Big Things Come in Small Packages: Pop Pop Thai Street Food


It’s a reality that in the U.S., it’s hard to find street food. You know, when you can buy locally prepared food from street vendors or carts that specialize in a single item (or two). The closest we’ve come to it are the hot dog or ice cream carts, but they’re few and far between, certainly not part of a crowded phalanx of other carts that feed hungry eaters, a scene very common in most of Asia. The food truck phenomenon today closely approximates the mobility and portability we associate with street carts, though not their singular menu focus or cheap prices. Much of what we now know as Thai food got its start in the ‘streets,’ but now the dishes have been aggregated into a single menu and offered in restaurants instead.

The very name of Pop Pop Thai Street Food, located in the Haller Lake area of north Seattle, reminds us of this popular form of eating, though it too is a sit-down restaurant. It’s part of a sprawling, non-descript shopping center, a far cry from a setting where masses of people look to buy a quick meal from street hawkers. The restaurant is hard to find as it doesn’t face Aurora Avenue, but rather LA Fitness at the northern end of the lot. The storefront is small, barely 15ft wide. Inside, there are just a few tables, no more than eight or so. At a mere 12 items, the menu is briefer than what you’d find at most Thai restaurants.

But, big things can come in small packages. The food here is very well prepared. Friends took my wife and me here for a late lunch.

Papaya salad (☆☆☆) is bright, crunchy, slightly sweet and savory. Sliced (raw) green beans, julienned carrots, halved grape tomatoes and chopped peanuts blended nicely with shreds of green papaya. The vinaigrette was a wonderful combination of tamarind, lime juice, sugar, garlic, chiles and fish sauce. The interesting ingredient were tiny dried shrimp, which you can substitute with fresh cooked shrimp or salted crab. I liked them, my wife not so much.

Papaya salad

Papaya salad

Hainanese chicken rice is quite popular in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, where it is the national dish. Pot Pot serves the Thai version called kao mun gai. What I’ve tasted before have been rather bland, which made me wonder why this dish is so popular. I’ve concluded that those kitchens likely have been taking shortcuts on the rice that is lacking in rich chicken flavor. Not having been in the mother lode of Singapore and Malaysia, I have nothing to compare local interpretations against. I do know that Pot Pot’s is better than any other chicken rice I’ve had up to now (☆☆☆). A dark brown sauce, composed of fermented soybean sauce, chiles, galangal, and spices, made a huge improvement to the braised chicken pieces, conveniently deboned, sliced and with flabby skin (characteristically) left intact. The addition of a sauce is a Thai variation; most Hainanese chicken is simply brushed with sesame oil. A gingery chicken broth was also served on the side in a cup.

Kao mun gai

Kao mun gai

Of all the Asian fried rices, I like the Thai versions the best. Sure, I have a soft spot for Hawaiian rice and I even make my own (see ‘Recipes’), but whenever I dine out at Thai restaurants, more often than not I’ll order fried rice. To be sure, they’re more savory from the use of fish sauce, but they can also be vibrant, spicy, a touch sweet, salty, mixed with any number of chopped vegetables (and maybe pineapple), with a choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu). My favorite is Noodle Boat’s Kow Ob! Gai Tod (which truthfully is not fried at all, but baked, though for all intents and purposes, it’s practically the same). Pot Pot Fried Rice is a very good example (☆☆☆), a nice blend of Chinese broccoli, tomato, egg, onion and cilantro—and a savory sauce.

Pop Pop fried rice

Pop Pop fried rice

Crispier wings are hard to imagine than Pot Pot’s Chicken Wings (☆☆☆½). They have no batter, all the more to accentuate the burnished skin that crackles with every bite. Simply seasoned, they’re delicious by themselves, but the sauce, based on a vinegary chile sauce (similar to sambal oelek), elevates the dish to hit the balance that Thai cooking tries to achieve of being salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Chicken wings

Chicken wings

Competing for the afternoon’s best dish was Panang Beef Curry (☆☆☆½) whose sauce begged to be paired with rice, thick, coconut-ey, spicy and aromatic. You know that the kitchen is on its game when the beef is done just right and you can’t have enough of that curry sauce.

Penang beef curry

Panang beef curry

Pop Pop belies its staid shopping center environment. If you close your eyes when you’re tasting the food, you can almost imagine that you’re on a street in Thailand. I’d like to close my eyes here more often.

