Dinner at Din Tai Fung (Bellevue, WA)

All the times before that we’ve dined at Din Tai Fung, we were never able to get seated at a table right away. Always there was a wait. It is that popular. Tonight was an exception. We waltzed right in after seeing Amour at Lincoln Square Cinemas (a remarkable, unsettling, superbly acted movie, by the way). Our taste buds were still remembering the excellent noodle soups we had here recently, so we could easily have ordered them again. But, in the interest of trying something different, we settled on Vegetable and Pork Wonton with Spicy Sauce and Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup.

For an appetizer, we started with the tersely-labeled Cucumber, Kirbys sliced about 3/4″ thick, dressed with vinegar, sugar and sesame and chili oils. Refreshing and crunchy, they cleansed our palates for what followed.

pickled cucumbers

Pickled cucumbers

The shrimp and pork wontons were served in the same delicious, pure chicken broth that graced the Noodle Soup with Pickled Mustard Green & Shredded Pork last time, with no additional ingredients like vegetables, making for a spartan soup. The dumplings themselves were very flavorful.

Eight spicy wontons were served in a shallow dish over a pool of dark sauce made from chicken broth, black soy sauce, chili oil and minced green onions. What gave the sauce extra dimension was the flavor of five spice powder with notes of licorice and warm spices, which along with a dipping sauce of black vinegar and finely shredded ginger, given to everyone, made for two tasty ways to garnish the dumplings in the Chinese soup spoon. Difficult to detect without our waitress’ help were the vegetables in the wonton—Chinese cabbage (napa) and bok choi—tasty companions of the ground pork. This, as it turns out, is DTF’s most popular wonton dish, and deservedly so.

Dining at Din Tai Fung can become a pricey affair, especially if you add cocktails like we did. The lychee mojito is a killer drink. But, everything is freshly made and the dedication to quality is definitely apparent. By the time we were done with dinner, there was the typical flock of people waiting to be seated. The rumor is that the Taiwanese chain is looking to open a Seattle location, perhaps in the University Village, which can only ease the crowds here.

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Din Tai Fung
700 Bellevue Way Northeast #280
Bellevue, WA 98004

Who’s Got Seattle’s Best Banh Mi, Seattle Deli or Saigon Deli?

We’re fortunate here in the Seattle area to have several delis and bakeries that serve good bánh mì sandwiches, Vietnamese inventions that transform a version of the French baguette into a savory fusion of bread, meat (or tofu) and vegetables. Seattle is one of those lucky cities in America to have a thriving bánh mì culture, a fact that was not lost on the New York Times. The term bánh mì actually refers to the bread itself, but in accordance with common usage, I mean the sandwiches.

One remarkable fact about bánh mì is that they’re cheap. For $3, you can score a pretty decent sandwich. As the Times article warns, “Beware the banh mi over $6.” As a case in point, Monsoon East (an excellent restaurant which I’ve reviewed elsewhere) offers its sandwich at a whopping $13 (cough!). At that price, it had better be a transcendent, out-of-body experience. What price ecstasy?

What makes a great bánh mì? It starts with the bread, a version of the baguette (introduced during colonial times) that is airier than the French version. Some argue that it is the single most important element. The result of mixing wheat and rice flours, it was waiting for a Vietnamese interpretation. The crust should be thin and crispy, with shards falling off when bitten into, the bread with less chew and density than the French. Just any sandwich roll won’t do. I’ve eaten bánh mì in Southern California that was made with a hoagie roll, which is all wrong. The sandwiches are sometimes spread with mayonnaise (another colonial holdover), sometimes squirted with Maggi seasoning or some variation and filled with fresh vegetables, like cucumber, cilantro, chiles and đồ chua (a shredded carrot-and-daikon relish, sweet-tart from vinegar and sugar), and some sort of meat, traditionally pâté, grilled chicken or meatballs, among others. Tofu is also a popular option. My personal favorite is grilled (barbecued) pork. Bánh mì is best eaten within minutes of purchase, the bread warm from being freshly toasted and at the peak of its light, crackly texture.

