Guay Tiow Tom Yum at Pestle Rock


I’m dog-sitting my daughter’s dog while she and my wife are in California for my wife’s father’s birthday. One of the benefits of doing this is that I have the vast domain of Ballard’s restaurants to choose from for five days, all within walking distance. I won’t do this for all three squares; I’ll likely make breakfast most of the time.

It’s not surprising that I decided to hit up Pestle Rock again, one of my favorite Thai restaurants. To keep it simple, all I wanted was a bowl of soup noodles. Guay Tiow Tom Yum sounded good.

What makes this tom yum different is the inclusion of noodles, thus guay tiow. Variations of guay tiow, which means flat noodles, appear throughout SE Asia. The most famous version is likely char guay teow, stir-fried flat noodles that are made in Singapore and Malaysia.

Guay tiow tom yum doesn’t use flat noodles but rather thin rice vermicelli in a spicy soup base, redolent of lemongrass and bursting with assertive flavors of lime juice, fish sauce, chiles and sugar. While I generally am not a fan of sweet soups, tom yum typically has a healthy dose of sugar, fortunately offset with a generous splash of lime juice. It may also be usual in Thailand for a good amount of roasted dried chile pepper flakes to be added, but at Pestle Rock, mercifully a jar of it arrives instead along with other spicy condiments, typical in Thai restaurants. The soup is plenty spicy as is, enough to loosen my sinuses in any case and cause me to cough at one point.

In keeping with the restaurant’s use of high-quality ingredients, ground Carlton Farms pork made an appearance, tender morsels with good flavor. Vegetables included bean sprouts, sliced scallions and perfectly cooked green beans. Though the menu mentions cilantro, none was used. The killer though was the addition of “rendered pork belly garlic,” an ingredient or description I’m trying to get my head around. If there were fried garlic pieces with the chicharrones, it wasn’t all that apparent. The fried pork pieces were delicious, crispy, and deep in pork flavor. A generous spoonful was sprinkled on top of the soup when served. Though they tasted best when still dry, even as they eventually soaked up broth, they were still magical nuggets of flavor. With crushed roasted peanuts sprinkled on top for extra crunch, this was a stellar soup (☆☆☆½).

I didn’t have my camera to take a snapshot, but here is one from Yelp.

Guay tiow tom yum (posted by Homan L on Yelp)

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107
206.466.6671

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Mutual Fish Company’s Kasuzuké Gindara


One of the tastiest preparations in Japanese cooking is grilled seafood that has been marinated in sakékasu, or saké lees, the yeasty rice solids and precipitates that get left behind after the saké gets pressed out. The kasu is combined with other ingredients to make a paste, which is applied as a marinade on seafood, meat or vegetables. Proteins in particular benefit from the presence of glutamates in sakékasu that impart a wonderful savoriness (umami). While salmon is most commonly associated with this kind of fish preparation, in my book the best fish is black cod. Also known as sablefish or butter fish, black cod has a high enough fat content that it retains its moistness and soft texture when broiled or grilled. Here in Seattle, it’s a very popular dish, served in Japanese restaurants—and even non-Japanese ones, like Ray’s Boathouse. For cooking at home, Uwajimaya has it available year-round, already pre-marinated.

For my money though, hands-down the best ready-to-cook version is prepared by Mutual Fish Company, a seafood market that has done quite a bit since the mid-60s to introduce high quality seafood to Seattle and source some of the area’s best restaurants. The kasu cod is so good that my wife takes pounds of it with her to share with her family in Southern California, and everyone there just loves it. Savory and delicately sweet with a seductive aroma, the cod flakes off in exquisitely buttery chunks and melt in the mouth. The complex flavors permeate the entire fillet. At $20 per pound, it’s an infrequent indulgence.

Kasuzuké gindara

Kasuzuké gindara

When in town, visitors from California have been known to go out of their way to buy Mutual Fish’s cod to take back with them. For additional cost, Mutual will pack seafood for air travel.

What’s the secret to their magical marinade? Beyond the usual ingredients of sakékasu, mirin (a sweet saké), sugar and salt, Mutual Fish holds the recipe close to the vest.

And so it is again that my wife has taken kasu cod down to California to celebrate her father’s birthday, and everyone will comment once more how delicious it is.

