Chile Reception: Huy Fong Gets Burned

Millions of people love it. Taystee, a character in Netflix’s made-for-TV drama, “Orange Is the New Black,” wanted it for the prison. It’s everywhere. From the looks of it, this condiment is almost as ubiquitous as ketchup, even appearing in non-Asian restaurants and doubtless millions of homes.

Huy Fong Foods’ sriracha sauce, more familiarly known as Rooster sauce, has been manufactured in Rosemead, California, since 1986. It’s the creation of an ex-Vietnamese farmer David Tran who couldn’t find a hot sauce to his liking when he immigrated to the U.S. The story of the sauce’s rise to prominence on the American table is the stuff of legend, spawning the documentary “Sriracha.” In Los Angeles, a festival entirely devoted to sriracha sauce (apparently, not only Huy Fong’s) was held only two weeks ago, drawing so many fans that the line to get in went on for blocks. It’s showing up as an ingredient in common snacks. How about sriracha candy canes? I bet the kids will be surprised. I’ve posted about sriracha popcorn before. And now this …

(Image from

It was inevitable then that the Rosemead facility would be hard pressed to meet swelling demand for its products, which includes an equally outstanding sambal oelek. Thus, in 2010, prompted by the city of Irwindale’s favorable terms, Huy Fong built a bigger plant there. The new facility would effectively triple production.

The story doesn’t end there though.

It seems that Irwindale residents are not so hot about the sauce. Complaints have been filed by neighbors suffering from respiratory problems, irritated throats, headaches and stinging eyes, not to mention putting up with the smell, all this the fallout from processing tons of fresh red jalapeño chiles during an intensive three-month harvest-to-bottle cycle, starting in September. These complaints were hard to ignore, especially when children were involved. Citing a “public nuisance” problem, the city attorney filed a suit with the Los Angeles County Superior Court that asked for a temporary restraining order to stop further production until the issue could be resolved. On October 31, the court denied the injunction but set a date of November 22 to make a decision on how to proceed.

I’m definitely in favor of resolving the health issues involved here. This is not something to be taken lightly. As an example, the roasting of chiles causes workers and residents in Hatch, legendary for its production of New Mexican chiles, to develop respiratory problems. But, let’s take a minute and ask a few questions.

Wasn’t it the city of Irwindale that made overtures to Huy Fong to build a plant there in the first place? Was Huy Fong required to install anti-pollution equipment as part of the deal (so far, nothing in public statements indicates that it was)? If not, did the city not consider that there might be health issues? In short, it seems that Irwindale needs to take some responsibility in all this, rather than being duplicitous and playing politics.

I suppose that Huy Fong could take matters into its own hands and threaten to leave the area for friendlier turf unless concessions were made. You know, strong-arm the city like Boeing is doing with the state of Washington and the machinists’ union to get its way with the 777X program. After all, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, has made its own overtures to Huy Fong in the wake of the Irwindale incident. I can hear it now at Pat’s and Geno’s, Whiz ‘n sree wit.

Ramen Burgers: What’s the Beef?

“Want ground beef and cheese with your ramen?”

This question you don’t ever expect to hear at a ramen restaurant. At least, for now anyway. But can it be that far behind when the latest craze of Japanifying popular American food is the ramen burger? Yep, that’s right, a ground beef patty sandwiched between two ramen “buns.” But, before I get to that, let’s consider what has gone on before, what blazed the trail to this brain child of enterprising Manhattan Japanese chef, Keizo Shimamoto.

When pizza became an international food, Japan was quick to adapt it to its tastes. While some toppings may be familiar to Americans, others such as octopus, squid, scallops, clams, crab, tuna, mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, no doubt), shimeji mushrooms, bamboo shoots, nori (seaweed), shiso (perilla), among others, are about as alien as making pork & beans with natto. Personally, a lot of those toppings don’t sound half bad. But, the pizzas are made for Japanese consumption and what people eat on their own shores is, to put it mildly, none of my business.

Pizza topped with clams, shrimp and nori (from

Then, in Vancouver, B.C., some ambitious businesspeople launched Japadog. The concept is simple: offer traditional Japanese condiments to accessorize a standard hot dog. To some die-hards, the idea might be sacrilege. Substitute teriyaki mayonnaise for catsup, grated horseradish (daikon oroshi) for sauerkraut, wasabi for mustard? You get the idea. But, at least, the foundations remain the same: sausage and bun. With the right combinations, could this work? Happily, it does at Japadog. Along the same lines, Seattle has its Gourmet Dog Japon.

Oroshi dog

Oroshi dog (Japadog)

And now, live from New York, we have the ramen burger. If the concept were similar to the Japanese hot dog, namely replacing traditional condiments with Japanese ones, okay. For someone like me who’d rather have an unadorned burger, maybe the addition of grilled shishito peppers, Japanese green onions (negi), a dash of shichimi might be worth a try. But Shimamoto’s idea was to replace the burger bun entirely with coiled ramen noodles shaped like buns and fried. Granted, like bread, ramen noodles are taste-neutral, but viscerally the thought of biting through a bunch of chewy and crusted pasta and a beef patty at the same time just doesn’t do it for me. How about adding a slice of cheese with that, which is actually an option? The bun is supposed to play second fiddle, a supporter of the patty, not an equal partner. You don’t normally pay much mind to the bread, unless it’s dry or otherwise indisposed. But ramen? It competes for your attention. And therein lies its lack of appeal for me. While the adaptations described above have some draw (to me, anyway), the ramen burger doesn’t, not even remotely.

