About this time each year, I start thinking about moving to Thailand. The lowering gray skies, the blustery 4:30 p.m. twilight, and the dank procession of soggy mornings all make me pine for the gentle waves of the Andaman Sea and the heat of a fragrant green curry with just a kiss of sweet basil. Instead of braving the 20-hour flight to Bangkok, though, I just stuff myself with as much Thai food as possible during the long winter months.
It's no easy thing to run a Thai restaurant in a city where there are hundreds of them, and even extraordinary cuisine sometimes seems mundane simply from overexposure. That's why cozy Buddha Belltown is such a nice surprise. With just a handful of tables, a convivial bar, and a dance floor for late-night festivities, this Thai restaurant aims to be more than just another noodle shop competing for your pad kee mao dollars.
Managing partner Monte Clark, who purchased this review through the holiday magic of Strangercrombie, told me that he and his partner set out to do things differently. They started with the menu, which is admirably lighthearted. A much friendlier kiss system of spiciness supplants the traditional star scale, and evocative, titillating language enlivens the description of each dish. My friend and I couldn't resist the Lovely Rad Nah ($9) for example, enticingly sketched as "sensuous stir-fried, wide rice noodles and a medley of vegetables in a thick, sweet, yet surly bean sauce."
But beneath the menu's fanciful descriptions lies a passionate dedication to authenticity. The chef ran a restaurant in Bangkok for many years, and our congenial server told us that the restaurant's goal is to offer "real" Thai food. Not Thai fusion. Not Thai/American. Just plain old delicious, satisfying Thai.
The magnificent pad thai ($9) proves they're doing something right. Instead of dousing their noodles and tofu with a tomato-based sauce, Buddha Belltown features an authentic Thai recipe. Their homemade sauce incorporates tamarind paste, which adds a pleasing bite, a hint of smokiness, and a depth that tomato-based sauces simply don't approach.
Sadly, too many restaurants turn the glory of fried tofu into something that looks (and tastes) predigested. Buddha Belltown serves it up light and crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. In our appetizer plate, the Karma Sampler ($10), the fried tofu came with a garlic peanut sauce that was so perfectly spicy, sweet, and sour that I poured the remains of it over my pad-thai noodles. Also gracing the Karma Sampler were delightfully crisp fresh spring rolls, and a few nuggets of Cuddly Crab Darlings, which decadently combined crab and cream cheese in a deep-fried pouch.
Then it was time to begin eating in earnest. The steaming bowls of noodles, curries, and stir-fries that arrived in happy profusion were uniformly tasty and well presented. A few sprigs of cilantro stuck up like tiny trees from the Luscious Larb Salad ($8.50), a spicy, salty mixture of ground chicken, lemongrass, red onion, and fresh lime. When I closed my eyes, I could hear the bleating horns of the tuk-tuks near Siam Square.
The steaming bowl of Massaman Curry ($9.50) transported me even farther south, to the placid shores of the Gulf of Thailand, where fat coconuts ripen on the towering palms. The chicken and potatoes in this rich, sweet, curry were tender, with just the right amount of spice to keep things interesting. And I'll definitely be back for the chef's favorite Pad Nam Plik Pao ($9.50), crispy pieces of fried chicken in a gravy of soy and oyster sauce, chili paste, with a hint of sugar that makes this dish taste like entrée and dessert all in one.
Directed by Buddha Belltown's chef, we sampled nine dishes and quaffed several varieties of cocktails from the extensive bar menu. At last, we couldn't eat another bite and it was time to go. Returning to the wet reality of the Northwest, we barely felt the chill wind whipping down Second Avenue. What better testament to the pleasures of dining at Buddha Belltown than to say that my friend and I left stuffed, soused, and thoroughly contented?