Stealing Bites and Shunning Pad Thai at Tukwila's Bai Tong

This is your brain on moo dade deaw.

There are restaurants that are like narrowing funnels of options, and there are restaurants that are like widening cones of potential experience. At the former, the chef, the crew, or the kitchen is known for doing one or two things really well, and once you have those things, the remainder of the menu is nothing but a wasteland of burgers, chili, and flan--nothing worth walking across the street for, let alone driving anywhere. I have eaten at plenty of restaurants where I was bored before the appetizers were off the table; several where the amuse-bouche was the highlight of my night; a few where I crumpled the minute I walked through the door--just folding up and wanting only to curl up under a nice barstool and go to sleep for a thousand years (or at least until everyone in the restaurant world quits with the truffle fries and roasted half-chickens with pan jus).The latter are the bottomless yin to the former's yang—restaurants where every dish leads you to the next, where the simplest, stupidest question can open an entire line of culinary reasoning previously untapped; where plain foods (chicken, garlic, ground pork, ketchup) act as gateway drugs to worlds of gustatory pleasure and debasement that really ought to be used in television PSAs to warn impressionable children away from overindulgence.This is your brain.This is your brain on moo dade deaw.Any questions?It is Saturday afternoon and I just can't stop eating."I want this every day," I say to my wife, Laura. "Whenever I get hungry at night, I want this delivered to me. I want a car service at my sole disposal—an army of guys just waiting around to go and pick this up and bring it to me wherever I am.""What is it called again?" she asks, poking at a strip of dark-brown meat lying like a shriveled strip of tree bark on a bed of lettuce."I haven't the foggiest fucking idea. I just pointed and said 'Bring me this.' And they did."Moo dade deaw—that's what it was. I don't even try to pronounce it. What it is is thin strips of pork, marinated for what tastes like a week in a slurry of cane sugar, carrots, burning tires, wet pretzels, soy sauce, peat, Pixy Stix, and salt. I'm guessing the meat was then lifted from the marinade, beaten with a hammer, lost by the cook tasked with its keeping, left to air-dry for a few months like a fine salami, found again, trimmed of excess fat, delicately floured, and then fried to order in a hot wok filled with rendered heroin tar. It is the very first thing listed on the menu at Bai Tong Restaurant in Tukwila. And I love it so much it hurts.No, seriously: hurts. Having already polished off a welcoming plate of meang-kum (delicate little lettuce cups filled with ginger, lime, shallots, toasted coconut meat, peanuts, and little splinters of red chile that go off like explosive Pop Rocks in my mouth), half an order of 10 ground-pork-and-glass-noodle spring rolls with plum sauce, and some chicken satay, the moo dade deaw was a late addition to the lineup.I'm full already without ever having gotten past the appetizers.Moo dade deaw tastes, at first blush, oddly of Philadelphia soft pretzels just out of the oven—fresh and yeasty and salty and warm all at the same time. But that flavor fades fast, evaporating behind the taste of sugar and salt, of char and chiles. There is a crunch to the first bite that gives way to chewiness, like pork chewing gum or jerky improperly dried. And on top of all this is a sauce that tastes like nothing so much as a 50/50 mix of cheap, generic ketchup and Vietnamese sriracha: a perfect shot of sweetness and heat to complement the sweetness and salt of the fried pig bits.I finish another bite and push the plate away. Laura looks for a waitress to flag down for our check. As soon as her head is turned, I shove another bite in my mouth. When she looks at me and frowns, I slowly reach for another bite—my hand moving under her line of sight, my eyes locked on hers."I'll stab you," she says, never looking away.I grab another bite anyway. Smiling with a mouthful of pig, I chew."Hopeless," she says.And she's right.I don't like pad Thai. And though I fully accept the remote possibility of whiplash culinary conversion (I've had it happen before), I don't think I ever will. I've eaten pad Thai maybe 50 times, from nearly as many restaurants. I have eaten what is alleged to be the best pad Thai in four different cities, and have come close to loving it, but ultimately fell short in my ardor.Over time, I decided I would simply not eat pad Thai anymore. I've made—and broken—this sort of blanket pronouncement before. Flan. Crème brûlée. Lobster. Anything from McDonald's. There are plenty of dishes I've declared terra inconcessus in my life, because I'd become either sick to death of seeing them done poorly (lobster) or of seeing them done at all (flan).With pad Thai, it was a slightly more complex decision. My dislike of the dish had actually begun to affect my enjoyment of Thai food in general—which was ridiculous, because pad Thai isn't even Thai food; it's as American as chop suey and California rolls, an entrée precisely calibrated to make use of Thai ingredients as they intersect with the American palate, its love of sweetness, stickiness, and cheap, carnival-midway thrills. And the minute I decided to stop eating pad Thai, I started liking Thai restaurants a lot more.This decision took me out of the realm of limited-option restaurants—ones where shipping-and-receiving clerks come for a quick lunch of pad Thai and satay, or maybe a fast, watery curry with some cutesy name, but which offer nothing even remotely resembling the complexity of real Thai cooking—and bounced me instead into places where galangal root and toey leaf were merely jumping-off points, where the expanding cone of alien flavors seemed to go on forever.Bai Tong is one of those places. It offers pad Thai, but it's buried under mountains of rad na, khi mao noodles, phad talay (a seafood and