The next thing you know, someone’s going to want to pair musubi with Spam.

Ramen burger (image from

Chef’s Choice at Café Munir

I was seriously bummed when Omar al Khyam in Renton closed its doors. I had been going there since my early working days in the Seattle area. It was my first introduction to Lebanese food and I loved it. Here is where I had my first hummusbaba ghanouj, shish tawouk, tabbouleh. I would have these over and over again through the years. Lebanese cuisine makes liberal use of vegetables, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, spices and herbs, which explains much of the appeal to our family. So, when Omar’s decided to call it quits, I began to wonder when I’d have good Lebanese food again.

Recently, my daughter mentioned that a new Lebanese restaurant took over the spot previously occupied by Gabriel’s Fire, which served barbecue, and that word has been good about their food. Located in Loyal Heights (a subdivision of Ballard), she and I went there for dinner tonight. Even without a reservation (and one is probably recommended), we were seated immediately. The interior is simply decorated—white walls accented with paintings and textiles. The tables are covered in white linens though there is no air of stuffiness here. The whole place exudes warmth and hospitality. The restaurant is Chef Rajah Gargour’s attempt to serve the foods he grew up with during his childhood in Lebanon. There is also a full-service bar, rather unusual in a Lebanese (let alone Mediterranean) restaurant, that boasts over 100 kinds of whisky.

As this was Sunday, it was the Chef’s Choice fixed price meal. Good enough. No wondering what to get. For $20 per adult, you get a spread of small plates, including a main entrée and dessert. The only thing we had to pick was the wine (not included), Chateau Ksara’s Blanc de Blanc (☆☆☆), a flavorful white blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and semillon, made in the Bekaa Valley.
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Eating Solo in Ballard on Pooch Duty

While my daughter has gone out-of-town to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday, I volunteered to do the dog-sitting at her (and the dog’s) home. Though I like to cook, I don’t always do it for myself, less so when I’m away from home. As I’ve written before, my daughter lives in Ballard (a neighborhood of Seattle), a dining mecca where one doesn’t see a single franchise fast-food restaurant in the main commercial district roughly centered on Market St and Ballard Ave. My meals have been restricted to places within walking distance (except once). A lot less hassle.

I decided to consolidate my reviews into this one post because really I’ve ordered just single items from every menu. If I had thought of it earlier, I could have included Wednesday’s lunch at Pestle Rock here, too.

I’ll start off with dinner at Señor Moose on Wednesday night (Oct 30). Inspired by my wife’s order of pescado veracruzana at Black Cat Cantina in Portland recently, I ordered the same at this Ballard favorite, a Mexican restaurant that had apparently been serving molé even before La Carta de Oaxaca did, only a few blocks away. Señor Moose’s rockfish had previously been frozen, so it was not as moist and flaky as I would’ve liked. Still, it wasn’t bad. The sauce was made with the usual tomatoes, capers and green olives, but also a plethora of minced onions that diminished the sauce. Add to this that the tomatoes themselves were lackluster. I was not overly impressed (☆☆½).

For lunch on Thursday (Oct 31), I stopped at La Isla, supposedly the first Puerto Rican restaurant in Seattle. The lunch menu included one of their specialties, Puerto Rican pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder. A standard recipe calls for marinating the shoulder for a long time (La Isla does this over a period of days) in lots of garlic (sometimes a whole head), olive oil, black pepper, oregano (fresh or dried) and vinegar, though the server said the chef also uses a secret ingredient or two. To render it fork-tender, shoulder benefits from a slow roast over several hours, all the better if some fat is left on to baste the meat. La Isla surely must because their’s was unctuous. In the pernil bowl for lunch, it was shredded (like ropa vieja, which La Isla also serves) and piled on top of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), stained orange from achiote and tomato sauce, overall a fine entrée (☆☆☆½). The tostones (☆☆) that came as a side was starchy and firm from green plantains. I’ve had better in Puerto Rico, but the mojito sauce (☆☆☆½) for the tostones was a killer, a mayonnaise of garlic, onion and citric acid (lemon, lime, orange or a combination), a garlic lover’s dream. I saved half the lunch for dinner later on.

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Instead of a smoothie that I made for myself on Thursday morning, I picked up a couple of pastries from Café Besalu right after it opened on Friday (Nov 1). The magnificent plum danish (which I reviewed before) I saved for later, but for breakfast, I savored onion and Gruyère pastry (☆☆☆½) which was up to their usual high standards. It crackled and let loose shards of puff pastry in my mouth, gluten-y in the center and tasted of savory Gruyère cheese, gently sweetened by the roasted onions.

