Banh Mi Usurper on the Eastside? Yeh Yeh’s


Getting a good banh mi sandwich on the Eastside is problematic. Several places sell them, but not exclusively, which doesn’t mean that they’re bad. It’s just that the best places, like those in Seattle, specialize in this delicious Vietnamese sandwich. Much attention is paid to using the freshest bread and preparing the variety of fillings that go in it. A restaurant that happens to offer the sandwich on the side doesn’t bode well for giving it the attention that it deserves.

Yeh Yeh’s has had quite a loyal following in Lynnwood since 2008, surprising since that part of the greater Seattle area is not particularly a haven for Vietnamese cuisine, certainly not like Seattle’s Little Saigon. Food critic Nancy Leson of The Seattle Times has eaten there and liked it. Last year, Yeh Yeh’s opened a branch in Bellevue. It too has developed a following.

A friend of mine and I decided to check things out. The restaurant is located in a strip mall west of Fred Meyer, so parking is not the problem it is in Little Saigon. Inside there are tables for eating in, though not many, all lined up along the south wall in the skinny interior space. The entire menu is sandwiches, not only banh mi but also pastrami, Philly cheese steak and BBQ beef brisket. Whether the last three are riffs on the traditional classics, I might never find out.

I usually order a grilled pork banh mi sandwich, so it was no surprise that I did so here.

A very good sign was that the sandwich (☆☆☆) was served warm, straight out of having been lightly toasted in the oven. The striking visual difference when compared to others I’ve had locally was the bread’s dimensions: wider and shorter, not in the least suggestive of a baguette. One bite was enough to tell me though that the bread lacked for nothing—crispy on the outside, light and tender on the inside, with a delicate chew that all make it possibly the best banh mi (those two words actually refer to the bread, not the sandwich) I’ve sunk my teeth into. Every bite was accompanied by a nice crackly sound.

Unlike its brethren from Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli, the bread is not slightly hollowed out, which means the filling tends to get squeezed out at the opposite end as you munch away. The grilled pork was nicely seasoned with Vietnamese flavors, had good charred taste and was relatively lean. The cucumbers were sliced flat rather than cut as spears like the Seattle versions—not a bad thing, just different, which may have more to do with freeing up space for the prodigious amount of do chua, the pickled carrots and daikon shreds. This quantity is primarily responsible for some reviewers’ comments that this banh mi sandwich is “huge” or “massive,” and the reason I feel it somewhat detracts from the experience as a whole. It tends to overwhelm the flavor of the meat, which some judicious paring down would cure. More than that, the marinade was too spartan in its sweetness and vinegariness, which more salt in the pickling bath would have improved. Whether there were too few cilantro sprigs or not depends on whether you like the herb or hate it. I could’ve used more.

In short, though there were some quibbles I had with the fillings, Yeh Yeh’s serves a very good banh mi sandwich, one which I won’t mind getting here instead of having to drive across the bridge to Seattle. At $3.85, the price isn’t out of line either. And their bread is the bomb.

Grilled pork anh mi sandwich

Update (6-4-14): A return visit did not fare so well. The bread lost its light crispiness of my last outing, being chewier and a bit denser. It’s almost as if the bread was microwaved, though there were only small ovens in view. This was the puzzling part. A second difference was that the do chua was fortunately not as voluminous as before, but it still lacked enough vinegariness and salt that the best examples exhibit. No apparent mayonnaise-like spread or Maggi sauce was evident, which normally adds some savoriness to the sandwich. Yeh Yeh’s banh mi has now become one of my least favorite (☆☆) in the Seattle area.

Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches
14339 NE 20th St
Suite D
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.644.5273
 

Burger at Dundee Bistro (Dundee, OR)


One of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time was served at the Dundee Bistro, a restaurant associated with Ponzi Vineyards in the town of Dundee, which is situated in the gorgeous rolling hills of Tualatin Valley wine country.

