Can you imagine a Seattle without Thai food? It may seem unthinkable today, but it wasn’t until 1981 that a Seattle Times food writer was able to announce: “Seattle finally has an authentic Thai restaurant.”
Even if it took us a while to discover Thai cuisine, we’ve certainly made up for lost time. In fact, new survey data from market-research firm Scarborough show the popularity of Thai food has now surged past Chinese, and even eclipsed pizza, among Seattle diners.
Scarborough asked 2,319 adults in King and Snohomish counties about the types of restaurants they’ve patronized in the past 30 days. Among Seattle residents, 29 percent responded Thai, second only to Mexican. For a cuisine that didn’t exist in Seattle before the 1980s, that’s quite an accomplishment.
But is this really unique to Seattle — hasn’t Thai food has become hugely popular all across the country?
Indeed, but not like it has here. The local-business review site Yelp counts 126 Thai restaurants within the Seattle city limits. Compare that with the U.S. cities closest to us in population: We have about double the number of Thai restaurant as Washington, D.C., triple that of Denver, and four times as many as Boston.
Contrary to what you might think, the proliferation of Thai restaurants in Seattle has nothing to do with an influx of immigrants from Thailand. According to the most recent census data, there are only about 850 people of Thai ethnicity in Seattle — that’s less than 1 percent of the city’s Asian-American population. (In King County at large, there are just 2,000, including the Seattle population.)
The survey data show that while Thai food is also popular in the suburbs, it hasn’t made inroads quite as deep as it has in the city. In King and Snohomish counties outside of Seattle, 20 percent of adults say they’ve patronized a Thai restaurant in the past 30 days. That ranks Thai fourth among the types of cuisine listed in the survey.
It’s hard to say why we’ve developed such a penchant for panang and pad see ew in Seattle, but it seems to be a Northwest thing: Portland has even more Thai restaurants than we do.
Pencil it out — there is roughly one Thai restaurant for every seven Thai people living in Seattle. Imagine if we had the same ratio of Norwegian restaurants to folks of Norwegian ancestry here. I did the math: we’d have 5,200 lutefisk joints in town.