ONE: The food at Thai Curry Simple—down the disheveled block from Carpet King, across from the pigeon gallery above the International District transit tunnel—is simply great. Owner Picha Pinkaow, who owned four Thai restaurants previously in Manhattan, is from Bangkok and still has a good friend there. "I talked to my friend years ago about how to make curry more affordable and simple," she says. Now that friend takes Pinkaow's grandmother's curry recipes and "mashes up green pepper, yellow pepper, galangal, and lemongrass," and then ships them to Seattle. You can't get the same ingredients in the United States—for instance, the panang curry contains the peel of bergamot oranges—and most Thai restaurants in Seattle use second-rate dried American spices or prepackaged curry. "Well, the other curry, they use the cheap ingredients, with a lot of salt. We don't have to worry about how much salt and sugar is put in." There's no MSG, either. The green curry is the standout, with the perk of lemongrass and big hunks of bamboo shoot. The massamun curry has cinnamon, tamarind, and fennel seed, but it's the one low point (they don't use peanuts because some people are allergic to them, which is considerate but makes it watery). There's also a great pad thai (not too sweet and zippy with tamarind) and an excellent noodle soup.
TWO: All the curries and noodle dishes are five dollars—five dollars. FIVE. DOLLARS. Thai tea lattes and Thai coffee lattes are $2.50. The tea is hazard-orange and tastes like a spice garden in a paper cup. "They come back because of the food, not because of the price," Pinkaow says. "You don't have to charge a lot for very good Thai food."
THREE: Picha Pinkaow and her husband are the cutest couple ever. She opened her first restaurant in the West Village 12 years ago. She hired a man named Mark to tend the bar, but then they parted ways until he called her: "We talked on the phone all night after nine years," he says. They came here to open Thai Curry Simple. Now he won't shut up about how wonderful she is. They are both adorable—together, they are exponentially so.
FOUR: The old Thai lady in the corner. A young Asian woman who's walking past decides to "pop in," she tells the old lady. "Good choice," the old lady says. "It is very popular here. Fresh ingredients." The young woman lives in Gig Harbor. "It is much more lively here," says the older woman. "Better than Tacoma." The old lady moved from Thailand to Australia for 20 years, and then to Seattle, she says. The traffic outside surges with vans and chartered buses. "There was a Microsoft shareholders meeting today. A lot of people came from out of town." Who is this woman with her finger on the pulse of the ID, the city, the entire region? "She is a retired lady, comes in to help," says Pinkaow. "I say, 'Do you want to get paid for it?' 'No,' she says. 'I just want to get food.' We just met last Friday and she says, 'I will come in and help.' I thought she was kidding. She is here every day now," Pinkaow says.
FIVE: Hot sauce. I am eating a pad thai augmented with dried bird's-eye chilies in mahogany-colored oil that you serve yourself from a small translucent tub that travels from table to table. The lid says, "Thai super hot sauce, One spoon = 20 stars, no kidding." I have two spoons (40 stars!) and am nearly hallucinating, listening to the old lady talk.
SIX: Birdhouses. Hanging from the ceiling, there is a bird church, two bird lighthouses, what looks like a bird post office, a bird country store, a bird Craftsman bungalow, and a bird town house. They came from one of Pinkaow's previous restaurants, which was backyard-themed, complete with patio furniture, plants, and birdhouses. Lots of birdhouses.
SEVEN: DIY. The restaurant has a cooler with little packets of the authentic Thai concoctions—which, to reiterate, literally come from Thailand—that you can take home and mix with coconut milk for curry, noodles for pad thai, green papaya for salad, etc. I made the panang curry; it was the best Asian thing that's ever come off my stove. The packets are $2 each. Buy them and amaze your friends.
EIGHT: Shampoo. Next to the cooler are a variety of sample-size Thai shampoos. "It is not really for sale, but it has a price tag in case somebody wants to buy it," Pinkaow says. But she is careful to note: "It is travel-size. Very convenient." She and Mark like the general stores and cafes common in Thailand (which sell everything from squid snacks to oscillating fans), and the front door of Thai Curry Simple says, "General store and coffee."
NINE: Dessert. There are about six different types of roti, fried dough that is buttery and flaky on the outside and almost gummy-chewy on the inside. The most expensive—$3—is the roti rolled up around sweetened condensed milk, chocolate sauce, and banana. It tastes perfectly of its four parts. There's also a breakfast roti with egg. In the coolers are various desserts—kanomes—made from rice flour, coconut milk, mung bean, and love.
TEN: Generosity. "If people know about Thai food or like spicy food, I like to give them a sample of something on the house," says Pinkaow. Before they knew I was reviewing the place, I'd already received freshly mixed Thai tea, Thai coffee to make at home, a ground-chicken salad with chilies and lime, and a pack of cookies. Go, eat, and find many more great things about Thai Curry Simple.