I’m disappointed with Thai food in Seattle. It’s not bad, but it’s uninspiring. So why would I want to go to Tukwila to sample more? That’s what I thought when invited to the new Racha Thai & Asian Kitchen at Southcenter Mall.
Southcenter’s interesting. There are “suburban” shoppers (Caucasians, etc.) who are happy with food court offerings, like cloyingly sweet General Tso’s chicken. On the other hand, there is an Asian population that seems to like, well, cloyingly sweet General Tso’s chicken. Or maybe they might demand something better? I’ve been less-than-thrilled with my Racha experiences in the past, but maybe Southcenter could break the spell cast by the Queen Anne location.
The first dish, golden coconut prawns, stirred my interest. Too much breading (though with nice coconut flavoring): I want plump, fresh shrimp instead. It was the accompanying pineapple-dill sauce, though, that caught my eye and my tongue. “This is different,” I thought. Not a good match, in my mind, but I was happy to see the attempt.
A lot of the appetizers are typical Thai/Asian offerings—ones that would go well with a drink in the bar (Racha has ramped up its beverage menu), and that would have mainstream appeal. Crab and shrimp in wonton skins did little for me, but the Vietnamese chicken wings were fun, especially dipped in the spicy nam pla sauce. Most surprising were the calamari sticks, with 7-spice flavoring that made them addictive. At first glance, I thought they were French fries; I’d prefer to have tentacles and odd-shaped bits and pieces, but the sliced up calamari steaks are more cost-effective and easy to cook—and safer for the skittish diner to try.
More interesting for me was moo ma now (grilled marinated pork) with shredded cabbage and a bright chili-lime-garlic sauce. I also enjoyed the ginger beef, though the fried sesame wonton skins were not necessary for me.
Salads were good. Asian duck salad had tender slices of duck and nice touches like Chinese red dates and chestnuts. And the green papaya salad was fresh-tasting and surprisingly spicy. It’s always nice to see sticky rice served with this salad, as it’s great for mopping up any extra sauce.
I asked for my Malaysian fish laksa extra spicy, and Racha delivered. This soup isn’t as common in Seattle as I’d like it to be, and since finding it unexpectedly during a recent trip to West Virginia, I’d been craving it. At this point in the meal, the Racha crew told me that they don’t like to add too much heat to their dishes, for fear of masking the flavors. I’m not quite sure if that’s true, as I’ve had incredibly spicy food in Thailand that I enjoyed, but was grateful that they powered up the peppers in the laksa. The broth was good and rich in taste, but I wanted longer, thicker noodles than what they served.
Entrées were a mixed bag. The jumbo prawns prikkhing was unappealing, as the shrimp were overcooked and the flavors uninteresting. The pork bulgogi might best be left to the Koreans, as this preparation left little impression on me, and I’m not sure what was meant by the green noodles mentioned on the menu. Indochine chicken curry was good enough, but typical of Thai food in being not enough to make me want to go out to eat. On the other hand, goong ob woonsen (prawns in a clay pot) represented everything I want from this type of dining experience: an introduction to new ingredients and/or preparation, eye-opening presentation, and mouth-watering taste. It was my favorite dish of the night, with its glass noodles, pork fat, shiitake mushrooms, and topping bitter greens. (See the recipe here.)
I’d urge Racha and other Thai restaurants to serve some lesser-known but perhaps more authentic dishes. I would have liked to have tried the hung-lay lamb (a curry preparation featuring buttersquash—whatever that would turn out to be) or the hot and sour pork shank. Different meats (or cuts of meats), different vegetables, different herbs, and different preparations—like what’s served at the restaurant’s family (staff) meal. (I recall it was a duck liver dish that night.) Of concern is that the owners said some of the least popular menu items, like the salted fish fried rice, will drop off the menu. I think this is a shame, as I like to see restaurants offer different dishes and promote them. (My favorite model is Bamboo Garden, which gently encourages its customers to experiment with a choice from its “Walk on the Wild Side Menu”—the translation of the Chinese menu, often the better food, which is usually not accessible to non-Chinese speakers.)
I hope Racha can try to expand its menu—and its customers’ taste. And I hope that what’s happening at Southcenter, now hailed as the flagship of the chain, will extend to its other restaurants, including the Queen Anne site, and to other Thai restaurants in Seattle. I’m tired of talking about how Thai food in Seattle won’t float my boat until we get boat noodles, or even better, restaurants like Las Vegas’ Lotus of Siam or Queens’ Sripraphai, which I recently visited. Racha has an opportunity to help make that happen, and I hope they do; otherwise, I’ll be paying a visit and asking to eat the family meal.
Cross-posted on Examiner.