I’ll admit it, I haven’t had many happy experiences with Thai cuisine. Several times I have followed an excited friend to a restaurant that supposedly had ‘great thai food’ only to find myself staring down at the same tropically sweet coconut curry swimming with the usual assortment of coarsely chopped mixed veggies. Somehow I always got the impression that the chefs were simply cleaning out the back of their fridge and mixing the lot with canned sauce. True, coconut milk covers a multitude of sins, but it cant turn leftovers into a gourmet dish on its own. Still, in spite of such experiences, I have remained hopeful, so when a friend of a friend who works for the Seattle Times invited Jeff and I on a culinary expedition to a Thai restaurant that has been garnering amazing reviews, I couldn’t help but feel excited.
At first sight, Noodle Boat Thai doesn’t appear very promising. Its name isn’t particularily evocative (not that this is ever much of an indicator of a restaurant’s quality) and it is squeezed into an out of the way strip-mall in Issiquah, next to a nail salon. Even with the GPS in tow we had a hard time spotting it at first. But trust the reviews, inside this place is a jewel box , its tiny space crammed with richly colored statues and tapestries that the owners have collected over the years. Walk through the restaurant to the right and you will find yourself surrounded by umbrella shaded tables, lush foliage, and gilded shrines in the surprising oasis of the outdoor patio.
We set up camp outside and were promptly presented with copies of the restaurant's menu; a heavy hand-made tome that looked like a veritable necronomicon of Thai cuisine. Our attentive waitress gave us advice on what to order and which dishes were best served hot or mild. We started with Thai Iced tea which arrived in charming terra cotta pots. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Thai Iced tea; on its own it can be overwhelmingly sweet, but if consumed with a spicy meal it has the same soothing effect as Indian raita. In this case, I was wise to order it for just such a reason.
For our appetizer we chose Mieng Kum; an incredible array of condiments ( chopped ginger, dried shrimp, minced red onions, dried chilis, toasted coconut, limes, and sugar palm sauce) in separate small blue and white saucers, surrounded by edible leaves called Cha Plu. The leaves were mostly bland on their own, but one is meant to fold them into cup shapes and then fill them with the items of one’s choosing. The effect is an explosive mouthful that runs the gamut of salty, sweet, sour and spicy all in one bite. Because of the dish’s small size and potency, it is truly an appetizer in the original sense of the word- not filling but very effective at stimulating the appetite for things to come.
Next up, the oddly named Queen of Banana: Steamed banana blossom with chicken, shrimp, lime leaves, mint, onion, and cilantro, tossed with coconut milk and chili paste. This was an amazingly tart and fresh dish, pleasantly dominated by the mint and lime. The steamed banana blossom had a tender and juicy texture not unlike artichoke hearts, which the chewier notes of the chicken and shrimp, and the crunch of the other vegetables balanced out nicely.
Our second entree of Lard Nha was the only one we ordered with a medium level of spice (Im ashamed to say that I have always been rather a light-weight when it comes to hot dishes). Wide, silky noodles were stir fried with brocoli and beef in a rich and spicy black bean sauce. This was one of the more savory dishes that we ordered but it still contained a subtle hint of sweetness.
For our third dish we chose the Halloween Curry (so named because it contains Thai pumpkin). This one was the big one for me, would this be just the sort of curry dish that I had been dreading? Judging by the previous dishes, all signs already pointed to no. The curry arrived in a ceramic pumpkin dish (they do not skimp on presentation at Noodle Boat) and was so delicious that I was literally shocked. I have never been a big fan of the squash family, but each golden nugget of pumpkin was so perfectly cooked-soft but not mushy, and had just the right balance of salty and sweet that I may become a convert. We ordered the curry with pork but the meat was rather lost next to the pumpkin so I would keep it vegetarian next time.
Our last dish of Volcano Gem Hen was something we ordered simply because the description on the menu contained the admonition 'Volcano not lit for customers under 21'. How could re resist finding out what that was all about? A tiny roasted hen (about the size of a cornish hen) was drenched in alcohol, briefly set alight by the waitress, and then doused in a sticky sauce. Since we were out on the patio in full daylight, the intended visual effect was somewhat lost, but the resulting extra crispy skin was delightful. The salty hen was the perfect foil to the preceding sweet and semi-sweet dishes, it almost acted as a sort of palatte cleanser in that regard. Not the most complex thing we ordered but definitely flavorful and tender.
All three of us regretted ordering so many dishes (or at least our stomachs did) but when you are trying out a new restaurant you want to sample as many offerings as possible, there is simply no avoiding it. I would most definitely return to Noodle Boat despite it being a half hour drive from Seattle (Jeff and I have driven much further in pursuit of a good meal), as far as my limited knowledge of the cuisine goes, the menu was authentic, surprising, and delicious. I encourage those who are more familiar with traditional Thai dishes to make the effort of visiting Noodle Boat, as I would love to hear your opinion! Dont be daunted by the drive or the location, critics praise the hidden gems of the restaurant world time and again, and this is definitely one of them.