Noodlemania in Little Saigon: Uway Malatang


In the relative obscurity of the Pacific Rim Center that sits just east of I-5 (and therefore qualifies it as technically located in Little Saigon instead of Chinatown), the art of hand-pulling noodles is being practiced by Chef Cheng Biao Yang in his latest restaurant venture, Uway Malatang. The man seems like a restless spirit who every few years sells a successful restaurant, only to open another one soon thereafter. He’s made a full circle as Seven Stars Pepper, which he once owned, is just down the street, with stopovers at Szechuan Chef in Bellevue and Spicy Talk Bistro (which Yang’s brother now operates) in Redmond in between. Uway Malatang represents a new addition to Chef Yang’s culinary repertoire as he is now the master noodle maker, an art he learned in China only recently.

I had lunch here with a friend, a direct result of a feature article written by Nancy Leson that appeared in the Seattle Times this past Sunday. We were seated at first at a table by the entrance. But the waitress offered to reseat us so we could watch the chef make the noodles in a small room visible behind a glass window. The seeming effortlessness with which he pulled the noodles speaks to the countless hours he practiced to perfect the technique. Such exhibitions are rare in the restaurant industry, much like being able to watch a master pizza dough maker spin and toss the dough in the air. You can watch the manufacture of the xiao long bao and other dumplings at Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung through glass windows at the entryway. The only other time I’ve witnessed a master make fresh Chinese noodles is at the now-closed Bamboodles in San Gabriel, California.

Both my friend and I ordered different dishes so that we could get a taste of each other’s. I knew what I wanted already, Szechuan style beef noodle soup. Even with a choice of hand-shaven noodles, I opted for the pulled noodles for obvious reasons. They arrived in a large bowl, so attractively garnished with cilantro and green onions that I wanted to dive in immediately. The first bite of noodles was excellent, fresh-tasting and glutinous with a slight springiness. But, as the minutes ticked by, they began to soften in the hot broth. This is sort of expected for thin noodles that are made with no more than wheat flour, baking soda and water. Which means that the broth should do its part in noodle soup appreciation, for while the star begins to fade, the supporting cast has just as big a job to keep the customer happy. I found the broth disappointing, salty and lacking depth. There was some flavor from the beef chunks, which were hit-and-miss tender and gristly, cabbages and onion, but the overall impression was one of thinness (☆☆½). This problem reminded me of the shortcoming of the above-mentioned Bamboodles, a collection of broths that didn’t measure up to the noodles. While the sinewy texture and fattiness of meat don’t appeal to Westerners, their almost ubiquitous appearance in all kinds of Asian cuisines indicates that they are not considered a defect.

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

All was not lost, because my friend’s hot and spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef dish was memorable (☆☆☆½). The noodles were equally as fresh as hand-pulled but the sauce was anything but weak. It was savory with a touch of tartness (likely from black vinegar), caramel overtones and spicy. Contrasting crunchiness was provided by cucumber slices, green onions, tree ears and aforementioned beef gristle. Friend was so impressed by this dish that he swore to bring his wife here. When I return, I’d likely order the same.

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Uway Malatang makes a big deal of its hot pots, too. In fact, when you first enter the restaurant, there are chilled ingredients on the left which you can mix and match (one-pound minimum) to make your own hot pot, augmented by a choice of eight broths. These might require some experimentation before you find what appeals to you.

Hot pot ingredients

Hot pot ingredients

Also included on the menu are many of the favorites that have appeared at Chef Yang’s previous restaurants. Chongqing chicken or cumin lamb, anyone?

Update (5-17-14): We had an early dinner here with another couple.

(Fried) salt and pepper squid is generally a good dish to order whenever a Chinese restaurant has it on the menu. The calamari has a thin, crispy batter typically made with cornstarch; the flavor is boosted by addition of scallions and a bit of green chiles to add a touch of heat. An important consideration is not to overcook the squid, which Chef Yang is careful not to do. The intriguing addition is ground Szechwan peppercorns, which added their characteristic numbing quality and floral fragrance, raising this entrée out of the ordinary (☆☆☆).

Salt and Pepper Squid

Salt and Pepper Squid

Besides pulled noodles, chef Yang also makes hand-shaven noodles, which make an appearance in chow mein. Other than the pasta having a slight powderiness, the sauce was good, with thin pieces of tender pork, green onions and cabbage (☆☆½).

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

The best dish of the afternoon was tofu with eggplant (☆☆☆½). Chinese eggplant slices were meltingly soft, likely after having absorbed a prodigious quantity of oil, in a savory sauce mixed with fried tofu and scallions. But, it is an oily dish.

Tofu with eggplant

Tofu with eggplant

It’s a little worrisome that there were only two other dining parties this afternoon. Foot traffic seems to plague all the businesses in the multi-story Pacific Rim Center, no matter what time of day. Even with ample free parking, its location on a steep hillside (which provides a little thrill when the car enters the parking structure tilted sideways at 30o) at the edge of Little Saigon, physically separates the shops from the main commercial area up the block, where most people do their shopping on foot. Could it be that Uway Malatang is therefore too much out of the way to make the effort worthwhile? If so, that’s a shame because there is talent in the kitchen.