Mutual Fish Company
2335 Rainier Ave S
Seattle, WA 98144
206.322.4368

Breakfast at Serious Biscuit (Seattle)


The buzz has been good. Our friends who raved about The Reggie at Pine State Biscuits in Portland gave a thumbs-up to The Zach, as the biscuit topped with fried chicken, gravy, bacon and fried egg is called at Serious Biscuit. The creations are similar at both Northwest diners, the only difference being the inclusion of cheese in one (Pine State), an egg in the other, though the Reggie Deluxe does include a fried egg. Since Serious Biscuit, located in South Lake Union, was on the way to North Capitol Hill where we were going to spend the day, my wife and I made it our breakfast stop. It’s conveniently located for bus commuters, too. Scores of Amazon employees were walking past as we were seated in the small dining area, the lower portion of two eating spaces at this address. For lunch, Serious Pie opens for business upstairs. These are two other restaurants in the Tom Douglas empire.

At Serious Pie, you order at the counter, then take a seat. When the order is ready, your name is called and you pick it up at another counter. One price gets you bottomless Starbucks coffee, which you pour for yourself from a dispenser. Only a few tables take up the small dining area, though customers are free to take their breakfast items up to the second floor before Serious Pie opens for business at 11am.

Trying to restrain myself from an overload of calories, I decided against The Zach and ordered just the biscuit with fried chicken and Tabasco black pepper gravy (☆☆☆½). The chicken was seriously good, two boneless thighs wrapped in a nicely seasoned, thick but not too crunchy batter. It’s possible that the bird had seen some bathing in buttermilk prior to frying. But, this place specializes in biscuits—and their’s are equally seriously good. Generously sized, they simply consist of flour, butter and buttermilk, and their lumpy, nicely browned crowns meant that the dough had not been overly worked. The gravy, described only as Tabasco black pepper gravy, was the only thing that detracted from a superior experience. It was too bland, like thickened milk with peppery bite. In fact, I preferred to use the Aardvark habañero hot sauce (made in Portland) for the chicken, one of two locally produced bottled sauces that customers can use. Would the addition of bacon and egg (The Zach) have been a tastier choice? Maybe, but then I would have had to leave even more uneaten, as my breakfast was more than enough to feed a mere mortal. If only the gravy was tastier …!

Biscuit with fried chicken and Tabasco black pepper gravy

Biscuit with fried chicken and Tabasco black pepper gravy

hot sauces

My wife was interested in a healthier alternative, namely, biscuit with truffled frittata, tomato caper relish and arugula (☆☆☆). The same superb biscuit arrived with a fistful of arugula and a square frittata tasting of truffles and herbs. The yummy relish was only spread on the bottom biscuit half; my wife wished it were on the top, too.

Biscuit with truffled frittata, tomato caper relish and arugula

Biscuit with truffled frittata, tomato caper relish and arugula

Serious Biscuit is one more feather in Tom Douglas’ hat. We’d have to try the pizzas at Serious Pie to see if it’s another.

Serious Pie & Biscuit
401 Westlake Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109
206.436.0050
Menu

A Day in Capitol Hill (Seattle)


As if driven by some unseen force, my wife and I felt compelled again not to let a rainless day in Seattle go by without our doing something outdoors. After a deluge of a month in September, October has been extremely dry. In the last week, it has been foggy, lingering well into the afternoon, occasionally with the sun breaking through late in the day. The nights have been getting chilly as fall weather encroaches, but the combination of partially sunny days and cold nights have joined forces to produce one of the best displays of local fall color we have seen in a while.

We hopped onto the bus into the fog-enshrouded morning and headed across the bridge once again. Our destination today was the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. But, first, we had to get down to the serious business of breakfast, namely, breakfast at Serious Biscuit, one of Tom Douglas’ restaurants, in the South Lake Union (SLU) district.

After breakfast, we walked east on Harrison and north along Eastlake, then Lakeview Blvd. Lakeview is like a giant curved overpass over Interstate 5 to get from SLU to North Capitol Hill. Starting near the REI flagship store, the overpass soon enough gives a dramatic view of Lake Union to the west (but not today because of the fog) and, further up, the juxtaposition of I-5, its express lane and the long southbound offramp to Mercer Street. Noisy as it was, peering over the guardrail, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the three-dimensional flow of traffic. Past all this, Lakeview becomes a residential street with the underside of the freeway to the west.

