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Friday, July 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Strong Thai to the neighborhood

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Thai One On


12343 Lake City Way N.E., Seattle; 206-362-6999

2.5 stars

Thai

$

Reservations: available

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: starters $4.95-$6.95, salads $5.95-$9.50, entrees $6.95-$9.95, lunch specials $6.50, desserts $2.50-$4.95.

Wine list: Fewer than a dozen inexpensive labels, each offered by the glass.

Parking: on-street, plus a few slots behind the restaurant.

Sound: surprisingly quiet given the hard surfaces. (Note: future plans for late night Thai karaoke.)

Who should go: Lake City locals and other Thai food aficionados living in nearby North End neighborhoods. Families, gal-pals and casual date-nighters.

Full bar/credit cards: MC, V/no smoking/no obstacles to access.

Catchy name, no? No? Well, don't let that stop you from paying a visit to Thai One On. That name nods appropriately to the cuisine, the décor and a bar where you can snack on larb gai while sipping a lemongrass gimlet.

Owner Usa Phiubangkul, longtime chef at Capitol Hill's Noodle Studio, opened the Lake City restaurant in February. Since then, I've heard from locals impressed with everything this place has to offer: family-friendly service, takeout and delivery, plus a menu that's not only a cheap-eater's dream (prices top-out at $10) but a solid notch above the field of homogenous Thai restaurants.

That fan-club crowed about the bar's modern touches (think '60s-a-Go-Go), a dining room dressed with Thai antiques and statuary and vibrant sea-colored walls. They were right. Seated here it's easy to imagine you're not in Lake City's commercial heart, a fry-toss from Dick's Drive-In.

Show up and you're greeted by waitresses wearing gold-lamé aprons. And though I've encountered the occasional service lapse — a mix-up between similar dishes served to the wrong tables, a wait to order dinner on a busy Friday night — these were made up for in other ways.

"Is the music too loud?" we were asked on one visit. It wasn't. On another, an extra serving of steamed rice was tucked — gratis — into our bag of leftovers. And the wait for service on that busy evening resulted in swift action in the kitchen. Our appetizers, soup and salad arrived in short order, followed by a train of a half-dozen sharable entrees that left us sated and happy, our tongues tingling with ginger and chilies.

As at other Thai restaurants, choices abound: How many stars? Should your main course be stir-fried with meat, poultry, tofu or seafood? Green curry, yellow curry or red? Relax. It's hard to go wrong. And those unfamiliar with Thai food — or stuck in a pad Thai rut — would be wise to venture beyond their comfort zones.

My youngster and his dad fought over tod mun, five fishified pork patties dipped in a red curry batter and fried to a clean-tasting crisp. (Who knew? I was sure they'd turn up their noses!) Frying clean is one of the things that make this kitchen shine brighter than most.

Whole fried "tri-flavored" trout, beheaded, boned and butterflied, is arrayed with freshest vegetables, sweet basil and a tamarind-laced sauce that offers hints of sweet, salt and sour. Ginger salmon ($9.95), given a light coat of flour and gently fried, is treated to an aromatic profusion of fresh ginger and onion. "Prawns in the Blanket," juicy shrimp swaddled in crisp spring-roll wrappers, turn something that sounds yawn-inspiring into something prawn-inspiring.

Duck curry combines sweet (coconut milk, pineapple, lychees) with heat (red curry, dried chilies), offering thick slices of rich duck meat in a soppable sauce. Duck lovers would be wise to choose that protein when ordering yellow-curry fried rice ($6.95, plus $2 for the duck). Its flavorings — a mild Thai curry paste, pungent cilantro — are a smart splurge into "exotic" territory for the timid palate.

The same can be said for pud woon sen, a wonderfully textured mix of slippery bean-thread noodles, soy sauce, sesame oil and stir-fried vegetables. This dish is certain to bring a sense of culinary adventure to fans of Cantonese-style chow mein. Wide rice noodles were a wide-eyed welcome when ordered as "Soy Sauce Noodles." Spicy (despite a one-star heat request), and invested with flavors that tasted far more complex than the words "soy sauce" imply, these soft chewy noodles are high on my lengthy list of order-agains.

Among the dishes I wouldn't order again are the papaya salad, equal amounts of finely julienned green papaya and carrot, shrieking with raw garlic. Nor would I go back for the bland "barbecue" dishes like grilled marinated steak or pork tenderloin, served with a handful of undressed raw spinach.

There was nothing bland about the Thai-style sukiyaki soup, a multidimensional meal-and-a-half with seafood, chicken, vegetables, bean-thread noodles and egg in a vaguely sweet beef broth. Or the garlic prawns with its powerful black-pepper punch.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't beg you to order the eggplant kicked up with black-bean sauce, which I sampled with tenderly stir-fried beef, or the "spicy" eggplant stir-fried with sweet basil, red bell pepper and red curry sauce.

Finish with dessert. Perhaps sweet fried bananas with coconut ice cream, or a savory black-rice pudding whose creamy topping offers a shock of salt: a jolt that reminded me why I fell in love with Thai food in the first place.

Sample menu

Chicken Satay $5.95

Yum Neua (grilled beef salad) $7.50

Pad Thai $6.95

Duck Curry $8.95

Tri-Flavor Fish $9.95

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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