Some days all you want to eat is simple food and you don’t want to cook it for yourself. Whether you call it diner food, bistro food, or street food, it’s all based on comfort. Why else would a grilled cheese sandwich prevail as a popular menu choice well into the 21st Century? Why is macaroni and cheese making a sudden resurgence in chicken and waffle joints across Seattle, if not the country?
When I lived in Thailand, an American friend and I would play a sad and masochistic little game called What Will You Eat First When You Go Back Home. Surrounded as we were by one of the world’s greatest cuisines that waited for us right outside any hour of any day, we had humble yearnings for our introductory meal. “Chicken fried steak,” was my friend’s usual answer while mine was “A meat loaf sandwich.”
Simple food can’t be confused with food that’s indifferently prepared. Nothing is more disgusting than a burnt grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese that’s soggy, except perhaps a meat loaf sandwich that’s been made with overly fat ground beef. Simple dishes are perhaps the most demanding of all food choices, because they rely on only a few ingredients without a lot of culinary flourishes.
Like most foreigners in Thailand, I found the gateway drugs to what became my lifelong street food addiction were dishes that were comforting, easy to find and to pronounce, and somehow familiar: wok-fried rice and noodles with chicken and soy sauce. Gradually my choices became more adventurous but these street food staples remained as two of my favorites. The stinging miasma of garlic and chile sizzling in a hot wok would lead me to the places that would give me what I wanted, where I knew I’d find my Bangkok version of simple, satisfying comfort.
It had been a long cold post-holiday season here in the Pacific Northwest and as we neared the end of January, I needed Thai fried rice. In Seattle, this isn’t an easy dish to find. The almost toxic cloud of garlic and chile frying at high heat would cause an entire restaurant to flee the premises and wok cookery isn’t just an art—it’s hard, hot, and painful work. Many other things are much easier to prepare than fried rice, and that’s what most people make: curries, grilled meat, and braised Sino-Thai dishes. I couldn’t blame them but nonetheless, in the same perverse and nostalgic spirit that prompted me to occasionally search in Bangkok for a hamburger that wasn’t a Big Mac, I wanted khao pat that would taste as though it had been made on a sidewalk in deepest Thonburi.
To find that, I needed to find a place with woks, and Thai Tom in the University district of Seattle came instantly to mind. The owner had found an old diner and kept it intact. Cooks worked behind the counter in full view of the customers who were seated nearby on stools. Woks were at center stage and when the place first opened, people crowded to the place, eager to watch the spectacle of open flames shooting menacingly above the guy who was making their food.
Now there’s more than one wok behind the counter and each one is smaller than the original that I remembered from twenty years ago. The joint is still hopping. I showed up well after the lunch rush and two cooks were still in motion, which was a good sign. I ordered my rice and watched and waited.
“How hot do you want it?” the waitress asked me and I said, “Normal. Just please bring me some fish sauce with chili and I’ll fix it myself.” She ladled what I’d asked for from a container behind the counter and handed me a little bowl. The chili was so finely diced that it looked almost like powder and the fish sauce smelled old. I braced myself.
The cook tossed a handful of sliced pork into the wok and let it sizzle, then added an egg and tossed it about for a while. Then he scooped out enough rice to feed several starving orphans and dumped it into the wok. There was a spurt of obligatory flame and then he turned his attention to someone speaking to him from the kitchen. Then he returned to a short burst of moving the rice around the wok and then it all went on a plate—my plate.
It wasn’t the worst fried rice I’ve ever had. That honor goes to Phnom Penh Noodle House, which once brought me a plate of it that had been scorched. It was however a plate of rice that had been heated, not fried. There were hunks of warm chicken, a slice or two of onion, and some basil leaves. I could, and have, done better myself at home, and I left most of it uneaten.
It took a while before I had the strength to resume my quest but at last a day dawned that was bright and sunny, daffodils and crocus decided to bloom, and my optimism returned. On a whim I stopped at Song Phang Kong on Jackson Street, the one place in Seattle that is so much like a Thai noodle shop that I always expect to see motorcycle taxis waiting outside it when I leave.
I’ve had good food here, sausage both Thai- and Lao-style, papaya salad with a generous dash of fermented fish, and chicken that had been grilled over charcoal. I knew that the lady who had presided over the kitchen had died but her husband was still in place. Although fried rice wasn’t on his menu, fried noodles were, so I asked if he could make me what I was longing for. “Yes,” he said.
Before disappearing into the kitchen, he made me a Thai iced tea that was almost sinful, tart with lemon and tamarind and topped off with a thick layer of half-and-half. Traditional? No. Delicious? Absobloodylutely. My hopes soared a little higher and were nourished by the view of one of his arms, visible through the kitchen doorway, moving in the St. Vitus dance of a seasoned wok user. My only reservation was the rice he had taken into the kitchen, scooped out from deep within a rice cooker. Perhaps, I told myself, it was rice that had been cooked the day before.
He brought me a plate that was heaped high with rice, chunks of chicken, sliced onion in profusion, and a generous helping of broccoli and carrots. That was fair. Although the green vegetable usually used in fried rice was sold right across the street at Viet Wah, he had no reason to have pak kana in his kitchen. I’d ordered off the menu, after all, and he’d obliged. When he showed up again to ask me how my food tasted, I told him it was delicious.
I lied. The rice was clumped together as if it had been meant for sushi. It was soggy and mushy and I couldn’t finish it. I ate enough to be polite and asked that the rest be put in a box, although I never intended to touch it again. But it was my fault, not his. I’d asked for fried rice and he had cooked fresh rice for the day to accompany the dishes he had on his menu. I told him I’d be back soon for his sausage and I certainly will be—but fried rice will never be my request again.
I was still hungry. Slowly and sadly I made my way up to the end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Rom Mai has been for decades. Full disclosure: I’ve known the owner for over twenty years; we became friends long before he opened his own restaurant. So when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I told her I wanted to ask her boss a question.
“Can you make me fried rice with pork? Not with broccoli but with pak kana, like Bangkok? The kind where the rice isn’t soggy?” I was almost in tears and his answer was swift and reassuring. “My wife takes the rice from the top of the cooker and she works out all of the lumps. And we give people whatever vegetables they want to eat. She’ll make you Bangkok khao pat moo.”
When the rice was put in front of me, it was spread out on the plate in almost individual grains. Each bite had the flavor of the garlic, onion, and pork with which the rice had been fried. It was succulent, without a trace of sogginess, accompanied by pak kana cut on the diagonal and pork that was thinly sliced but still flavorful. In a restaurant that is almost formal in its decoration, where dining is the word that comes to mind rather than diner, I had khao pat moo that was as good as any that I’ve eaten on a sidewalk from a pink plastic plate on a table that bears a holder filled with a roll of toilet paper. And for me there is no higher praise than that.
Rom Mai offers fried rice with crab as one of its specials. I’ll be back. Soon.