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Originally published Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nancy Leson

Cajun flavor in the ID

Excerpts from her blog, All You Can Eat Several of you have e-mailed, crying about the closure of the 2-year-old Vietnamese restaurant Made...

Seattle Times food writer

Nancy Leson on KPLU

THE SEATTLE TIMES writer's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays.

Excerpts from her blog,

All You Can Eat

Several of you have e-mailed, crying about the closure of the 2-year-old Vietnamese restaurant Made in Kitchen (701 Eighth Ave. S., Seattle). I feel your pain. And who knew? When I drove past the vacated premises last week, I spied a big yellow banner that read: "Coming Soon — Crawfish King Cajun Seafood Boil." Upon closer inspection, I found an oversized menu taped to the storefront and inside, a handful of construction guys working on a serious remodel. They'd left the existing bar intact and were building a faux "deck" along the front window — complete with cedar planks, giving the spacious restaurant a kind of seaside feel. And that's how I met Trieu Dinh, who will be running the place when it opens in January.

Trieu is no stranger to the restaurant business. He told me he was one of the co-founders of Bellevue's Vietnamese pho house What the Pho! (which, by the way, is exactly what I said when I saw that banner.) What the Pho (www.whatthepho.net) now has a location in Bothell, and another soon to open in Southcenter. And when I asked, "What's a nice Vietnamese guy like you doing opening a Cajun joint in Seattle's Chinatown International District?" Trieu didn't miss a beat before waxing rhapsodic about his frequent trips to Texas to visit his cousin James Nguyen — the owner of Crawfish King. While hanging with his cuz down south, he got hooked on crawfish boils, and he explained that fresh, seasonal seafood — including the Louisiana crawfish he'll be flying in daily via Southwest Airlines — will be the star of the show here. But Trieu also plans to import blue crab from the Gulf Coast and sell fresh local Dungeness crab, oysters, clams and shrimp. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Thoa? Whoa!

If you stand at the corner of First and Union soaking in the restaurant scenery, chances are you'll feel like Dorothy — whose famous quote about Kansas is likely to resonate, loudly. Sure, you're familiar with Ethan Stowell's restaurant and bar, Union (www.unionseattle.com), holding down the northeast corner. And the goings-on at TASTE (www.tastesam.com) over on the southeast side. If you've been reading my blog, you've likely read about Kerry Sear's new restaurant, ART (www.fourseasons.com/seattle/dining) in the Four Seasons, unveiled on the southwest corner of the street in November. But look at the marquee signage in front of the Restaurant Formerly Known as The Islander, across from the valet entrance at the Four Seasons, and you'll find Thoa's restaurant and lounge (96 Union, Seattle, 206-344-8088; www.thoaseattle.com).

At which point you might scratch your head and say, "Thoa's?" (say: "TWAHZ"). What you're looking at is the re-envisioned Islander restaurant, renamed to echo that of its owner, Thoa Nguyen (no relation to Trieu Dinh's cousin), whose first name — pronounced "TWAH" — does not rhyme with "Whoa!" but does make for a catchy headline.

If you live on Queen Anne Hill — or eat there — you might recognize Thoa as the Vietnamese chef who opened the popular pan-Asian Chinoise Cafe in 1996. Thoa has since opened (and closed) several other Chinoise outposts (www.chinoisecafe.com), and you can still enjoy her pan-Asian menu at the original Queen Anne location and at Chinoise on Madison, in Madison Valley. But downtown at the crossroads of hotels and haute cuisine, she's determined to bring about the union of taste and art with a new menu at Thoa's — one that takes a more focused look at the foods of her native country.

Among her contemporary Vietnamese specialties you'll find soft-shell-crab summer rolls, seared tuna lotus salad with rau ram, Vietnamese steak frites and an MSG-free version of Seattle's favorite soup sensation, pho tai. In the coming months, menu and décor changes will continue to evolve, and Thoa says she intends to keep Islander regulars happy by offering old menu favorites like her poke ahi salad, steak loco moco and Spam-fried rice. Thoa's is open daily.

This material has been edited for print publication.

Nancy Leson's blog excerpts appear Wednesdays. Reach her at 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants. Check her latest thoughts in her All You Can Eat blog. Her column appears each Wednesday. Her restaurant roundups appear monthly, on Fridays, in the Restaurants and Entertainment sections.
nancyleson@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8838 | Blog

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