Friends of ours who live in nearby Sherwood treated us to lunch. There is a tasting room in another part of the building, but I suspect that most people come here to eat in the cozy dining room that features local, seasonal foods, mainly of Italian inspiration. Ponzi happens to make one of our favorite late harvest wines, Vino Gelato, that is produced every other year and only available at the winery.

The burger (☆☆☆☆) was made with succulent grass-fed beef, topped with white cheddar cheese, and sandwiched between a toasted sesame brioche bun, one of the best I’ve had in a long time. To add to the pleasure, perfectly cooked and seasoned fries (☆☆☆☆) flavored with truffle oil came as a side. At $14, the burger was a wonderful indulgence.

Burger

Dundee Bistro
100 SW 7th St
Dundee, OR 97115
503.554.1650
 

Alma Rose Rhodochrosite (Hillsboro, OR)


One of the most unusual crystal specimens I’ve ever seen on display is the Alma Rose rhodochrosite at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro. This extravagantly beautiful specimen boasts five large rhodochrosite crystals, speckled with yellowish calcite deposits. Almost pure MnCO3, they have a deep pink, almost cherry-reddish coloring and are shaped like tilted rectangles (rhombohedrons). It sits innocuously, protected by a glass case, in the basement of the house originally occupied by Richard and Helen Rice, who were avid rock collectors. The ranch-style house is listed on the National Registry for Historic Places and considered the Northwest’s finest rock and mineral museum.

Alma Rose’s companion, the Alma King, both mined from the Sweet Home Mine in Alma, Colorado, resides in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and is the largest known sample, almost perfect in its rhombohedric symmetry.

Alma Rose

Alma Rose

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Floored by a Mexican Market in Hillsboro


Once in a long while, you stumble across a store so phenomenal that it takes your breath away.

After lunch at Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa’s, four of us were trying to kill some time before the start of Star Trek: Into Darkness at a multiplex. There used to be a market attached to Ochoa’s, but it had shuttered its doors. We searched for another on foot and noticed the sign for one only a block away. The storefront didn’t reveal anything unusual; the roofline listed carniceria, taqueria, panaderia, pasteleria, among others. But as soon as we stepped inside and started to browse, it became clear that this had to be the most complete Latino market we had ever seen. That a Mexican market should be located in Hillsboro is not so unusual when you consider that there is a large Latino community here. What is unusual is its size and completeness that rivals anything expected to be found in Mexico or California.

Let me start with the meat counter. There were the usual meats and seafood, but also chorizos and seasoned and marinated chicken and pork cuts ready to cook, such as adobadas (chile-vinegar marinade) and slices ready for al pastor rotisserie cooking. The cheese section carried a considerable variety of Mexican cheeses. The cooked meat counter had pollo asado, fried fish, roasted ribs, different styles of chicarrones, chiles rellenos, barbacoa, carnitas, and more. There were assorted salsas, too: salsa roja, salsa verde, pico de gallo, one made with avocado, even a salsa for making your own molcajete.

The end caps had an enormous selection of tortillas and the inner aisles offered all manner of canned, jarred and bottled Latino products you can think of (and some that you’ve probably never seen).

The bakery was well stocked with bolilloschurrospan dulce, all of which you can bag yourself.

While summer will bring many more items, the produce section was still filled with tropical fruits, chiles and other vegetables.

In case all this got you salivating, a café inside sold things you could either take out or eat inside. The menu included tacos, quesadillas, flautas, burritos, tortas and tostadas. Tubs of cut-up fruits were also for sale, as was a variety of aguas frescas.

As I stood in line to make my purchases, I looked up and noticed the ceiling covered with piñatas of all kinds. Walking away from the market, all four of us were awestruck at what we had seen and experienced.

Supermercados Mexico
970 SE Oak St
Hillsboro, OR 97123
503.352.5525
 

Lunch at Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa’s (Hillsboro, OR)


In this fifth largest city of Oregon whose major employer is Intel, among other high-tech companies, almost one fourth of the population is Hispanic. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a commercial district has developed in the city’s southeast portion to serve this demographic. One of the most popular Mexican restaurants is Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa’s that has been in operation since at least 2009.

