The Fare: Thai-Hawaiian
The Truck: I write to you all from Oahu, Hawaii, a place not only dubbed paradise for its sandy beaches and impeccable weather but for its abundance of distinctively delicious food options. Hawaii is a geopolitical and thus culinary crossroads whose signature flavors capture both what’s local and fresh– ahi tuna poke, pineapples, shrimp– as well as reflect the cultural confluence of the island: kimchee, Portuguese brand sausage, and li hing mui (Chinese salted plum). Before leaving on my trip, I figured there’d be no better way to acclimate myself to the island palate than to take a trip to Pai’s, the kumquat-colored Thai-Hawaiian food truck that has been roaming Seattle’s streets since November of last year.
Pai’s is inspired by not only the cuisine of Hawaii but the institution of food trucks themselves, which are ubiquitous on the islands and highly regarded for their no-frills way of getting fresh food to the people. Pai’s goes a step further than the inherent fusion of Hawaiian cuisine by laying emphasis on the spectrum of spices found in Thailand, where owner Pai Pongsupaht was born. This meta-synthesis of flavor allows Pai’s offerings to become something greater than its compound parts.
Pai’s, which arrives at a different location in Seattle every weekday, consistently offers four varieties of rice bowl plate lunches for $7. The Thai-ness of Pai’s shines in the Organic Tofu & Bok Choy dish, tossed with fresh vegetables in a chili-garlic sauce; the Hawaiian-ness of Pai’s is encapsulated in the Kalua Pork & Cabbage, which mimics the pit-roasted pulled pork of the island. But the best offerings have their own style all together. The Paigogi beef offers thinly sliced marinated rib-eye as a variation of the signature Korean bulgogi barbecue beef dish, and the Paigogi has a sharp tang and rich spice that outdoes its inspiration. My favorite was the Lemongrass Huli-Huli Chicken, which uses the Hawaiian huli-huli ginger-soy marinade with lemongrass and an assortment of other Thai spices to create perfectly seasoned chicken breast chunks.
For $2, you can add two side dishes to your plate, including a Macaroni Salad and Hawaiian Slaw, which features standard chopped cabbage with sesame dressing. I’d recommend the tart, refreshing Green Papaya salad and the kimchee, that favorite Korean side-dish of yore, both of which compliment the spiced meat nicely.
If you’re lucky, Pai’s will offer occasional specials like Kalbi short ribs and Pai’s Haupia, a signature Hawaiian coconut pudding. And after a week on this island, I know I’ll be craving the genius that is Hawaiian Sun, an outstanding line of fruit punches and iced teas; may I personally laud the Lilikoi Iced Tea, inspired by the sour guava-like tropical fruit that makes for the perfect fruit-tinged iced tea beverage. Pai also offers a Thai-roasted coconut juice. All specialty drinks are $1.50.
I first met Pai through his community work as a mentor for The Service Board, the youth-serving organization based in White Center and the South End that pairs community service and leadership development with snowboarding. Pai’s holistic commitment to the young people in the program means that any any given time, there’s alumni of TSB taking orders at the window or grilling up your lunch. If there’s a shindig celebrating youth organizations or community ventures, like last weekend’s Chinatown Summer Festival in Hing Hay Park, Pai himself is likely to be there, warmly greeting customers outside the truck and personally introducing them to the ingenuity of his plates.