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Pestle Rock

Isan Thai Cuisine

In the Isan province in northeast Thailand, food tends to be spicy and pungent with loads of fresh herbs. Enticing, and quite different from the Thai food we've become accustomed to around Seattle. Pestle Rock had a slow start for just that reason-either people looked at the menu and didn't see the familiar names or they came in and it didn't taste like what they were expecting. The good news is that as more people have come in and tasted the food, the larger the customer base has grown. Opened in September of 2012, it took about five months before we all finally got it.

"'Isan' is becoming a buzz word for Thai food," says manager Cameron Roberts. "Thailand has four parts: north, northeast, middle and south. Each has its own language and food styles. The northeast has a Laotian influence; it's a hilly region, mountainous. They use a lot of fresh, raw herbs, spices, and roots. Food has lots of flavor and is spicier. Our herbs and spices are delivered fresh daily. We grind, or 'rock' our spices, and pickle jalapeños. Generally, Thai food was homogenized in America. For instance, peanut sauce doesn't exist in Thailand, Phad Thai is not typically found, and food is spicier. Broths are clearer and cleaner. You can taste the vegetables even with spice behind them. Flavors are very balanced."

Large bowl of spices/herbs, 'rocked' to a powder (upper left in photo)

For the most part, each dish at Pestle Rock is cooked when ordered. Their bases for curry and stir fries are prepped before opening. You can order no extra spice, but most dishes are what they are, and that tends to be spicy. Not flame your tongue out, but you feel the burn. Each dish is different, so some will seem mildly spicy while others more so. Pestle Rock's staff is there to help you get familiar with the dishes and levels of spiciness. They ask customer if they like spice before putting an order in. Spice is part of the dish, it's not added later. "We keep adding dishes," laughs Cameron. "We don't want the menu to get too large, so now we're looking at which items to keep and which to take off. Over the last year, we've really started to encourage guests to eat family style. That's how it's done in Thailand and dishes are meant to be eaten together: some with meat, some with vegetables; some spicy, some not. Mixing it up is how you get the best of Thai food. The experience is important. Eating family style gives you the experience and variety."

Menu items are listed as bites (starters), tossed (items cooked or raw, tossed together), soups, stir-fry, curry, and side orders (rice, egg, vegetables, noodles, etc.). They set it up this way to get people to choose from different sections and get a nicely-balanced meal. "Some of the sides are meant to cut the spice of the dishes: rice, vegetables. And if kids don't like spice, their parents might order them a scrambled egg. We have four noodle dishes on the menu, including a noodle soup, which is eaten more at lunch or late night in Thailand. Thais eat more rice than noodles. In fact, 'eating food' in Thai translates as 'eating rice.' Noodles tend to be a street food. While we talk with people about ordering, it's also a chance to share things about Thailand with them."

Kao Soi

Pestle Rock is family owned and operated, as is their first restaurant Jhanjay (which means 'vegetarian dishes' in Thai). It all started in Thailand where the father of the Jawpliphon family started a fertilizer company. He had a serious work ethic and passed it down to the children, all of whom have worked at the company in some capacity; one brother still runs it. Nanta came to the US in 1999, first to study through a home-stay program. Eventually she met her husband and stayed. Her brother Pricha attended college in Japan and bartended. He moved to the US after Jhanjay opened in Wallingford in 2007. Pricha handles the business side of things and Nanta is the creative foodie. Sutha oversees the kitchen at Pestle Rock and his wife Rewadee also cooks there. They were the most recent to arrive, coming in 2012. Before Pestle Rock opened. Their mom, Somsong Jawpliphon, is a fantastic cook and sometimes cooks at the restaurant. "She cooks desserts for the staff all the time," says Cameron happily. She spends time in both countries, about three months of each year in Thailand.

Above l-r: Denchai, Somsong, Uan, Golf, Cameron, Ying

Nanta wanted to offer healthier food at Jhanjay when she opened in Wallingford; vegetarian, less oil. That has been a big success. The Ballard Jhanjay opened in 2009. When opening Pestle Rock, she wanted to add meat to the menu, keeping that healthier aspect. "There's not much salmon in Thailand, but Nanta wanted to offer local meats. The only non-local meat on the menu is frog legs which come from Florida. We also use local produce with the exception of Thai basil which needs a hotter climate to grow; it comes from California."

Yum Lao Tod

Pestle Rock has a service bar with spirits, wine and beer, but no actual lounge. Kids are welcome in every area. Cocktails use herbs, chili peppers, lychee and more. Next to the service bar there is a long table for larger parties.

With Pestle Rock going strong, they are moving ahead with a new, smaller location for Ballard's Jhanjay on Market Street. "It's a smaller space, and we're putting in a hood and a bar. Technically, it's a service bar, but we may have some tall tables. Hopefully we'll have all the permits mid-May," says Cameron. "We're still in the decision stage about keeping the current Ballard Jhanjay location and creating a noodle restaurant." If they build it, we will come.

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market St
Seattle, WA 98107
206-466-6671

www.pestlerock.com

Pestle Rock's large table and service bar

Jhanjay-Wallingford
1718 N 45th Street
Seattle, WA 98103
206-632-1484

Jhanjay-Ballard
New location
2242 NW Market St
Seattle, WA 98107
206-588-1469

www.jhanjay.com

Unfamiliar with Isan food? Here's a look at a few dishes that may seem more familiar and explanations on a few that are really different.

Similar

Different

Mee Ka Ti is Phad Thai-esque. Many Phad Thais are made with catsup or tamarind. Mee Ka Ti uses coconut milk and is spicier.

Kao Soi is a curry noodle soup with chicken, red onions, pickled mustard greens and crispy noodles. Those who've traveled to Chiang Mai will be familiar with this dish.

Panang Salmon is charcoal grilled and topped with curry over vegetables. The curry is similar to the familiar panang curry.

Yum Kao Tod is rice soaked in curry, then fried crispy and tossed with ginger, galangal, herbs, coconut flakes and peanuts.

Guay Tiow Tom Yum is essentially a noodle soup. Like phở with a lot of flavor.

Sai Ua is a Thai sausage made with Carlton ground pork and red chili paste-the spice is all inside the sausage. It is grilled and served with pickled and fresh vegetables.


Connie Adams/May 2015


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