It’s difficult to miss. On approach, the L-shaped building immediately catches your eye, dressed in vivid colors of tomato, mustard and canary yellow. Inside, the dining area is very cramped, one entire wall covered in numbered pictures of the menu items. Choosing was difficult because of the large variety from which to choose. You can also order meats by the pound, such as carnitas and barbacoa. The special-of-the-day was printed on a sheet of paper on the order counter. For beverages, you can pick from a variety of beers, all iced in a bucket at the counter, or a good range of Mexican sodas. There is also a salsa bar.

We had lunch with another couple who joined us for a short stay in Portland.

The order of tasty barbacoa was generous with tender, stewed chunks of beef and accompanied not only by rice and beans, but guacamole, chile toreado, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and sautéed bell peppers and onions.

Barbacoa plate

Barbbacoa plate

Tender and crispy on the outside, the carnitas was both stewed and fried, a very good version. The same ingredients as the barbacoa plate accompanied the pork, with the addition of diced cactus. The refried beans of both were generously sprinkled with cotija cheese.

Carnitas plate

Carnitas plate

This is the first time in a long time my wife and I had fried tacos (tacos dorados). Four crispy tortilla shells were filled with carnitas, then squirted on top with sour cream and cotija cheese. For extra flavor, the carnitas in the tacos and in the plate above were mixed with lardoons of chicharrones (pork skin).

Tacos dorados

Tacos dorados

Another way to order tacos is individually, as we did with a diced chicken filling. Unlike the fried tacos, these were served with double soft corn tortillas.

Chicken taquitos

Chicken taquitos

The food here is very good and authentic, what you would expect in service of the large Latino population in the city.

Tip: Don’t miss this supermercado only a couple blocks away. You won’t regret it.

Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa’s
943 SE Oak St
Hillsboro, OR 97123
503.640.4755

Lunch at Pho An Sandy (Portland, OR)


The rain, or more accurately the showers, had been coming down off and on starting with our visit to the Washington Park Japanese Garden. There wasn’t going to be anymore walking around outside today. Before checking into our hotel in Jantzen Beach, we headed over to a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the northeast part of Portland, in the wedge between the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and  located along a part of Sandy Boulevard that at one time was called Saigon Boulevard for all the Vietnamese businesses along here.

chilesOur anticipation started to build when we were presented with the extensive menu, including many uncommon items alongside standard ones such as pho and bun. Curiously, the condiments tray on every table included chiles that I normally associate with Thai restaurants. I wondered whether these are common on the Vietnamese table.

Rather than ordering pho, which many people regard as one of Pho An’s specialties, today we ordered Banh Mi Bo Kho (Beef stew with French bread) and Bun Rieu (rice noodle soup with tomaotes and crab). The banh mi terminology might be confused with a kind of Vietnamese sandwich, but in fact it more correctly refers to French bread. Technically speaking, then, it is called a banh mi sandwich.

In many Asian countries, it is common to serve cuts of meat that a Westerner might not appreciate. While an American might expect most of the fat and other “inedible” parts to be removed prior to cooking, it is not all that unusual for Asians to consume, even relish more than just the muscle for the flavor and texture that these parts provide. The beef stew, for example, came with big chunks of beef with noticeable amounts of fat and tendon still attached, which was not entirely to my liking, my wife even less so. The loaf of French bread, while it looked lightly toasted, was extraordinarily chewy, difficult to pull apart, as if it had been microwaved. We’ve had better Vietnamese beef stew broth, too. While it was flavorful enough, it was thinner than many we’ve enjoyed and was full of pieces of star anise and sections of fibrous lemongrass, which had to be fished out before finishing the broth.

