Veggie Thai at In the Bowl and Jhanjay Is Authentically Seattle

In a city where most households can pick three or four places to walk to for pad see ew, perhaps it's time to start distinguishing between Thai restaurants that attempt to guard their Thai sensibilities (May Thai in Wallingford and Racha on Lower Queen Anne come to mind) and those that specialize in sweeter, milder, less sour, Chinese-influenced, Americanized Thai food. After all, Tex Mex has already made a solid claim to be treated separately from Mexican food. Italian food in America isn't just "Eye-talian" anymore—it's either old-school Italian-American (red sauce and meatballs), regional Italian (cooked by chefs fresh off the plane), or new-school Italian-American (think Molto Mario). Though the definitive Chinese-American cookbook hasn't come out yet, most of us long ago recognized that our paper-carton mu shu is distinct from what we'd eat in China. American vegetarians and their black-bloc wing, the vegans, have long found Asian restaurants to be heavier on the veg fare than diners and more receptive to tofu-substitution requests. (With the exception, perhaps, of Filipino places; they're with me in the pork-and-fish lover's club.) Araya, which does veggie Thai in the U District, is already doing well. So it was perhaps inevitable that In the Bowl and Jhanjay Vegetarian Thai appeared within several months of each other. Five months old, In the Bowl's cadmium orange, 10-table room on Capitol Hill is popping every night, and the proportion of noodle slurpers wearing stovepipe jeans and marine-striped tees is high. There's also a high staff-to-diner ratio. Most of the staff are Thai women and men in their 20s, who yell to each other over the crowd as they weave through the tables or dip baskets of rice noodles into huge stockpots of boiling water. The usual sections of the Thai-American menu—curries, stir-fries, etc.—are here referred to as "episodes," and that's not the end of the cuteness. The "stir-fried episode," in turn, lists dishes (or should they be "scenes"?) with names like Triple of the Fresh—otherwise known as snow peas, carrots, and asparagus, stir-fried in a spicy brown sauce—and Go Green With the Beans, a decent version of green beans stir-fried with chili paste and basil (or what most places call prik king). The noodle "episode" is the longest, and lists just about every kind of Asian pasta you can think of—fat rice noodles, tubby udon noodles, transparent bean threads, golden yakisoba. Its highlight, as far as I tasted, may be creamy "coconut milk noodles" perfumed with green curry paste, basil, limes, and pineapple, a Thai fettuccine Alfredo. Most of the dishes offer your choice of tofu or fake meat. I love the squishy, chewy texture of most gluten- or soy-based meats, and the way they suck up and concentrate the flavor of the sauce they're in. At In the Bowl, though, stick to the dark flesh. The duck and beef tasted—well, maybe "felt" is a better word to use—like thinly sliced flank steak. Ham, which isn't on the menu but was offered to us when the prawns were sold out, came in dense pie-shaped wedges shaved off the mother loaf. Soy fish, wrapped in seaweed, was the most eerily apt of the forgeries, and whoever manufactured the chicken loaf also tried for authenticity and ended up with generic-brand chicken bouillon cubes. While the menu may be high-concept, the flavors are not. The "spicy roasted soy protein duck salad" (now, isn't that a name to make the imagination soar?)—a lettuce salad with onions and mint as well as the duck—was dressed in a spicy lime dressing that predominantly tasted like soy sauce. The ginger noodles, which were stir-fried with a veritable cornucopia of crunchy vegetables, came out as a straightforward Chinese-style chow mein, pleasant if not particularly heavy on the ginger. The flavor of toasted red chiles dominated a red curry. After the meal, the waiters drop off little bowls of a sweet black rice soup with corn kernels and salty coconut milk, which could just be the truest-tasting Thai dish in the place. Even if little stands out, In the Bowl is certainly solid and cheap. Jhanjay Vegetarian Thai, on the same 45th Street block in Wallingford as Bottleworks, has higher aspirations. Its waitstaff wear uniforms, for one, and pay attention to you more than they do one another. The owners have covered the walls of the high-ceilinged, narrow storefront in nubbly, gold-dusted burgundy paint, accented with only small hints of Thai design. Every surface in the open kitchen reflects a silvery gleam, and I even spotted a prep cook wearing plastic gloves while he chopped carrots. Clearly a restaurant designed to impress. Jhanjay's list of fourscore dishes is about the same length as In the Bowl's, though divvied up into more normal categories, and here, too, "exotic"-sounding dishes are actually pretty standard Chinese-American. For instance, mango tofu turned out to be your average sweet and sour, and "abundant asparagus"—fat stalks of crisp green asparagus with black mushrooms and slices of mushroom cake—might have qualified as Thai because of the chili flakes in the sauce. It was a solid stir-fry, and like every dish I tried, attractively presented. Every dish at Jhanjay comes packed with a confetti of crisp vegetables, enough to make the USDA "Eat Your Colors" campaign, as well as your choice of steamed or fried tofu, a nonspecific soy meat, and the chewy, flavorful mushroom cake, which I'd order in just about anything. Not surprisingly, you can order brown rice on the side. Most everything I ate was good: the airy, light corn fritters, which came with a sweet garlic-chile dip; the pan-roasted tofu satay with sugary peanut sauce; the not-too-oily cream-cheese wontons. They couldn't season the rad nah with fish sauce, so the cooks added sweetened fermented soybeans to give some depth to the chile-speckled gravy that they ladled over fat rice noodles. Though the red curry lacked the rumble of fish sauce underneath, it had all the creamy sweetness of coconut milk, the fragrance of lemongrass and galangal, and enough heat to turn my cheeks the color of the sauce. Sweet, spicy, fresh, healthful—what else could a Seattleite want?

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