In local debates, two restaurants seem to emerge as favorites: Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli, which are located in an area of the city called Little Saigon and separated from each other by a mere few blocks. Both places never seem wanting for customers.

I was introduced first to Saigon Deli several years ago. Later, I began to hear partisan support for Seattle Deli’s bánh mì. So, last year, my wife and I tried their pork sandwich for the first time. Afterward, we both agreed that, while Seattle Deli’s version had much to commend it, we still slightly preferred Saigon’s. What exactly are the differences?

Taking a cue from a comparison we did between two North Shore shrimp trucks on Oahu, we decided to conduct a side-by-side tasting, with our daughter weighing in, too.

Saigon Deli's sandwich on the left, Seattle Deli's on the right

Saigon Deli’s sandwich on the left, Seattle Deli’s on the right

Laid out side-by-side, there were no obvious differences, both less than a foot long (see above). Opening them like a book revealed similar fillings, cucumber spears running along the length of the sandwiches, plenty of cilantro sprigs, sliced jalapeños and đồ chua, with Seattle Deli’s juliénned larger. Both were spread with mayonnaise, though Saigon Deli’s was yellower, perhaps mixed with Maggi. So, again no big visual difference.

It was after we took our first bite that things started to crystallize. Saigon Deli’s đồ chua was sweeter and more vinegary, a fine counterpoint to the pork filling. The contrast between the two grilled pork fillings was also clear. Saigon’s was chunkier, more grilled but gristlier. Seattle Delis version was thinly sliced, therefore easier to bite through, and leaner. Both had lemongrass notes, were slightly sweet and tasted of nước mắm. The flavors, though different, were both excellent, our choice leaning toward Seattle Deli’s.

Now to the all-important bread. Both delis hollowed them out enough to surround the fillings that might otherwise squeeze out at the opposite end and both had the all-important crispy yet light texture. Seattle Deli’s loaf was larger in circumference, which meant proportionally more bread. To us, Saigon Deli won the contest, exhibiting somewhat more lightness, moistness and tenderness.

Overall, then, the three of us unanimously crowned Saigon Deli the winner of the taste-off, even though we preferred Seattle Deli’s pork filling. Still, both are excellent sandwiches and the differences we noted were slight. You can’t go wrong with either. We’re truly fortunate in Seattle.

I should add that both places serve hot and cold food to-go. The hot foods are kept in steam table trays behind glass counters. Simply order the amount you need, which turns out to be pretty inexpensive. Cold foods, including quite a selection of dessert items, are sold in plastic tubs that you pick up and pay for at the cashier. I really dig the two items below the bánh mì ratings.

Saigon Deli’s barbecue pork bánh mì: ☆☆☆☆
Seattle Deli’s barbecue pork bánh mì: ☆☆☆½
Saigon Deli’s xiu mai (pork meatballs): ☆☆☆☆
Seattle Deli’s green papaya salad with dried beef strips: ☆☆☆½

Update (8-29-15): I’ve been to Q Bakery three times since this post and decided that I’ve come across the best baguette, even better than Saigon Deli’s, as close to perfection as such bread is likely to get. Q is, after all, a bakery and it happens to sell bánh mì sandwiches, bubble teas and other prepared foods. I’ve seen many customers just buy the breads, the various kinds stacked on racks by the entrance. The bánh mì fillings are things like headcheese, shredded pork skin, paté, as well as chicken, meatballs, and pork. I’ve had the paté and meatball, but these are too pasty in a sandwich for my personal taste. The grilled pork (bánh mì thịt nướng) is made very much like Seattle Deli’s, seasoned and thinly sliced and quite good. Despite the fact that my wife and I both prefer Saigon’s đồ chua, which is more seasoned and more vinegary, Q Bakery’s pork bánh mì is right there among the very best in Seattle, maybe even at the top by a small margin because of that ineffable, mind-altering baguette. If it weren’t so far to get to, I’d go there much more often.

