I’m not even close to being a vegetarian, and the notion of vegan food has always induced a kind of low-level revulsion in me—despite my love for vegetables. Blame it on bad college-day vegetarian fare, or unfortunate experiences with tofu. Maybe it just seemed at odds with an epicurean sensibility. But as a mature adult with an interest in my health and the planet, I can no longer hide behind my weak defenses. And, really, why would I want to given how exquisitely delicious vegetarian and vegan food can be?
I don’t know why it never occurred to me that Thai food, for instance, is inherently vegan. All of those fiery vegetable dishes, curries made with coconut milk rather than cow’s milk, the staple noodles and rice. It’s the gateway cuisine (or should be anyway) into a plant-based diet and Kati Vegan Thai in South Lake Union (1190 Thomas St., 900-7954) is proudly embracing that designation.
I was prepared, on a rainy Monday night, for the restaurant to be dead—assuming like so many other SLU spots, particularly one this tucked away, that it was geared towards an Amazon lunch crowd. Instead, it was about half full, with couples and friends not just grabbing quick food to go, but lingering over glasses of wine and cocktails. The space itself, with a prominent bar at one end, is not the typical sterile, fast-casual breed of Thai restaurants that have become familiar. Instead, it has a modern, inviting décor, with high ceilings exposing ductwork, blonde wood, ambient lighting, an open kitchen, and punctuations of yellow via the dishware and napkins.
The menu is expansive and invites you to try appetizers and salads, soups and noodles, curries and stir fries—plus a variety of fried rice and desserts. Most of the appetizers revolve around deep frying, and while “The Devil’s Wings” didn’t really allow the small oyster mushrooms to announce themselves, the battered tofu and daikon “fingers,” were unapologetically addictive. The daikon was a tangled ball of fried interlacing strips (hence the description of fingers) with a crisp outside that yielded the sweet, juicy meat of the radish within—a surprise pop in the mouth. Tofu, meanwhile, cut into sizable triangles, was equally tender on the inside, yet still firm and crisp. This is the kind of tofu that makes me happy. Though they could easily stand on their own, a dunk into a sweet-spicy peanut sauce took them over the top in the very best way.
There were so many salads I wanted to try, but I was most intrigued by the idea of Larb Makua. Larb gai, a traditional cold Thai dish of ground chicken, red or green onion, mint and basil dressed with spicy ground red chilies and lime juice, served in lettuce leaves, is one of my favorites. Here, they play with the same flavor profile, but sub in half-inch pieces of lightly sautéed eggplant instead of chicken, along with mushrooms and toasted rice. The eggplant is not even close to overcooked, but springy and flavorful, and a perfect vehicle for the lively spices.
There were four curries to choose from—including a fall pumpkin curry—but I opted for the yellow since it was described as cumin-based. Unfortunately, the cumin wasn’t as assertive as I’d hoped, and the potato, tofu, and carrots felt beholden to a too-sweet gravy, though there was a lush fragrance to it that grew on me. The stir fry made up for it. In this one, just barely cooked large bok choy leaves stand against a pile of succulent shitake mushrooms, with tofu cubes and plenty of garlic and ginger. It’s fresh and earthy at once, unencumbered by sauce, a testament to lovingly stir-fried ingredients.
Options for noodles were in no shortage either, but I decided to go with the Pad Thai, hoping to use it as a kind of bar. It was a fine rendition, with the scallions heaped together alongside the noodles, and the spices covering the bottom of the plate, allowing you to pull your fork through to sort of combine everything. I had no room for rice, but I couldn’t leave without trying the Tom Yum Fried Rice. Tom Yum soup, with its classic sour-spicy-herbal profile has long been a beloved dish of mine, and I was eager to see its flavors translated into a rice dish. To my delight, it worked—though I might have enjoyed it all amped up a tad more. Next time, I’ll try the soup itself—along with so many other items that sounded both interesting and appetizing.