Update (4-11-16): Chef Yang no longer helms Uway Malatang. As of July 2015, he opened Country Dough where he is now making Szechwan guo kui, flatbread filled with meat or vegetables.

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Uway Malatang Restaurant
900 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98104
206.467.0600

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Comida auténtica: El Camión Adentro


What do Ballard High School students and staff have that very few outside the Southwestern states have? A great and reasonably priced Mexican restaurant, that’s what. During the school year, driving past El Camión Adentro, you’d likely see a passel of hungry students lined up outside to pick up a taco or two, or any number of street foods that would substitute for whatever the cafeteria is serving at lunchtime. Before 2013, locals knew the location as once belonging to Zesto’s and, more recently, Roro’s BBQ. And also pre-2013, foodies were very familiar with the three stylish, black El Camión food trucks that were doing business in Ballard (south of the restaurant), SoDo and North Seattle since 2010. It was only early last year that the owner decided to add a brick and mortar operation to serve the sit-down crowd.

There aren’t that many tables and booths inside; the space can accommodate roughly 50 people. Outside, at the south end of the restaurant, is a seating area covered with umbrellas, more appropriate for when the weather is nicer than today (rain showers). Upon entering, you place your order at the counter to the right, then are issued a receipt with an order number. When your number is called, you pick up the order at another counter facing the dining area. A salsa and condiments bar has two martajada salsas (roja and verde), sliced red radishes and pickled whole jalapeños. Martajada salsas are traditionally made by crushing roasted tomatoes (red) or tomatillos (green), roasted chiles (jalapeños or serranos), garlic and coarse salt in a molcajete. Also at the salsa bar are squeeze bottles of various less chunky salsas.

Salsa and condiment bar

Salsa and condiment bar

Three of us had lunch here today.

We ordered three kinds of soft tacos: fish, carnitas and carne asada. The unbattered fish, likely tilapia, was fresh and flaky, combined with chopped cabbage, crema, cilantro and pico de gallo (☆☆☆½). I didn’t get a chance to taste the carnitas, but my daughter thought they were very good. Simply dressed with pico de gallo, the carne asada tacos were excellent (☆☆☆½).

(Clockwise from upper left) carne asada, fish and carnitas tacos

(Clockwise from upper left) carne asada, fish and carnitas tacos

A special of the day, carnitas taquitos dorados (☆☆☆), though mild in flavor, were wrapped in nicely crisped corn tortillas and drizzled with avocado sauce and crema

Taquitos dorados (carnitas filling)

Taquitos dorados (carnitas filling)

An entrée we’d seen for the first time was pollo enchipotlado, a chicken quarter (leg and thigh) simmered in a tomato-based sauce, smoky and spicy from chipotle in adobo sauce (☆☆☆). The kitchen did a fine job of preparing tender chicken as it did slicing the vegetables into uniform matchsticks: red from red bell pepper, yellow from summer squash and green from zucchini. Listed as one of El Camión’s specials, the entrée came as a full-size meal, complete with rice and (whole black) beans, pico de gallo, avocado and radish slices, tortillas and four lime quarters. Most of it came home with us.

Pollo enchipotlado

Pollo enchipotlado

Mexican breakfasts are also served (all day) in the form of burritos (jamon, chorizo and vegetarian). Quesadillas, tamales, gorditas, mulitas and tortas also are on the menu, as well as a list of seven specialties. Beverages include aguas frescas, sodas, hot chocolate and beers on tap.

From customer reviews,  the El Camión enterprise is successfully serving all manner of tasty Mexican dishes. It also had the distinction of having been named one of 2013’s 101 best food trucks in America by The Daily Meal.

El Camión Adentro
6416 15th Ave NW
Seattle, WA
206.784.5411

Chaotic Splendor: Hidden Beauty in Drops of Water


In the past, I’ve posted a few photographs taken by Jim Brandt. Jim, husband of my wife’s cousin, is an amateur photographer. He takes digital images of many natural subjects, not the least of which are the storied wildflowers of nearby Great Smoky National Park. He also dabbles in water-drop collision photography, examples of which I’ve shared before.

The results are nothing short of spectacular. The collisions among drops of water released in quick succession are like delicate glass sculptures that have a striking yet fragile beauty. These frozen moments in time no human eye can detect. But, with the aid of high-tech equipment, it’s as if the mysteries of the universe are being revealed. By his own admission, this kind of photography is a challenging endeavor. But, as these images show, it obviously has great rewards. Thanks to Jim for allowing me to share them.

Food Truck: Fish Basket


Among the benefits of having a dog is taking it on its daily walk. I might grumble about having to do this every day, but once I’m out on the sidewalk or on the dog-friendly trail, it isn’t so bad. On rain-free, crisp mornings, the walks can be exhilarating. The exercise, so I tell myself, profits me more than sitting on my fanny, which I’m inclined to do at home, all the more in my retirement. Luckily, I realize that I’m only dog-sitting for my daughter and that she will be home in a few days to reclaim her doggie.