Read on …

No End in Sight: New Zealand’s Astronomical Cost-of-Living


I’ve thought long about whether I should do this post. The subject has bothered me for some time since it affects me—or, I should say, members of my family—personally. The astronomically high cost-of-living in New Zealand.

How do the Kiwis do it? It’s been getting more expensive to live there year by year. Wages haven’t kept up with inflation for 30 years. Sticker shock for even the most common items, including groceries, is so commonplace that it is the norm.

My wife and I have been to New Zealand several times already. We visit our daughter and her family in Christchurch whenever we can. We wish it could be more often, but airfares being what they are to that part of the world, we have to pick and choose the times we can go. But the prices we pay are nothing compared to what they must when they come here for a visit, practically double. Why is that? In fact, why are prices in general so outrageously high in New Zealand?

My daughter was the first to call this to our attention after she moved there a few years ago. We have since corroborated her observation just by comparing prices of common goods. Other foreign travelers, including those from other industrialized countries, have made the same comment. More than that, why are NZ products here in the States so much less than in their country of origin? I can, for example, buy a block of Kiwi sharp cheddar cheese (called tasty cheese over there) at Trader Joe’s for about $2.50 US but easily expect to pay at least $10 NZ for 500g in Christchurch at the local Countdown or New World. A bottle of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc is priced at around $13 US here but over twice that much in NZ. And forget about consumer goods whose prices run about three times what I can purchase them for here. A baby’s car seat commands over $600 NZ that I can get through Amazon at $250 US, which is the reason why my daughter asked me to bring one over from the States for a friend who would otherwise not have been able to afford it.

Much has been written about this problem, including the feature piece (“The Great NZ Rip-off”) in the April issue of North & South magazine, a monthly Kiwi publication. One argument for high prices is that the cost of production has to be spread over the relatively small New Zealand population of 4 million people (1.5 million living in Auckland alone), not anywhere near the numbers of the world’s most populous cities. But does this adequately explain the high prices?

Not necessarily, it seems.

A supplier told North & South that the supermarkets, for example, strive for a 30 to 40 per cent gross margin of the retail price. Here in the U.S., it’s closer to 6 per cent. There are only two grocery chains in NZ, one owned by Kiwis (e.g., New World), the other by Aussies (such as Countdown). Wanna play Monopoly, anyone? There are many more choices (competition) in the States. When I’ve gone to the local Countdown where my daughter lives, it hasn’t been unusual to fork close to $100 NZ for just a couple days of groceries. Pure and simple price gouging. The industry is totally unregulated, even if there is a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. It is revealing that, at any given time, almost 60 per cent of items purchased were on sale, meaning that consumers shop by price lest their grocery bills be even higher. In one sense, my daughter has become more self-reliant by cooking her own pumpkins for purée and other things from scratch, like pizza dough, for example. But she does this out of necessity as much as or more than choice. Both she and my son-in-law are both vegetarians, so they aren’t faced with the need to cut back on meat and fish since their prices continue to escalate.

The price of electricity, a state-run monopoly, has doubled since 1986, the article points out, while it has gotten cheaper in other developed countries. Why should publicly owned utilities not be run in the public interest, with CEOs getting $3 million salaries, investing “public” funds in questionable financial investments and spending millions on advertising? Someone has to pay these expenses, and that someone is the average NZer. The same kind of story apparently is true for other services such as water and telecommunications.

Other external pressures work against the average Kiwi’s pocketbook. Even though the NZ dollar has been getting stronger lately against many currencies, why haven’t imports become cheaper? They have instead been stuck at the same high prices, which means there isn’t enough competition to drive prices down. Even if New Zealand is a food-producing country, most of it, about 90 per cent, goes abroad which has driven up export prices and therefore prices at home.

Is it any wonder that there is a diaspora of Kiwis to other countries where it’s cheaper to live and wages are higher? There are half a million living in Australia alone. The middle class is becoming increasingly strapped and may go the way of the dinosaur, a refrain we in America have been hearing lately as the gap widens between rich and poor. Where is all this headed? Is there any end in sight?

