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January 13, 2012 7:00 AM

Little Uncle: Great Thai street food moves closer to the street

Posted by Rebekah Denn

I wouldn't have expected to find a fine-dining, farm-to-table chef cooking some of the best Thai food in the region. But then, what better outcome could have come from Wiley Frank spending a year in Thailand?

Frank, former sous chef at Lark, and wife Poncharee Kounpungchart ("PK"), initially set up a little once-weekly pop-up restaurant after returning from their year of travel and visits with PK's family. On Monday nights, fans and chefs-in-the-know would drop by to see Licorous, the sister restaurant to Lark, transformed to "Shophouse Seattle," where guests rejoiced in freshly-ground spices and homemade curry pastes and flavors that travelled the full tour from hot to sour to salty to sweet. The owners worked up a mix of imported and regional foods; high-quality local ingredients like Loki fish and Oxbow Farms cilantro root, imported liters of their favorite Thai fish sauce. They spent hours chopping and pounding and prepping, introducing Seattleites to a kind of Thai food they hadn't seen before, "channeled through Grandma". (There's an interesting discussion here on what makes it "authentic" or not.)

Shophouse's reputation was rising fast when a roadbump hit: Licorous closed its doors, taking away the pop-up's home. Frank and PK did a stint at the Columbia City Farmers Market and at La Bete, but now there's even better news.

They've opened a walk-up take-out window at 1509 E. Madison St., now renamed Little Uncle, where fans can dive far more frequently into their food. There are no seats, it's purely order-and-go -- ironically, technically closer to street food than it was when the project began.

What's the deal with the name change? "Shophouse Seattle" was a tribute to the little shophouses the couple saw all over Thailand, where families would cook and sell food out of their homes, doing a few specialties and doing them well. The change came after Chipotle announced a new 'Shophouse' Asian restaurant concept. Some lawyerly letters were involved, sure, but Frank said he truly wanted to change the name because people were already starting to confuse their creation with the national chain.

After ordering online from Little Uncle this week, one of the first days the walk-up hours expanded from lunchtime to dinner (they're now open 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday), I drove to Capitol Hill and found my lunch waiting at the scheduled order time. I hopped in the car with my takeout bag and my car smelled so wonderfully fragrant by the time I got home I could have eaten the upholstery. Driving, I'd already polished off the irresistible little steamed buns layered with a few soft shards of braised beef cheek, thin, crisp pickled vegetables, and fried garlic.

On the counter at home, unwrapping noodle dishes from their butcher paper wrappers (bring your own container if you want a more standard presentation), we then devoured a gentle, practically healthy tasting pad Thai, featuring soft, Northwest-made tofu and locally-laid eggs. (There's no deep fryer, so the couple can't yet offer the fish cakes that were such a pop-up hit).

The food is plenty accessible, never going over the wild edge of spices or pungency. (I could handle even hotter or stronger flavors, though I may be an outlier there.) The owners are delightful, and I'm only sorry they didn't follow the pop-up concept with a similarly mod roving food truck or a sit-down restaurant (one may be in their future) so we could enjoy their food even more at length and more often. It may be "little," but in the all the ways that count for food-lovers, this is something big.

Rebekah Denn iphoto, as P.K. wo-mans the counter. Wish I'd had room for the daily special on the menu too!

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