Sweet onion and gruyère croissant

Onion and gruyère pastry

It was lunch at Kimchi House on Friday. The kalbi plate includes a big scoop of rice, salad and banchan. The salad of romaine lettuce and shredded carrots was dressed with a soy sauce vinaigrette, spiced up with just a little kochujang and dried chile peppers to add a distinctly Korean touch. Kalbi has an inherent problem. While unmistakably beefy in flavor (it is unapologetically fatty), pumped up by the garlicky teriyaki marinade, it can be resiliently chewy, which is one reason it is sliced thinly. Even so, without a knife (and the restaurant does not have any in the utensil tray or at the table), you have to eat them with chopsticks, which is what Koreans do. Some cooks have figured out a way to tenderize kalbi, but Kimchi House hasn’t or doesn’t bother. I had to ask for a knife. It was sure tasty though (☆☆½).

Kalbi plate

Kalbi plate

Across the street from the Ballard Locks on NW 54th St is Red Mill Totem House, the third Red Mill Burger restaurant to (re)open locally. This was the only time I got into my car. One of the old-time burger diners in Seattle, it was a destination for lunch on Saturday (Nov 2). Why is it called Red Mill Totem House and not Red Mill Burgers? A popular fish-and-chips restaurant called Totem House used to occupy this building until it closed in 2010 after a 65-year run. Red Mill thoughtfully was mindful of the past, incorporated the name, with a restored totem out front, and kept the fish-and-chips menu.

The Deluxe Cheeseburger is a quarter-pounder with American cheese, tomato, pickles and Mill sauce, sandwiched between a sesame bun, with a slice of red onion if requested (I did). This was a messy sandwich. Without the foiled wrapper folded over one half, the cheese and sauce would act as lubricants to send the fillings shooting out with the first bite. My ideal burger does not include any sort of sweet dressing (Mill Sauce is kind of like Thousand Island) because it literally masks the beef’s flavor. It’s even debatable if I really need lettuce, tomato and pickles, though it depends on their quality. The best burger, which Red Mill gets voted for annually by Seattle Weekly, should not equate to being the most adorned. All this said, the burger was pretty good (☆☆☆), the sesame bun being supportively soft and slightly doughy, though not sturdy. Rather than fries, I had Babe’s Onion Rings (☆☆½), about a half dozen thickly cut rings. The batter, cornmeal-based, was so super-crunchy and loud that I had to remove by hearing aids. Kidding aside, it was more to lessen the aural assault by loud piped-in music that really sends this message to customers: hurry up and eat and get out. I would gladly have sat outside on one of the picnic tables if it weren’t so windy and threatening to rain.

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe's onion rings

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe’s onion rings

The lunch repast stayed with me longer than I wanted, so for dinner it was just a bowl of tai nam pho (eye-of-round steak and well-done flank) at Than Brothers (a previous review here), though for the first time ever, the noodles were too soft.

Tai nam pho

Tai nam pho

With the resetting of the clock back to standard time, my eyes opened on Sunday (Nov 3) morning an hour earlier. Other than Starbucks, the only other place I could find open for breakfast before 8am was Café Besalu. So, back I went for the second time in three days. My daughter raves about their almond croissant. I understand why. Made only on Sundays, the croissant is studded on the outside with sliced almonds. Inside is a generous filling of divine marzipan, intensely flavored and not too sweet. And, of course, there is the legendary croissant itself. This is a pastry worth going some distance for (☆☆☆☆).

I couldn’t resist getting the ham and Swiss cheese pastry (☆☆☆½) again, with the intention of eating it later. Yes, well, the road to personal hell is paved with good intentions. I swiftly polished it off with a double tall order of Besalu’s wonderful Americano (☆☆☆), which is a sight better than its drip coffee.

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Ballard hosts one of the very few farmers markets in the Seattle area that are open year-round. Even as the summer produce has all but disappeared, at least the late fall and winter vegetables will still be around, not to mention the bakeries, dairies, meat and seafood stands, and food vendors. Among the latter is Los Chilangos that not only offers food at a number of farmers markets (including Issaquah, the closest one to me) but also operates a food truck in Bellevue. With their catering business, they are easily the most ambitious mobile Mexican food operation in the area. For a food stand, there is a good-sized menu, including three soft tacos that I decided to have for lunch. You can mix and match among four fillings: al pastor, chupa cabras, carnitas and carne asada, the first three of which I tried. Each taco is wrapped in the traditional two soft corn tortillas, with chopped onion and cilantro and choice of mild or spicy salsa with each filling. No, chupa cabras (chupacabras) is the not the flesh of the mythical goat-sucking cryptid of Latin and southern American legend, but rather a combination of chorizo and carne asada. The house-made chorizo (☆☆☆) is good, while the asada was gristly (☆☆½). Ditto for the al pastor (☆☆½), whose origin has an interesting historical origin (involving Lebanon), described on Los Chilangos’ website. The carnitas taco (☆☆☆) was my favorite, succulent shreds of tender pork.

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

My brief stay in Ballard ended with having dinner with my daughter, whom I picked up from Sea-Tac, at Cafe Munir—speaking of Lebanese connections—which I will review in a future post.