By Denise Sakaki | December 27, 2018
The Thai salutation, or wai, a gentle bow with hands clasped in a prayer-like style, is a gesture of greeting or departure, and a sign of respect and gratitude. As instinctive as a friendly handshake or a wave of the hand, wai is an expression of human connection and deeply held traditions in Thai culture, and it’s regularly bestowed as one is welcomed into Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen in Kirkland.
When Jennifer “Jenny” Politanont and husband Saravut Nawasangarun decided to settle down and raise a family in Kirkland, they arrived with a vision to expand the Eastside’s palate beyond the comfort zone of pad Thai. They arrived from Thailand with a unique background of having careers as successful artists in the entertainment industry, as well as the experience of starting and running their own restaurants in the busy cityscape of Bangkok.
Their restaurateur pedigree was earned by hands-on experience — they managed and ran their businesses and evolved them over time, trying different things. Through this process they came to learn their own personal “restaurant style” that would eventually become the concept of Isarn, which first opened along the Kirkland waterfront in 2014, then followed with a second location in Lynnwood.
A labor of love, Isarn is both the taste and essence of Thailand. Politanont gestures to the rich, dark tropical wood integrated with the restaurant interiors, and the textures of bamboo on the wall décor — most of the materials were brought over from Thailand to truly evoke a sense of place. The chefs are all from Thailand, bringing their own regional experiences to the kitchen. The restaurant logo is a patterned silhouette of the Isarn region (also spelled Isan, among several variations), the northeast portion of Thailand unique for its diversity of influences. It shares a border with Laos, and the region has a lush integration of culture; languages; and of course, food. Politanont describes how the composition of the restaurant menu, while not exclusive to the Isarn area, conveys the overall influence of the cuisine that has permeated what most would generally consider Thai food.
The popular streetside vendors’ simple preparation of ingredients to showcase flavor is apparent in Isarn’s fresh-made curries with essential oils of lemongrass and chili peppers. The region’s landlocked location in Thailand reflects the use of more meat than seafood, and the Isarn menu is populated with soups and stews featuring rich cuts of pork belly or beef, braised slowly to enrich the broth with flavor and texture. Even in the chill of a Northwest winter, Isarn’s salads are hearty and possess that ideal balance of what Thai cuisine excels in: the complex layering of fresh, raw ingredients like cucumber, bean sprouts, and mint, paired with grilled meats; seafood and vegetables; sharp notes of pickled vegetables; and the robustness of fermented, preserved flavors like fish sauce or anchovies.
Guests familiar with living in Thailand will indulge in the “Everything” Papaya Salad, made with the traditional tart; green strips of papaya fruit; crunchy bean sprouts; peanuts and fried pork rinds, along with the added “Isarn style” of fermented crab and anchovies to bring it to an intense flavor crescendo.
Along with their “power couple” celebrity status in Thailand, Politanont and Nawasangarun are equally well-matched as Northwest restaurateurs. “My husband is the one that works in the kitchen most of the time,” Politanont says. “He’s not a chef himself, but he knows what he likes. He has traveled a lot, constantly eating out in Thailand, getting ideas, like, ‘Oh, this is going to be good!’” While crediting her husband as the flavor/food curator who guides the menu as it evolves over time, both are experienced business owners, and Isarn’s menu has been designed for authenticity while matching the Eastside pace.
Dishes are designed to have all the layers of texture and ingredients, and able to be served to smaller groups, as the more traditional family style of eating with large parties isn’t as prevalent here. The incredible growth of the Eastside — Kirkland, especially — has increased the workday lunch crowd, and one of Isarn’s most-ordered dishes is the Hat Yai Fried Chicken topped with fried shallots and garlic — simple and just as popular with Thai street food vendors, it’s quickly become a local favorite. Politanont laughs, “Everyone loves fried chicken.”
Whether it’s the bustling streets of Bangkok or the changing landscape of the Eastside, the heart of Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen is its people, and the fact that it’s a family business in constant connection to its culture. “I have my mom, my brother, my sister working here now. We all live together; we’re always touching base about the business,” Politanont says of this deeply personal work dynamic. She describes how they’re always having food from their own restaurants, sampling and testing dishes between the two locations, making regular adjustments. This commitment is rewarded with guests commenting regularly how something in particular tastes like a dish from home, and transplants from Thailand have been coming to Isarn since it opened, bringing visitors and spreading the restaurants’ popularity.
Politanont loves seeing guests, upon returning from a trip to Thailand, expressing the wai, welcoming the encouragement to eat the sticky rice in the traditional manner of using one’s fingers, connecting that much more to the experience.
One of Politanont’s favorite dishes is one she can have from the restaurant kitchen, or on a busy street in Bangkok — a simple papaya salad (with sticky rice, of course), expressing the ability of food to transcend distance, that no matter how far we are from home or family, we can have that sense of place over a shared meal.