Dish: Guay tiow nua nom tok
Place: Spice Room, Columbia City
In the bowl: Per the menu: “rice noodles & rare beef in spicy rich broth,” but that’s not the end of the story.
Supporting cast: A tray with chili flakes, chili oil, and whole chilis.
What to do: You can order this at heat level 0-4, and then adjust with the chilis on your table. Otherwise, just eat.
Noodling around: I first came to the restaurant with a large group, and we asked the server for suggestions. After we steered away from all of them (including the ever-safe Phad Thai), he declared us the best group he’s ever had for trying more adventurous dishes.
In fact, there’s a section called “The Adventurous” on the menu, and here you’ll find two very interesting noodle options. The kao soy is good, its pickled mustard greens the star, but I especially like the guay tiow nua nom tok.
The description fails to capture the complexity, so let’s break down the Thai. Guay tiow (or guay teow) is rice noodles. Nua indicates beef. So far we’ve got beef rice noodles. Nom tok (or nam tok) means waterfall, and in this case refers to the bloody liquid that falls from grilling meat. At Spice Room, pork blood is added to the broth, giving it depth and a slightly minerally, earthy taste.
Dried rice noodles (the same as what’s used in Phad Thai) become the vehicle to sop up the delicious, bloody broth. The beef is tender and fried papadum strips add nice texture.
If you want more: If you’re looking for something small, a side of cucumber salad ($3) will probably do the trick, offering a complementary fresh, acidic bite to the soup. But I’d recommend staying adventurous and trying the trout salad ($9). Spice World does an excellent version of this, featuring mango, cashew, onion, and tomato atop a sliced-open trout. The lime vinaigrette is a perfect partner, and you can probably go higher in spice level than what your server recommends.
Be aware/beware: This is a very pleasant Thai restaurant with tables against a banquette along one wall, and four-tops divided by sheer fabric (my preferred seating) along the other wall. It’s probably the best atmosphere of any Thai restaurant in Seattle, with perhaps the best food.
What holds Spice Room back is its timidity to be full-on Thai. While I applaud the “Adventurous” menu, why hide the fact that there’s pork blood in a broth? Advertise it. Don’t steer customers to just the safe dishes, and be bolder with spice levels. And if offering fun dishes like mieng kham, make it an authentic experience. Part of the fun of filling the betel leaves is the variety of fillings and getting the balance of flavors right, so it’s inexcusable to have to ask for dried shrimp–a standard ingredient of this dish.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on June 7, 2011.