Dinner at Bai Tong (Redmond, WA)


Years ago, when I worked in Renton, a group of us used to go to Bai Tong for lunch, a Thai restaurant that was located on Airport Way near SeaTac airport. The interesting backstory is that an ex-Thai Airways flight attendant wanted to make familiar foods available to the Thai Airways crew on layover in Seattle. She brought over trained Thai chefs to prepare the food. At this original location and the subsequent one only a half block away, it was one of the best Thai restaurants in the greater Seattle area in the days when there weren’t the numbers that there are today. Then, one day (I can’t remember exactly when), Bai Tong closed its doors. Though by then there were many more Thai restaurants to choose from, its closure was lamented by fans, including myself.

Fast forward to 2011 when I was driving past the Overlake Fashion Plaza in Redmond, a short distance from Microsoft’s Main Campus. I happened to glance over to the left and saw Bai Tong in the building that Coco’s used to occupy. Could it possibly be? The answer was a resounding yes.

Suphannahong

Bai Tong has gone upscale, a trend that some Thai restaurants have been following lately. Another example is the wonderful Chantanee that used to be an informal restaurant in a tucked-away, single-story commercial building in downtown Bellevue, only to relocate to glitzier digs in the Bellevue downtown core surrounded by glass and concrete, with higher prices to boot. Bai Tong’s foyer has a stunning gold-lacquered model of a Thai royal barge, a shorter version of Suphannahong whose prow is the head of a golden swan. The dining space is dominated in the middle by a fully-equipped bar with a large flat panel TV overhead that is ever airing sporting events. Yeah, very Thai indeed—and very attractive to the younger cocktail set that prefers to scoop up happy hour snacks.

We’d been here a few times since its opening. Tonight we had dinner with friends, one of whom used to be part of the bunch that lunched at the SeaTac location. With pictures to help the uninitiated make choices, the menu had many mouth-watering dishes. The waitress helped us make our selections.

Mango tea

Mango tea

For a beverage, the mango tea sounded nice and different. Served in a metal teapot, it was a refreshing beverage, though it arrived cooler than it should have. We asked for hotter water and the wait staff obliged. By the time we re-poured the tea into our cups some time later, the temperature had dropped again, not helped by a black metallic pot that radiated heat fairly quickly.

Papaya salads are very popular in Southeast Asia. Bai Tong’s Som Tam consisted of finely shredded green papaya dressed with a sweet and salty fish sauce and lime dressing with nicely cooked prawns, chopped mint, sliced tomatoes and crushed peanuts, with a wedge of raw cabbage leaves that were a challenge to separate. This was a beautifully flavored salad.

Papaya salad (som tam)

Papaya salad (som tam)

Pad woon sen is somewhat difficult to find on Thai menus, deferring to the more popular pad thai and pad see iew. Part of the reason might be that these are made with rice noodles, while woon sen uses thin, mung bean noodles, the texture of which is slipperier, vaguely cartilaginous. The restaurants that do serve them make them, for the most part, too saucy (wet), sometimes without enough glass noodles to justify calling it a noodle dish. The last time my wife and I had a very good one was at Thai Kitchen many years ago. Its current rendition is a shadow of its former self. Bai Tong’s brought back memories of really good woon sen, one of two preparations on their menu. Tonight, Eight Angels combined the noodles with seafood, pork, straw mushrooms and vegetables in a sauce worthy of praise.

Eight Angels (Seafood and Pork Woon Sen)

Eight Angels (Seafood and Pork Woon Sen)

One of the recommendations by the waitress was Salmon Curry. Obviously a Northwest adaptation, the dish had skimpy pieces of salmon that were cooked a tad too long, but nice enough in a delicious red curry-coconut milk sauce barely concealing chopped tomatoes, celery and basil. This was one of those sauces you can pour on rice and eat by itself.

Salmon Curry

Salmon Curry

American chicken nuggets take a back seat to Thai Crispy Garlic Chicken. The aforementioned Chantanee’s is a spectacular version that arrives on a sizzling platter, swathed in a copious sweet-savory sauce that pools on the bottom. Bai Tong’s is less saucy but no less delicious: fried pieces of battered chicken breast, sparingly coated with sauce and generously garnished with fried basil leaves, less garlicky than Chantanee’s. But for a batter a bit too thick, this was a very good entrée, not surprisingly one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

Crispy Garlic Chicken

Crispy Garlic Chicken

The four of us enjoyed a dinner every bit as good as the food served at the old Bai Tong. As an added bonus, it’s much closer to home.

Bai Tong also has a location in Southcenter.

Bai Tong Thai Restaurant
14804  NE 24th St.
Redmond, WA 98052
425.747.8424
Location