Update: Unfortunately, Seattle Deli has closed because of redevelopment. We wish owner Thach Nguyen luck in relocating to a nearby location.

Meatball (xíu mại) báhn mì

Q Bakery’s meatball (xíu mại) báhn mì

Saigon Deli
1237 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
Seattle Deli
225 12th Ave S
Seattle, WA 98144
Q Bakery
3818 S Graham St
Seattle, WA 98118

Moonstruck Chocolate’s Critters

Strawberry love bug

Strawberry love bug

Here, in the Pacific Northwest, there is a vibrant chocolate culture that, while not as well known as the city’s contribution to coffee drinking, is no less enthusiastic with a list of chocolatiers worthy of any important regional producer. By way of endorsement, Fran‘s salted caramels are reportedly President Obama’s favorite chocolate. Of the local companies, I’d wager that Theo’s has gotten the lion’s share of recognition.

Known mostly closer to home and sold at quality Seattle-area supermarkets, including Whole Foods and PCC Natural Markets, Moonstruck Chocolate Company, based in Portland, Oregon, produces a range of truffles and chocolate ganaches that are hand-crafted in limited quantities. All are of excellent quality. What captured the imagination of fans are what the company calls critters, ganaches that have been whimsically shaped into bite-sized animals, then individually hand-dipped in chocolate and decorated with facial and other features. The seasonal critters are quite popular and, despite being priced at just south of $4 a piece, sell well enough to return annually during holidays and other seasonal observances. This includes Valentine’s Day when the love bug critters make their appearance, both in raspberry and strawberry ganache flavors. They make cute gifts that also happen to appeal to chocolate lovers, to which my wife attests. She received both bugs from yours truly for Valentine’s Day.

Taquitos at La Cocina del Puerco (Bellevue, WA)—CLOSED

In the sea of cookie-cutter Mexican restaurants in the Seattle area, one on the Eastside stands out for its great food and interior decor kitschiness. When you walk through La Cocina del Puerco‘s doors, it’s refreshing to be surrounded by piñatas hanging from the ceiling, the turquoise- and pink-painted walls, rickety metal card tables doubling as dining tables and sporting Superior beer logos, clunky folding chairs and other stuff hanging all along the walls. When you’re completely enveloped by this scenery and Mexican music playing on the audio system, you’d swear you were in Mexico. What’s doubly surprising is that this place, more like a cantina than a restaurant, thrives in Old Bellevue, an upscale neighborhood of high rises, concrete and steel buildings and yoga studios.

We’d been coming here for a long time. The menu lists many Mexican favorites, but we have long since settled on ordering one thing when we come here—the pork carnitas taquitos plate (item #1 on the menu). Continue reading

Noodle Soups at Pestle Rock (Seattle, WA)

Guay tiow lao

Guay tiow lao

I’ve eaten at Pestle Rock twice before, having come away impressed both times. The occasion of having lunch with my daughter marked my third visit.

What caught my eye was a noodle soup dish called Guay Tiow Lao, which I presumed from its name was Laotian in style. How it’s Laotian in influence I have no idea, let alone if my assumption was correct in the first place. Regardless, the broth was extremely briny from shrimp paste, a stinky seasoning whose ammoniated odor can overpower a kitchen. The shrimpy flavor got tamer as I ate more. The soup contained thin rice noodles that were silky and had good texture, small slices of pork spareribs with tender meat that you have to free up between pieces of bone, tomatoes, and garnished with sliced mustard greens and fried shallots. Overall a good enough soup but one that I wasn’t overly fond of because of the shrimp paste’s strong flavor.

My daughter ordered the khao soi noodle soup that was as good as I remembered from a previous visit.

Khao soi noodle coup

Khao soi noodle soup

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107