Dinner at Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen (Kirkland, WA)


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.

Wall decoration

Wall decoration

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 (☆☆☆).

Grilled Squid

Grilled Squid

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.

Isarn Fried Rice

Isarn Fried Rice

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.

Roasted Ribs in Tamarind Sauce

Roasted Ribs in Tamarind Sauce

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.

Hat Yai Fried Chicken

Hat Yai Fried Chicken

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.

phad thai

Phad thai 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.

gang hung lay

Gang hung lay

Chile tray

Chile condiments


425.298.4429

 
Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen
170 Lake St South
Kirkland, Washington 98033
 
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Back to Pestle Rock


I pondered whether to submit yet another review of Pestle Rock, the outstanding Isan Thai restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but a couple of unusual dishes (unusual for us who live thousands of miles from Thailand) tipped the balance in favor of it. The original post was a lunchtime meal; the other a post about their noodle soups. I’ll just get down to the two dishes, both of which were listed as specials on the blackboards.

The special noodles were Mee Ka Ti (☆☆☆), a very popular lunchtime meal in Thailand. It gets thickened by a combination of coconut milk, green onions and palm sugar. Tamarind added its unique tartness, earthiness and slightly smoky taste. Despite its “one-chile” rating, these savory-sweet noodles were surprisingly spicy, which wasn’t derived from any visible chiles. The noodles tended to clump together, but this is the nature of vermicelli-thin rice noodles bathed in a thick sauce. Bean sprouts and shreds of egg and chicken rounded out the flavors and textures.

Mee Ka Ti

Mee Ka Ti

More a salad than entrée, Mu Kham Wan (☆☆½) featured grilled pork, cut into small pieces and dressed with a vinaigrette of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chiles, mixed with minced cilantro and mint and slivered red onions. Accompanying the salad were crudités of raw carrot and cucumber. Though the pork was flavorful, it was well past tender, the only defect in an otherwise delicious dish.

Muu Kham Wan

Muu Kham Wan

The menu item was one we enjoyed before, Khao Phad Phu (☆☆☆½), (described in the first post), one of the best fried rices anywhere, bar none. It also happens to star Dungeness crabmeat, a favorite among seafood lovers on the West Coast.

Khao Phad Phu

Khao Phad Phu

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107
206.466.6671
Lunch menuentrée menu
 

Lunch at Pestle Rock (Seattle, WA)


Peek Gai Tod (Fried Chicken Wings)

Peek Gai Tod (Fried Chicken Wings)

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. Continue reading