I’m a little ashamed that it took me this long to visit the new light rail station in the U District, my old neighborhood of almost a decade. Lord, who knew I’d live long enough to see it completed.
When I surfaced from the belly of the subway, I took a deep breath, standing at the entrance for a minute. I stared at Cedars of Lebanon and the vintage neon Flowers sign and the carved hunky punks on the Ugly Mug building, marveling at this modern, updated picture frame around the familiar view.
And then I wondered, Is that a new Thai place next to Cedars? I couldn't remember what used to be there. It'd all been behind a construction barrier for so long. I noticed the slick Thai script on the facade, took a couple of photos, and noticed the owner noticing me taking snaps. I guessed I'd better go inside.
It was “Uncle” Mark Pinkaow from Thai Curry Simple in the ID, instantly recognizable from behind his mask. Maybe everybody else knows that he’d set up shop here on 43rd and Brooklyn a couple years ago, but I’d had no idea, man.
Mark told me he started out in this spot as Wann Yen, selling Thai-style shaved ice—not “shave ice,” that’s Hawaiian—and other desserts, and he miraculously weathered both the UW-student-free first year of the pandemic AND the years of light rail construction. He’s recently rebranded as Mark Thai Food Box, now selling desserts plus all the classics from Thai Curry Simple as packaged dinners, packed with the microwavable cellophane on top, for ten bucks each. You can order them hot as well, with an option to eat in the tiny shop or outside at the pastel picnic tables on 43rd, provided by the U District Partnership. A caricature of Mark's face plasters just about everything in the shop, from the street facade to the reheating instructions for the meals to the T-shirt he was wearing.
And fuck yeah, I thought—of course I want a pork panang curry with jasmine rice that I can just stick in my bag, right now, to eat at midnight when I’m drunk. I mean, uh, if I'm drunk. You never know.
Mark’s got a mini-general store of sorts set up, too, with fermented kumquat and mango cups and bottled pad thai sauce and curry paste and homemade hot sauce. Beverages include Thai coffee and tea, palm juice, and passionfruit milk, among others. Along with the curry box, I walked away with a jar of ground pork in chili oil, a thing of spicy, lemongrassy khua kling sauce, and a water bottle featuring Mark’s face. I was back two days later for more pork panang, a rose milk tea, and a shrimp pad see ew box to go. This time, I saw that they have dessert rotis AND khao mun gai with winter melon soup, and I’m seriously going back for that shit, like, tomorrow.
Uncle Mark’s an animated dude, and we had a lovely impromptu chat—I knew him but he didn’t know me, but he did not care. The story is that he’s not affiliated with the original Thai Curry Simple at Fifth South and Jackson anymore; he sold it to a former employee who was running it for a while, but there was a fire in the space last year, and TCS is currently on indefinite hiatus. So, lucky us, that we can still get the same gorgeous meals just across town.
Mark and his wife, Picha, are from Bangkok and owned a few restaurants in New York City before moving to Seattle in 2009. “But Seattle is our home now,” he told me. “We get regulars coming in all day. Nobody is a stranger to me!” Evidently, since about half the customers who came in called him by his name.
Mark’s also very jazzed that the light rail station is finally open, that the construction barrier is gone, and that fresh new customers, like me, can actually spot his storefront and come check it out.
Picha explained how they got the idea for the grab-and-go boxes. "I ordered some microwave Thai food on Amazon Go and it... wasn't, uh, good. So I decided it's actually our responsibility to make real Thai food that people can cook at home, so they have a choice. They can try our stuff and the Amazon stuff and decide which tastes better.”
She said they're thinking about how to distribute the food boxes more widely, possibly getting some refrigerated vending machines for dorms and hospitals, automat-style, with the little doors that open. "So people can get our food late at night! While studying!"
Mark, meanwhile, is more concerned about the food itself and what goes in it. “My thing is about real Thai food. People ask me, ‘Why don't you have broccoli in your pad see ew?’ or ‘Why don't you put ketchup in your pad thai?’ and I'm like ‘No! That's not Thai food.’ I make it real, and so I always say that if you can eat my food here, and then you go to Thailand, you'll be no stranger to Thai food. You’ll know what you are doing. You’ll be okay.”
Mark and Picha have spent a lot of time feeding the hungry during the pandemic, visiting homeless camps to hand out the Thai food boxes. “I don't know what's in the future, but it doesn't matter what happens—you still gotta eat. So I’m making sure my people in my community are still eating. I’m figuring it out.”
The light rail station makes the journey real zippy, of course, but if you can’t make it out to the Ave, you can buy these same Thai food boxes with Uncle Mark’s head all over them at Ken’s Market in Greenwood or City Market on the Hill.
But if you can, I recommend stopping by Mark Thai Food Box in person so you can pick through all the interesting Thai bits and bobs they’ve got for sale, maybe try something new, and have a chat with Mark and Picha. Both of them—as well as the tiny shop itself!—are a total delight.