Treasure Map in a Plastic Sleeve

For delicious Lao dishes, seek out the secret menu at Thai Palms.

Maliny Phengsavanh is used to hedging her bets. She opened Chao Praya, Kent's first Thai restaurant, 18 years ago. "It took us a year and a half to get busy," she says. "We almost folded. People didn't know about Thai food." She renamed gai pad mamuang "cashew chicken" so customers could pronounce it, and turned their special requests into popular menu items.At Thai Palms, a five-month-old restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in southern Rainier Valley, you can see her determination to please everyone in her four-color menu—a photo collage in itself with 151 numbered items."We're keeping the menu large until we figure out who our clients will be," Maliny (who goes by "Joy") told me on my first visit, when my eyes crossed and I asked her to guide us through the vertiginous variety. She listed classic Thai dishes, American-Thai fusion cuisine, Lao food, and a few other things she knows how to cook. Do you want "shrimp love," described as "giant shrimp lightly sauteed with eggs, onion, bell, celery, curry powder in house special sauce"? How about duck noodle soup, crispy catfish salad, shrimp and pineapple curry, teriyaki chicken, or pad Thai "(must try!!)"?No. You want the other menu. I didn't discover the other menu—of which there is only one copy, labeled "To Go Menu" and encased in a plastic sleeve—until my second visit.I'd been awaiting the chance to check out the place since I first spotted Thai Palms' sign advertising both Thai and Lao cuisine. Seattle is chockablock with Thai restaurants, but Lao food—either from Laos or the ethnic Lao regions of northern Thailand, like Joy herself—is much rarer. When my friends and I finally arrived a few months back, we entered into that polite dance adventurous white diners and Asian restaurateurs do with one another, in which one party is on a quest for novelty and horizon-broadening and the other party is trying not to scare away potential regulars. After explaining we wanted to try as much Lao food as we could, we ended up with a suite of dishes that vaguely represented northern Thailand, where the rice is sticky, coconut milk is scarcer, and the flavors tend toward the sour, the pungent, and the incendiary.It was fine, but not particularly distinctive. There was a green papaya salad, which—if you picked around the tiny raw crabs pounded in, shell and all, with the julienned fruit—could have come from any of my local spots. There was a thin and not particularly fragrant jungle curry; a salad of crunchy, deep-fried shredded catfish that needed more of its lime and fish-sauce dressing; a decent plate of mixed seafood, stir-fried with chiles, red curry paste, and basil leaves; and, as the menu advertised, a very good pad Thai indeed. Since Joy and her co-owner, Noi (aka Sheena) Seneboutarath, only had two parties in the restaurant, they spent a lot of time standing around our table, telling of us of Joy's previous restaurants in Kent and Tucson and swapping tattoo locations.Spoiled white guy that I am, I wanted more.On the second visit, my party included a friend who'd previously ferreted out the to-go menu, which included a column of dishes labeled "Lao Cuisine," with 15-20 dishes listed and no descriptions given. Again, we were the only diners in the restaurant, so we asked Joy, Noi, and Noi's husband to run down the entire list.Ordering off that menu signaled that we were seriously interested in trying Lao food, and just to prove our sincerity, we ordered far more than any nutritionist would approve of. Then Joy retreated to the kitchen to cook, Noi wandered to the other side of the empty room where her daughter was watching cartoons, and her husband ferried messages back and forth ("You sure you want salted fish?" made the rounds three times).Finally, we began to feast.First came the Thai sausages—pale, plump pork sausages densely flecked with lemongrass, lime leaf, chiles, and other aromatics. No sauce was needed, only slivers of raw ginger to add a fresh, tingly crunch. Next to them, a half chicken, spice-rubbed skin crisped and grill-blackened, taken off the grill just as the pink faded from the thigh bone. We swabbed chunks of the meat in a little bowl of jaew, a condiment that accompanies most every Lao meal. The jaew with the chicken was a paste of scorched chiles, garlic, shallots, and fish sauce, salty and intense. The more you scooped up, the more you wanted. A sweeter, denser jaew, almost a red curry paste, came with chunks of beef jerky, sweetly marinated meat that was half-dried and then fried, picking up a dense chewiness and a glossy crust.Noi ferried a woven basket of sticky rice from the kitchen, and we picked up chunks of it to wipe up the rest of the jaew until the second round arrived, more colorful and varied than the last. We spooned up chicken larb—another Lao staple—of finely minced chicken meat tossed with red onions, mint, cilantro, and some toasted rice powder. We dunked more chunks of sticky rice into bowls of kao som: shrimp and mixed vegetables in a clear, achingly tart orange curry whose heat built up sip after sip until my sweat-shiny forehead practically reflected beams of light around the room. I dabbed it off and spooned up a bowl of tom sen, in which rivers of clear, wispy bean noodles wound around chicken, green onions, and slices of baby garlic heads in a sweet, welcomingly bland broth. A few drops of chile-spiked fish sauce opened it up.And then there was the dish we could smell from 10 feet away: Chinese broccoli with salted fish. Those grey-beige chunks of fish smelled almost painfully pungent, until you picked up a ball of sticky rice and used it to grab some broccoli and fish—and the odor transformed into a massive wave of umami, deep and meaty. "This is poor-people food," the waiter kept telling us as we greedily sopped up the last of the gray fish liquid. "Some days, you only eat one meal: rice, some vegetables, and a bit of salted fish. There's a saying that you should not try to kiss a girl after eating it."But I'd say what we dined on was a meal for kings. 

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