vegetable plate fired with chile paste), and pla tod rard prik (a whole fish, deep fried and dressed in Thai hot sauce). I have no problem skipping the pad Thai. It's not as if I'm going to go hungry without it. I know for a fact I'll have a much more interesting meal by glossing past it entirely, sitting down in the comfortable, warm, and modern strip-mall home of Bai Tong, with its widely spaced tables and special tea menu, looking around at what the Thai families and tables full of couples, grandmothers, and teenagers are eating, and simply following their lead.The curries at Bai Tong are hit-or-miss, only bringing with them the serious burn of authentic heat when you ask for them four- or five-star hot. I had the medium-hot Panang curry (reddish, made with coconut milk, beef, and swimming slabs of vegetables), and found it too sweet, too light, lacking the afterburner kick and complicated spice architecture (all savory weight with just a few, spare grace notes of sweetness) that I've come to expect from the best Thai curries. The simple four-star red curry was the opposite: still a bit thin, but clouded with a dozen ground spices that made devilish clouds in the bowl as I went hunting for bits of beef and tender bamboo; rich with the taste of coconut milk but still razor-sharp; and with a burn that carried over from one bite to the next until I had to stop and make balls of sticky rice with my hands, eating them just to cut the heat.The yellow curry, though, was outstanding. Ordered hot, it burned without deadening my tastebuds, couched its heat in a sweet swirl of coconut, tempered the sweetness with onions and potatoes (the latter of which act as a kind of filter, buffing the rough edges off all the most jarring flavor combinations), and, poured over rice, reached an ideal equipoise of heat and sweet and savory notes that made me run through three servings at a breathless sprint. Ostensibly I was chasing the tail of some flavor I couldn't identify, but really I was just enjoying the hell out of it. Again, Laura had to remind me to stop eating before she had to roll me out the door and into the car.Again, I completely ignored her.I wish I had a time machine.Not for the traditional reasons; I have no desire to kill Hitler or stop JFK's assassination. I've read enough bad science fiction to know that those things never work out as well as you think they will.No, I just want to go back and see Bai Tong in its original incarnation—as SeaTac's worst-kept secret back in the late '80s, a Thai restaurant operating as part of a motel and catering almost solely to Thai Airways flight crews looking for a comforting taste of home while stranded far away.This was 1989. Owner Chanpen Lapangkura had opened the place specifically for flight attendants, pilots, and those on strange, ocean-hopping layovers, bringing chefs from Thailand to grill the satay, cook the house specialties, and make the fish sauce. I want to see what Bai Tong was like when its intentions were pure.Two years later, Bai Tong moved to a former drive-thru restaurant up the road. The purpose was the same: to bring the real taste of Thai cuisine to those who knew the real stuff. That incarnation lasted a few years before lease issues forced Lapangkura to move again, this time to a strip mall in Tukwila.Now the restaurant is pretty, bright, and welcoming—a secret to precisely no one. Bai Tong does good business during the day. At night, with the lights low, it becomes a romantic place for two-tops. It is also busy as hell, with tables turning, takeout orders moving out the door, and servers carrying among tables dishes that can be identified only by smells: lemongrass, grill char, garlic, hot oil, and curry hang in the air like comet trails long after the waitresses have passed.Under the dim lights, Laura and I eat hard-fried pieces of unusually shaped chicken, jacketed in a crisp batter and tossed with honey, garlic, and chiles and topped with a spray of fried basil leaves. It's a new dish at Bai Tong, brought on for the new crowds who have found the place. And it's good—really good. But on the other side of the table I am already falling hard for one of the monthly specials, kai jeaw: ground pork seasoned with fish sauce and onions, then mixed with beaten eggs and fried in the wok. It reminds me of the salami-and-egg plates I'd get at Jewish delis in New York, of a kind of strange, rustic peasant omelet done in the style of French or Italian cooks working with leftovers at the ragged end of another 18-hour shift. When I top it with the hot sauce that comes on the side, it reminds me of nothing I've ever had before at all, and I love it all the more for its strangeness and singularity.With each new dish, with each good choice, I feel as though I'm getting a taste of what Bai Tong was like in its first moments—a sense of the history and the twists and turns that have brought it to where it is now. The crab fried rice is altered for American consumption with its soy-sauce saltiness and mat of crab and egg atop a pile of rice. The gai hor bai toey is completely different—little knuckles of chicken, tasting of alien spices and dim, dank marinades and wrapped inside simple shells of charred toey leaves.No one who doesn't know Thai food from the inside out, who doesn't crave it as others might cheeseburgers, would come looking for this. But then, no one who knows anything about food at all would choose pad Thai over this more than one time in 10. No one who understands how food can educate and transport you, thrill and mystify and overwhelm you, make you think of home or dream of anywhere but, would be able to go back to the simple, the tame, and the plain after tasting this.Every bite I take leads to another, every dish I try to something more.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check  Moo dade deaw  $9.95

  Kai jeaw  $6.95

  Gai hor bai toey  $9.95

  Crispy garlic chicken  $11.95

  Yellow curry  $9.95

  Crab fried rice  $10.95

 
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