We’re fortunate in the Seattle metropolitan area that a large number of Asian restaurants have opened in the last, say, 20 years, one of the definite perks of living in a large city on the West Coast. Among the many ethnic varieties, a new Thai restaurant seems to be opening every week. Just last week, Pestle Rock began business in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. Their specialty is Isan (or Isaan) regional cooking, a cuisine that is distinct from the more well-known food of central and southern Thailand. The northern region’s proximity to Laos and Myanmar (Burma) influences its food more than the rest of Thailand. Its main staple is sticky rice.
Our waiter was good enough to explain some of the differences. He said, for example, that their menu does not include phad thai, a Central Thai staple which diners come to expect at a Thai restaurant and considered a national dish. The cooking also makes very liberal use of chiles, tamarind and herbs. As distinct from regular nam pla, the anchovy-based fish sauce that is ubiquitous in Thai cooking, Isan uses pla ra, a pungent mash of fermented snakefish. I didn’t establish whether Pestle Rock uses it or not. Green papaya salad is also of Isan origin.
Their fried chicken wings (Peek Gai Tod) was one of the best wing preparations I have ever tasted. According to the chef, who came by our table, she grinds lemongrass, galangal and garlic in a pestle, then adds tamarind concentrate, honey and lemon rind to make a marinade for the wings. It is then dusted with Thai chile powder (which they special-order) and fried, the skin burnished to a golden color and crispy. Spicy, savory, sour, salty and sweet, they are fantastic and served piping hot.
We love Thai fried rices, so naturally we had to try their Khao Phad Phu, which features local Dungeness crab meat. This was an excellent dish, the rice savory and toothsome as the best fried rices should be.
Pestle Rock’s blackboard of seasonally prepared vegetables lured us with two items. The eggplant special scored a hit, the vegetable silky and the sauce savory from fermented black beans and, I’m guessing, soy sauce and honey.
The sautéed ong choy in garlic sauce was also excellent, savory and slightly sweet, mixed with soy beans.
We ended the meal by sharing Ice Cream Sliders, coconut ice cream, caramelized potato and sweet potato and sticky rice between bread buns, served with chopped roasted peanuts and garnished with a mint sprig. The burger-shaped buns were glutinous, most likely from rice flour, rather than bread-y, needing a knife to cut through them. I gather the dessert is not traditional, but its regional stamp made for an intriguing, delicious, beautifully presented dessert.
The food here was excellent. If their other dishes are as skillfully made, I would put this restaurant in my list of top five Thai restaurants.
Update: (11-30-12) We returned here for lunch. There were two tantalizing sounding specials on the sandwich board outside, both of which we ordered. Burmese in origin, the khao soi was a curry soup of thin noodles in an intense golden broth of Thai red curry and coconut milk, thick and spicy, with tender sliced chicken breast. A traditional addition, fried egg noodles, appealingly crunchy, topped the soup in a coiled nest, sprinkled with minced pickled mustard, sliced red onions and cilantro. On the side came a plate of finely julienned carrots, sliced jalapeño and shredded red cabbage. This was a stellar curry soup.
The phad mee special consisted of thin rice noodles cooked in a sweet chili sauce, coconut milk and eggs, served with julienned carrots and bean sprouts on the side. This too was a wonderful dish.
The chef is performing magic in the kitchen, as everything we’ve had in two visits was outstanding, reinforcing my choice of Pestle Rock as one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the Seattle area, if not in the top two (along with Noodle Boat). With everything evidently made from scratch, including the sauces and possibly even the curries, I don’t mind paying higher prices for the privilege of enjoying delicious, expertly crafted and inventively presented food.
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107
Lunch menu, entrée menu