Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen has an uncommon menu, at first glance more interesting than the run-of-the-mill Thai restaurant. The menu is limited, concentrating on what the Facebook page says are Thai comfort foods. Its name implies the regional cooking of Isan (Isarn). It does not serve, for example, phad thai during the dinner hour (though it now does for the insistent lunch crowd). Is it because the famed Thai noodle dish is not a staple in the northeast part of Thailand? Sticky rice, another Isan dietary staple, also makes an appearance. The name, therefore, is confusing, for if the idea is to promote Isan cooking, why are dishes from other Thai regions on the menu (and therefore, why not serve phad thai)? These are all questions best left unanswered and the business of tasting the food should take center stage.
One of the happy hour dishes included grilled squid. At only a single serving, our party of four ordered so each of us could taste one. Whole squids were individually threaded through with a bamboo skewer and lightly grilled. They were downright tender, bolstered by a spicy dipping sauce of fish sauce, cilantro, dill, lime juice, garlic and chiles (☆☆☆).
The other three dishes were ordered from the regular menu. Isarn Fried Rice (☆☆½) was plated as a half dome no more than four inches across, mixed with vegetables (kale, carrots, green beans and onions) and cooked egg. Surprising companions were fried beef cubes that were predictably chewy but tasty. Garnishes that stood off to the side like decoration were two cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber.
I would have rated Roasted Ribs in Tamarind Sauce (☆☆½), another Isan dish, more highly if half the pork ribs weren’t dry and unappealingly fibrous, while the rest were just fine. The thick sauce was flavored with tamarind and made slightly sweet from caramelized pineapple, showing admirable restraint. An interpretation of this dish (si krong muu) helped put Little Serow in Washington, D.C., on Bon Appetit’s 2012 list of top ten new restaurants in America.
A southern Thai favorite, Hat Yai Fried Chicken (gai tod hat yai) (☆☆☆½) was the star of the evening, a small fried half chicken with crispy skin (which would’ve benefitted from a little more salt), sliced through the bone, sprinkled with a liberal amount of fried garlic and paired with a very good sweet chile sauce. Traditional recipes call for a rice flour batter, but it would surprise me if there was any. The garlic was a killer condiment, crispy and redolent, popular enough on its own for some diners to purchase as a side just to sprinkle on other foods, so the waiter was proud to tell us.
The waiter tried to interest us in dessert. Despite the temptations of a coconut shell filled with coconut milk, dried coconut flakes, tapioca pearls and a poached egg, or sticky rice topped with mango, we didn’t bite. Because of its menu, Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen deserves a repeat visit.
Update (6-20-12): We returned to Isarn today for lunch with a couple of friends. The lunch menu has many of the items on the dinner menu, at smaller prices. The Hat Yai Fried Chicken had somewhat less fried garlic pieces. No matter though, because the dish was as good as before. And, as we were told on the previous visit, phad thai was on the menu, a very good version, this one ordered with pork.
Then, we had a most delicious curry dish. Consisting only of beef in sauce, Gang Hung Lay (☆☆☆☆), a specialty of Northwest Thailand, was a magnificent curry. The sauce was thick and dark, standard recipes calling for tamarind, nam pla, sugar and spices that make up the curry. The stew is cooked for hours, rendering the beef supremely tender that it yielded to the gentlest prodding. By itself, the sauce was so outstanding that it called for more rice as accompaniment than you might normally want to eat.
Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen
170 Lake St South
Kirkland, Washington 98033