October in the Washington Park Arboretum


Almost lost in the bounty of beautiful gardens in Seattle is the Washington Park Arboretum, jointly operated by the University of Washington and the city of Seattle. It is a showcase for botanical specimens that do well in our climate. Plants and trees are spread out over some 250 acres, the landscaping not as concentrated as they are in most gardens. Appreciation of the arboretum requires walking over a network of easy paths. Not surprisingly, the most spectacular seasons are spring and autumn when in one, the flowers of the evergreen shrubs make their appearance and in the other, beautiful fall foliage puts on a show.

With light fog and partial afternoon clearing in the forecast, we hopped in our car to re-visit.

Locating particular specimens requires a map. The Graham Visitors Center at the arboretum’s north end will provide you with the current month’s highlights whose locations are numbered on a free map, or you can visit the website. There is no admission fee.

Today, the leaves of several kinds of trees were at their colorful best. Not only did we appreciate the fall colors but also admired several plant collections connected by a system of paths, some of them stairways, scattered with occasional benches for resting or admiring the views.

Just last month, the arboretum dedicated a new, two-acre section devoted to the plants, shrubs and grasses of the South Island of New Zealand, which is where my daughter and her family live. For now, all you can see are small plant specimens. In ten years or so, the area will look more mature. The New Zealand display is located in the Pacific Collections Gardens in the south end.

The Japanese Gardens are also physically part of the arboretum though it is operated solely by the city of Seattle.

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Saigon Cafe & Deli: Another Bánh Mì Surprise on the Eastside


On the Eastside, finding a place that sells good bánh mì is a challenge. The choices are much better in Seattle where the concentration of Vietnamese communities and businesses makes it more likely you’d find very good examples of the classic Vietnamese sandwiches. Not too long ago, a friend and I ate at Yeh Yeh in Bellevue that made a pretty good one. Today, we decided to find out what Saigon Cafe & Deli (not related to Saigon Deli in Seattle) had to offer.

The place is tiny, wedged between a dry cleaner and a teriyaki joint in the Factoria commercial area. Inside, there is a short bar with stools, so it would be a stretch to consider Saigon Café a restaurant. Besides bánh mì, the menu lists phở, bún, rice bowls, salads, bubble tea and French drip coffee. I would imagine that most customers do take-out here, so I ordered grilled pork bánh mì (bánh mì thịt nướng) to-go. At $4, it’s a little more expensive than its Seattle brethren’s.

Grilled pork bành mì

Grilled pork bành mì

The sandwich is about 8″ long, the bread cut horizontally down its length except along one edge and stuffed with the grilled pork, đồ chua (carrot and radish pickles), sliced jalapeños, large julienned slices of cucumber, and a liberal amount of cilantro sprigs. The bread itself is thinner than those used at Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli in Little Saigon (Seattle) and softer, with a slight crackly crust. It was also a tad tough as if it spent a little time in the microwave before being wrapped. A clean bite required a good pull between teeth and hands. For that, I downgrade the sandwich. Every other ingredient was top-notch, from the crunch and sweet tartness of the đồ chua, fresh vegetables and a superior and tender grilled pork that filled the mouth with lemongrass, pronounced garlic, honey (or sugar), fish sauce and sesame oil flavors. This bánh mì was one of the better ones (☆☆☆) I’ve had, short of the highest rating only for the less-than-ideal bread issue.

Whether Saigon Café is related or otherwise involved, business cards for The Lemongrass in Little Saigon, where I had an outstanding beef stew, were displayed next to its own.

Update (3-7-14): Saigon’s grilled chicken bánh mì (☆☆☆), like its pork cousin, has a superbly tasty filling, liberal with seasoned garlicky chicken, đồ chua, jalapeño slices, cucumbers and cilantro. It was certainly not lacking in the quantity department. The cilantro was left in sprigs which were pulled out entirely when taking bites. The bread was equally chewy like the pork sandwich, a decided shortcoming compared to the Little Saigon examples. If this is not a big concern, you can do no better than the bành mì here.

Grilled chicken banh mi

Grilled chicken bành mì

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Saigon Café & Deli
12815 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.641.9295