Tonkotsu Ramen at Ai Sushi (Bellevue, WA)


While I was getting my Hawaiian meal at Island Grill (see below), my wife was ordering tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi, also located in the Crossroads Mall food court. Let me first start off by saying that I’m always wary when a restaurant that does not specialize in it offers tonkotsu, a ramen that requires time and effort to make.  As an aside, I admit to having more doubts when the cook is not even Japanese (although this obviously wasn’t an issue at a ramenya in Santa Fe nor is it at Fu Lin). Some chefs proclaim an enthusiasm for making tonkotsu, with very disappointing results, as was the case at Bo Ramen, a pop-up that sprang up last year. It was a disaster (☆½) here at Ai Sushi.

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

The pork slices seemed more like teriyaki-glazed chashu (as char siu is called in Japanese), uncharacteristically lean and disconcertingly sweet. Health considerations aside, pork in ramen typically are slices of the belly, unctuous and tender, the best of which should almost melt in the mouth. The half egg was fully cooked, normally an odd thing to complain about, except that the ideal that Japanese ramen chefs aim for is a hard white tinged with soy sauce and barely set, runny yolk, clearly not the case here. For sure, this is not a deal-breaker but not authentic either. The noodles themselves were good, with fine texture.

The broth is tonkotsu’s raison d’être. The best versions are very porky in flavor, fatty, gelatinous and milky in consistency, with a hint of ginger and other aromatics. It takes almost an eternity to make, genuinely requiring at least two days over a burner, which if you think about it is impossible at a restaurant nestled in a food court inside a mall that closes up every night. Special exemptions for restaurants? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ai Sushi‘s broth is a total, unmitigated disaster. It is thin, oddly flavored, out-of-balance, with no luxuriance or weight typical of the broth. It isn’t even a good, ordinary ramen broth. Swill is a better word.

Ai Sushi
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Bellevue, WA 98008
425.373.9389
 
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Rime Ice on Ivy


One of nature’s wondrous phenomena is the formation of ice crystals when temperatures outside get really cold. Moisture in the air freezes on grass, tree branches, whatever water droplets can grab onto, and form the most beautiful patterns. When water freezes, it has a crystalline structure. So, often you can see incredible hexagonal or feathery spike formations, almost always in shady spots where direct sunlight can’t melt them. We were taking a walk through our neighborhood when we came across many beautiful examples of rime ice, such as that on ivy in the image above.

Lunch at Island Grill (Bellevue, WA)


We were excited to learn that a Hawaiian restaurant opened on the Eastside recently. When she was running an errand at Crossroads Mall last week, my wife first noticed it, now in the space previously occupied by Jones’ BBQ and then Burney’s BBQ. So far, I haven’t found a satisfactory Hawaiian restaurant in the Greater Seattle area, so I was holding out hope that Island Grill would satisfy my ono kine grindz craving whenever I got one. In short, sad to say, this is probably the worst of its kind that I’ve ever experienced.

Before I get to the food, there were some telltale exchanges between me and the people working there. When I noticed BBQ chicken on the menu, I asked if it was huli chicken. All I got was a blank stare, whereupon I repeated my question. “No, BBQ chicken” was the answer I finally got back. Okay, never mind. I then ordered a combination plate of kalua pork and BBQ short ribs with a side of macaroni salad. While I was paying, I asked the cashier, “Are you from Hawaii?” Again, a blank stare. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling.

Kalua pork and BBQ short rib combo plate

Kalua pork and BBQ short rib combo plate

Let’s start with the rice. Only one scoop. In Hawaii, it’s always two scoops. But, as I’m trying to reduce my carb consumption, this was not a big deal. It’s a small detail that screams a lack of authenticity though, even if the rice was cooked nicely. The mac salad was the worst I’ve ever had—macaroni with little slivers of carrots, dressed with a sweet mayonnaise. It lacked something. Several things actually. Opinions vary on this, but I prefer my Hawaiian mac salad to have a slight vinegary tang and bits of green onions and celery, both of which lend some complexity. And how about some salt, even if it isn’t Hawaiian salt? Still, the pasta was cooked to the soft stage, which is how Hawaiians like it.

I was reminded of the catchy query, “Where’s the beef?” when I started on the BBQ short ribs. Sliced thinly as kalbi should be, the meat to bone ratio was extremely small, on top of which whatever meat could be found was tough and chewy. The teriyaki flavors were good though. The kalua pork was tender, so tender that it was almost mushy. It lacked no discernible smoke flavor and was under-seasoned, a bland interpretation.

I won’t be going back to Island Grill. It has a long way to go before it even approaches Ono’s or Helena’s in Honolulu.

Island Grill
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Ste PM-1
Bellevue, WA 98008
425.643.2028