Beef stew
Bun rieu was more successful, though it took some getting used to. An impressive amount of fresh condiments, more than enough for two people, came on a plate, which included mint and perilla leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and finely shredded cabbage and banana blossoms. The broth of the rice vermicelli noodle soup, which I first tasted at a friend’s house several years ago, is made from tomatoes and crab paste, which gives it a strongly briny taste, not unlike a stock of boiled shrimp shells. There were also rectangles of fried tofu and a single crab cake made with eggs, dried shrimp and crab paste. The soup also included two triangles of congealed pork blood and, on the side, a small plastic tub of malodorous shrimp paste, in case I wanted more authenticity (I didn’t). This was a good soup, after I adjusted my taste buds to its intense flavor.

Bun rieu

Pho An Sandy
6236 NE Sandy Blvd
Portland, OR
503.281.2990

Washington Park Japanese Garden (Portland, OR)


Moss is your friend.

At least, that’s what I try to tell my friends who’ve been battling to remove it from their Seattle lawns. I have long since given moss full sway in my front yard rather than covering it with sod. I’m allergic to grass anyway. After many years of inattention, there is a luxurious moss carpet underlying mature cedars and rhododendron plants and providing a home for ferns, salal, Oregon grape and periwinkle that would do a Japanese garden proud.

And so it is with the Japanese garden in Washington Park. It seems that mosses cover every square inch of this beautiful garden, considered one of the most authentic outside of Japan. I recall coming here with my family many moons ago without the reaction both my wife and I had today. The garden has greatly matured since our last visit and there has been added a beautiful gravel footpath beyond the entrance gate that is a preview of what treasures lay inside and an alternate way to the ticket booth from the parking lot. Otherwise, a shuttle can take you the long way.

We noticed the very mature Japanese maples, many of them very tall, which signifies significant age since they grow so slowly. The laceleaf maples, many of them quite old, have been beautifully shaped and maintained. A stunning specimen was just outside the pavilion whose leafy, domed canopy can be enjoyed from the veranda or whose spectacular twisted trunk and branch structure can be admired at ground level. Doubtless that at the peak of fall color, the garden will be ablaze in red and orange hues. In a different way, the colors must be spectacular at the peak of rhododendron, azalea and camellia season, too; only a few specimens were still in bloom today.

Otherwise, the garden can be appreciated for its sense of tranquility and design of spaces defined by trees, shrubs, water, rocks, changes in elevation, even man-made structures like footpaths, teahouse, bridges, shelters or stone pagodas. Also admirable is the meticulousness with which every aspect of the garden is maintained, from the careful pruning and snipping of plants with tiny trimming shears to the hours required to rake and shape the rock gardens.

And, of course, there is the moss.

Even if the weather was inclement, we were very impressed. I thought Seattle’s garden was nice, but Portland’s is vastly superior, so striking is the difference.

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Lunch at Szechuan Chef


When chef Cheng Biao Yang, one of Seattle’s luminaries of Chinese—and specifically Szechuan—cooking sold Szechuan Chef to pursue another restaurant opportunity, fans began to wonder the inevitable. Would there be a decline in quality? As the weeks went by, there began to be reports that, yes, things have started to go downhill. I used to go there regularly when chef Yang was at the helm, always impressed with the menu. In particular, visions of Chongqing Chicken and Szechuan Dungeness Crab danced in my head. The Cumin Lamb, with its copious use of the musky herb that never appealed to me, had legions of fans. I went one more time without having realized that ownership had changed hands, but I noticed an entirely different wait staff. I don’t recall what I ordered, but I do remember that the dish tasted differently than before, not quite as good. When I found out that chef Yang had gone, I made the decision not to come back. That was back in 2009.

For lunch today, we decided to have some banh mi at Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, which opened a branch last year in Bellevue after the original Lynnwood restaurant started getting rave reviews. Aren’t most restaurants open on Sundays? Not Yeh Yeh’s, as we discovered when we drove up. So the next choice was Kukai Ramen (in the old K-Mart Plaza now dominated by Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market) that has been getting lots of kudos since its opening only months ago. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and there was a line of people waiting outside. Apparently, this is always how it is. Maybe we should go to Szechuan Chef? I asked my wife. I thought you didn’t want to go there again, she replied. Hesitatingly: Maybe we should see if things have improved. My wife, ever the good sport, agreed to go.

