I like to think of myself as a relatively fearless traveler, but put me on a city bus that unexpectedly veers far from any city and I become a quivering mass of unadulterated anxiety. I’d been to Bellevue before but never beyond the library, which nestles cozily within a few stunning high-rises and an equally stunning collection of malls, from the mini- variety to shopping meccas. When the bus I was on left the freeway and entered the deep dark woods, I began to wonder if I’d taken the wrong one. The trees suddenly blotted out the sky, the houses on the side of the road became scanty, and worst of all–there were no sidewalks. Was I on my way to Twin Peaks?

As the bus took me farther and farther away from any conception I’d ever had of Bellevue, I tried not to worry about how I’d manage to return to what I thought of as civilization. This particular vehicle only accommodated commuters and stopped running after it had fulfilled its mission. The Bellevue Transit Center, where buses ran well into the night, seemed as though it lived in another galaxy from the rural paradise I was traveling through. After thirty long minutes of gazing at a forest, I’ve never been so happy to see a shopping plaza come into view. The sight of Bed Bath & Beyond was so welcome I was afraid it might be a fata morgana, a specter that hovered before me, forever unreachable.

To anyone who might think this was an overreaction, I spent my formative years engulfed by trees, meadows, and mud. My fondest childhood ambition was to eventually hear the heels of my shoes clicking their way down a city sidewalk and once I’d achieved that goal I clung to it with a desperate possession. In an area without sidewalks, I feel as though I’ve been transported back to my homestead childhood without an exit strategy.

When the bus finally let me off at my destination, I was disoriented and somewhat shaken, only comforted by the sight of the very urban friends I’d come to meet. Chawadee and her husband Win promptly led me to what Chawadee, with her cosmopolitan Bangkok perspective, termed an Asian grocery. To me it was a food palazzo and exactly what I needed to restore my depleted sense of adventure. We roamed past a tub of white carp the size of baby sharks, a shelf with packages of Happy Snail Noodles from Liuzhou that I might have bought if not for Win saying they had a strong and potentially unpleasant smell, and a freezer compartment that held whole frozen durian at the bargain price of $7.99 a pound. I left with a ten-pound bag of jasmine rice, Mama green curry instant noodles, a box of durian cakes, and a present from Chawadee, a box of Thai Tea that would turn into the real thing when milk was added. (The box itself is a minor work of art.)

When we walked outside with our purchases, what looked like an undistinguished strip mall turned out to be a dazzling collection of small restaurants. Without shame we peered through the window of one that had no English signage and stared at the food on the tables. “Sichuan,” Chawadee said. Other spots offered hand-pulled noodles, dumplings, and the promise of xialongbao soon to come. Enticing odors filled the winter air and I began to wish I had three stomachs.

But we had a goal in mind and it was Chaat House. A spot with no menus, plastic cutlery, and an unadorned collection of diner tables, it was absolutely wonderful with the most delicious Indian dishes I’ve had in Seattle, soaring far beyond the upscale offerings of the dear departed Poppy on trendy Capitol Hill. Chawadee, Win, and I each ended up with a different kind of bread–puffy puri as big as our heads, buttery naan with a substantial filling, and whole wheat paratha, spelled on the magnetic board above the counter as parantha. Everything else seemed like a garnish to this fabulous bread, each with flavors that had my taste buds in a state of ecstasy, and the mango lassi was sheer delight in a bottle, as marvelous as any I’d had freshly made in Penang.

There’s only one drawback to food as good as this. It demands all the attention that lesser meals would allow a conversation to have, and once we’d reached our saturation points, I’d lapsed into a mild form of food coma. This would have been a perfect end to the meal except for the sad truth that Chawadee and Win would be returning to Bangkok soon and this was our last meeting. There’s only one way to resume our conversation as it’s meant to be held and it will have me on a plane to Bangkok as soon as covid allows. However Chawadee told me in that city there’s a recently opened southern India restaurant with food from Kerala, so I envision at least one shared meal that will turn my brain into a mass of satisfied sludge. As for the one we had last night, I’m still not hungry, and my tongue carries the lingering memories of all that we ate. Chaat House, you haven’t seen the last of me, even if that means a journey far from what I know, deep into the rural heart of Bellevue.