sometimes not. "I'm a little out of it today," one of them might say, apologetically asking you to repeat your order. "You're not the only one," you might say; maybe you have a hangover, or it's raining, or it's just a miscellaneously groggy day—all perfect times to come to Satay.
The menu is short: a quick and necessarily idiosyncratic tour of Malaysia's overlapping Indian, Chinese, and Thai influences, with everything under $10. To begin at the beginning, the satay is just great—chicken, beef, lamb, or tofu, served with white or brown rice and a slaw-type salad. The chicken is flavorful, not bland white breast; visible bits of lemongrass are stuck all over it, and the deep sweetening of palm sugar balances the spicy marinade. Try it alone, then dip it in Satay's peanut sauce, hands down the best in town, dark and rich and chunky. The incompletely pulverized peanuts are roasted in-house, and this extra step makes all the difference—thank you, Patrick and Peter. And thanks also for the extra thought you put into the slaw—for the fresh mint and cucumber augmenting the cabbage, carrots, and bean sprouts, and for the sweet-tart lime/coconut milk/chili pepper dressing, which you should maybe serve by the glass.
Ordering a curry puff one evening prompted the response from either Peter or Patrick that the deep fryer wasn't warmed up (sad face). The other said, "Hmmm, we could turn it on..." They eventually reckoned it might take about 15 minutes for the curry puff to become reality, and was that okay? It was an unpretentious, unintentionally sweet exchange—almost as good as later on, when they stood rolling out curry-puff dough together, looking out onto nighttime 45th Street in Wallingford, talking then being quiet like friends do. The curry puffs are fat hand-sized pies stuffed with potato and carrot curry, surprisingly filling for $2.95. They're already a favorite, but the pastry is too sweet for my taste, and in no way any match for the magic that is the roti canai ($3.50). This is a golden-and-charred Indian flatbread, and at Satay, it's mostly made of air—like some species of fried croissant, definitely greasy but never grossly so. It comes to the table almost still sizzling, with a red-curry dipping sauce that smells a little like fruit and has a little heat, and you'll wish you had much, much more.
The red curry with rice ($7.95) is quite good, with the faint creamy-sweetness of coconut milk tempering the curry spices and the acid of tomato; its melty eggplant seems to be maintaining its integrity just long enough to touch your teeth and dissolve. The spiciness accumulates instead of bludgeoning. If you like spicy-hot-hot-HOT, get the mee goreng ($7.95) and tell Patrick/Peter to go for it—it's a fine, basic fried noodle dish, tasting mostly of hot-wok charring, ready to take some serious peppers. You can get yellow wheat noodles, which are traditional in some places, or, for a dollar extra, rice noodles (the edges of these skinny noodles get more caramelized).
The laksa ($9.95) wants the yellow noodles—slippery but substantive, spaghetti-sized but more square. Described as a soup, the laksa is very noodley, and the nutty-tasting, slightly oceanic, silky-and-spicy broth makes a thick sauce, golden like a monk's robes. Squeeze the lime over the top and bite into a big shrimp, and your mouth will go to Thai places; laksa is like tom kha gai's awesome cousin.
There's been some grousing online about Satay's prices, which is absurd. You can spend less than $20 a person here—including a Beerlao, or a Rainier tallboy, or a Thai roasted coconut juice—and get so full, you'll need to walk around the block afterward carrying your leftovers. Satay is an excellent place to over-order—it's all good, and it all tastes even better heated up in a skillet at home the next day. Also, you're not going to cook this food yourself, and the charming, shambolic Peter and Patrick are happy to make it for you.