The interior was the same as it was before, except that the walls were lined with sconces that looked like a full moon glowing through a thick fog. A poetic touch. Better yet, the tables were mercifully more diner-friendly than before when the legs were big rectangular posts that bumped up against your knees. The walls were painted in lighter tones. The same line of plastic bamboo stalks separated the entrance from a portion of the dining room.

A big plus was that the lunch menu was being observed seven days a week. On the regular menu, Chongqing Chicken and Szechuan Dungeness Crab would have to wait for another day. Instead, we ordered Pickled Pepper Chicken and Hot Black Bean Shrimp from the lunch menu.

Hot and sour soupHot and sour soup was bracingly tart from an excess of vinegar. It wasn’t unpalatable but did downgrade a soup otherwise fine with the pungency of white pepper and chockfull of tofu shreds, bamboo shoots, tree ears, dried chile flakes and bits of egg. This soup is becoming quite common in many Chinese restaurants, and there are some excellent versions served locally.

Despite being designated with 3 chiles (on a 1-5 chile scale), Pickled Pepper Chicken was muted in flavor and not spicy enough. Young bamboo shoots, julienned carrots, sliced napa cabbage, tree ears, preserved vegetables, pickled red chile peppers and tender strips of chicken breast were almost upended by lots of sliced celery, which always seems to me a cheap substitute for better vegetables, a way to add inexpensive crunch. Still, the entrée was not bad, just somewhat spiritless for a Szechuan dish.

Pickled Pepper Chicken

Pickled Pepper Chicken

My wife’s Hot Black Bean Shrimp had a different problem. Fermented black beans should be a noticeable presence, let alone flavor, in an entrée named with it (the great Black Bean Chicken at Yea’s Wok comes to mind). Though a few beans could be seen in the mixture, their flavor was barely detectable in the sauce. Still, the dish was tasty enough with other flavors, though milder than my wife would’ve liked. Like my lunch, it too had bamboo shoots, carrots and celery, but used green cabbage instead of napa in a savory garlic sauce, with a few whole dried red chile peppers to add a touch of heat. Again, not a bad dish, just not a memorable one.

Hot Black Bean Shrimp

Hot Black Bean Shrimp

In summary, these two dishes failed to generate much excitement. Even without ordering the two outstanding courses that I loved from the original Szechuan Chef, a restaurant trying to carry on with the same name should stand on its own with dishes that call you back rather than reminisce about what you miss from the old place. I likely won’t be going back.

Szechuan Chef
15015 Main St
Ste 107
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.746.9008
 

Dinner at Bai Tong (Redmond, WA)


Years ago, when I worked in Renton, a group of us used to go to Bai Tong for lunch, a Thai restaurant that was located on Airport Way near SeaTac airport. The interesting backstory is that an ex-Thai Airways flight attendant wanted to make familiar foods available to the Thai Airways crew on layover in Seattle. She brought over trained Thai chefs to prepare the food. At this original location and the subsequent one only a half block away, it was one of the best Thai restaurants in the greater Seattle area in the days when there weren’t the numbers that there are today. Then, one day (I can’t remember exactly when), Bai Tong closed its doors. Though by then there were many more Thai restaurants to choose from, its closure was lamented by fans, including myself.

Fast forward to 2011 when I was driving past the Overlake Fashion Plaza in Redmond, a short distance from Microsoft’s Main Campus. I happened to glance over to the left and saw Bai Tong in the building that Coco’s used to occupy. Could it possibly be? The answer was a resounding yes.

Suphannahong

Bai Tong has gone upscale, a trend that some Thai restaurants have been following lately. Another example is the wonderful Chantanee that used to be an informal restaurant in a tucked-away, single-story commercial building in downtown Bellevue, only to relocate to glitzier digs in the Bellevue downtown core surrounded by glass and concrete, with higher prices to boot. Bai Tong’s foyer has a stunning gold-lacquered model of a Thai royal barge, a shorter version of Suphannahong whose prow is the head of a golden swan. The dining space is dominated in the middle by a fully-equipped bar with a large flat panel TV overhead that is ever airing sporting events. Yeah, very Thai indeed—and very attractive to the younger cocktail set that prefers to scoop up happy hour snacks.

We’d been here a few times since its opening. Tonight we had dinner with friends, one of whom used to be part of the bunch that lunched at the SeaTac location. With pictures to help the uninitiated make choices, the menu had many mouth-watering dishes. The waitress helped us make our selections.

Mango tea

Mango tea

For a beverage, the mango tea sounded nice and different. Served in a metal teapot, it was a refreshing beverage, though it arrived cooler than it should have. We asked for hotter water and the wait staff obliged. By the time we re-poured the tea into our cups some time later, the temperature had dropped again, not helped by a black metallic pot that radiated heat fairly quickly.

Papaya salads are very popular in Southeast Asia. Bai Tong’s Som Tam consisted of finely shredded green papaya dressed with a sweet and salty fish sauce and lime dressing with nicely cooked prawns, chopped mint, sliced tomatoes and crushed peanuts, with a wedge of raw cabbage leaves that were a challenge to separate. This was a beautifully flavored salad.

Papaya salad (som tam)

Papaya salad (som tam)

Pad woon sen is somewhat difficult to find on Thai menus, deferring to the more popular pad thai and pad see iew. Part of the reason might be that these are made with rice noodles, while woon sen uses thin, mung bean noodles, the texture of which is slipperier, vaguely cartilaginous. The restaurants that do serve them make them, for the most part, too saucy (wet), sometimes without enough glass noodles to justify calling it a noodle dish. The last time my wife and I had a very good one was at Thai Kitchen many years ago. Its current rendition is a shadow of its former self. Bai Tong’s brought back memories of really good woon sen, one of two preparations on their menu. Tonight, Eight Angels combined the noodles with seafood, pork, straw mushrooms and vegetables in a sauce worthy of praise.

Eight Angels (Seafood and Pork Woon Sen)

Eight Angels (Seafood and Pork Woon Sen)

One of the recommendations by the waitress was Salmon Curry. Obviously a Northwest adaptation, the dish had skimpy pieces of salmon that were cooked a tad too long, but nice enough in a delicious red curry-coconut milk sauce barely concealing chopped tomatoes, celery and basil. This was one of those sauces you can pour on rice and eat by itself.

Salmon Curry

Salmon Curry

American chicken nuggets take a back seat to Thai Crispy Garlic Chicken. The aforementioned Chantanee’s is a spectacular version that arrives on a sizzling platter, swathed in a copious sweet-savory sauce that pools on the bottom. Bai Tong’s is less saucy but no less delicious: fried pieces of battered chicken breast, sparingly coated with sauce and generously garnished with fried basil leaves, less garlicky than Chantanee’s. But for a batter a bit too thick, this was a very good entrée, not surprisingly one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

Crispy Garlic Chicken

Crispy Garlic Chicken

The four of us enjoyed a dinner every bit as good as the food served at the old Bai Tong. As an added bonus, it’s much closer to home.

Bai Tong also has a location in Southcenter.

Bai Tong Thai Restaurant
14804  NE 24th St.
Redmond, WA 98052
425.747.8424
Location 

Spring in the Bellevue Botanical Garden


The recent run of good weather made it ideal for us to visit a local garden and admire the springtime displays. One of the small horticultural treasures in the Seattle area is the Bellevue Botanical Garden, a stone’s throw away from the Bellevue commercial district. It’s a resource for gardeners and a showcase for flowers, shrubs and trees that are native or adapt well to our climate. Despite the northern latitudes, many plants thrive quite well here because of the moderating influence of the Japanese ocean current and our legendary moisture. The garden recently expanded its mission by acquiring adjacent properties to include native wetlands and woodlands.

The images below (specimens are not labeled) show that there is much to enjoy at this time of year.  They were taken on two separate visits (today and April 24).
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