Another benefit of walking the dog are noticing things you wouldn’t otherwise. One of these things, it so happens, was spotting a food truck that was pulling into the parking lot of Datasphere Technologies, across the street from Spiritridge Park in Bellevue, where my wife and I commence our dog walk. Today, Fish Basket was selling its fish tacos, fried seafood and chowder.

Fried seafood includes cod, salmon, halibut, shrimp, clams and calamari, each with a side of either chips or slaw. The cod ($8) is the best fish value as the salmon and halibut set you back $1 and $3.75 more, respectively, for two pieces of fish (and side). The batter is thinly applied (my preference) on fish that needed more seasoning and freedom from the freezer that dried out its flesh (☆☆½). On the other hand, the fries were deliciously seasoned with paprika and other spices and coated with perhaps a thin layer of cornstarch batter that gave them a nice crispiness. The tartar sauce deserves special mention. It’s homemade, tarter than most with more dill pickles. Foil packages of malt vinegar and hot sauce are available in containers at the cashier.

Cod and chips

Cod and chips

Whenever we have the opportunity, we get fried clams. Today was no exception. Generously-sized clam strips were coated in super-crispy cornmeal batter (☆☆☆½). The clam flavor was robust and cried out to be tasted again in the near future.

Clams and chips

Clams and chips

Most of the positive reviews center on Fish Basket’s tacos, which are listed first on the menu. They will be next on our “try” list along with clam chowder. But, we’d be hard pressed to pass up the clams.

With the concentration of high-tech companies in the Eastgate area with generously-sized parking lots, it was inevitable that food trucks would be contracted to service their employees. I’m just beginning to identify where these spots are, but there are at least three of them. Over time, I imagine the popularity and frequency will steadily grow to the point where employees working at these high tech companies will be awash in food trucks, or is that just a pipe dream of mine? Fish Basket is a good start.

Saffron Grill: Mediterranean Goodies at an Indian Restaurant


After a pre-screening of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, we had in mind to return to Setsuna Japanese Restaurant to try some of their other things for dinner. But we would have been a half hour early before opening, not so appealing when the weather was windy and rainy. Driving along Northgate Way, we spotted Saffron Grill, whose sign advertises it as a Mediterranean restaurant. A quick look at the menu, however, establishes it as much more of an Indian restaurant with a small Mediterranean representation in the salads and entrées. Some quick research on the internet revealed that the owner previously operated Cedars, an Indian restaurant in the U District with the same nod toward Mediterranean cuisine, before moving to Northgate and opening Saffron. (Cedars is still operating, apparently under new management.) Interesting that Cedars’ name also suggests a Mediterranean provenance.

Despite Saffron’s scores of Indian selections, we split tabbouleh salad and shish taouk, but not before succumbing to tonight’s special cocktail, passionfruit mojito and a glass of Kingfisher on tap. The cocktail menu has drinks evoking mostly exotic names and places (such as Maharani Mojito, Mango Martini, Calcutta Pear Martini, Bangalor Rose Martini). The beer selection is extensive with bottles from all over the world. The many wine bottles filling the nooks along the west wall show a very respectable selection as well, including tonight’s special pour of Cougar Crest Estate Grown syrah. From all appearances, the mojito looked like a standard one, pale greenish in color from mulled mint leaves, but there was an unmistakeable passionfruit flavor. Made from a syrup, it was rather sweet but nonetheless tasty. The beer was smooth and ice cold.

Aside from the standard lemon juice and olive oil dressing, the tabbouleh had a savory note. I couldn’t figure out what was responsible. The waitress couldn’t (or didn’t) offer an explanation. The parsley was very finely minced with chopped tomato, bulgur and green onions adding support. This was a nicely balanced tabbouleh, not as puckeringly lemony as Omar’s used to make it, but more refined—in short, a fine salad (☆☆☆).

Splendid was Saffron’s shish taouk version, five whole boneless chicken thighs alternating with green bell peppers on a large bamboo skewer, and grilled (or possibly baked in a tandoor). Our utensils did not include a knife, so we were faced with using only our forks to cut the chicken. It was so moist and tender that a knife was in fact unnecessary, though we did still ask for one. The lemon-yogurt marinade did an outstanding job of tenderizing and flavoring the chicken. The chicken’s golden tint suggested turmeric. The toum, creamy, garlicky and delicious, was a thin aioli with bright acidity. Oddly (but maybe not so much), the accompanying rice was basmati with Indian flavors, mixed with zucchini, carrots and potatoes. Even if the rice was quite ordinary, the taouk itself was worth getting again (☆☆☆½).

Our dinner was topped off with a cardamom and saffron ice cream. All I can say is delish (☆☆☆½)!

As the evening wore on, the restaurant began to fill up, obviously a popular venue to attract this kind of patronage on a Wednesday evening. The happy hour menu is quite extensive, with examples from both the subcontinent and the Mediterranean, ranging in price from $3.99 to $7.99, served everyday, 2-7pm.

Saffron Grill
2132 N Northgate Way
Seattle, WA 98133
206.417.0707

My Father-in-Law’s Fruit Trees


The fruit trees in the backyard of my father-in-law’s house are cheerful reminders that we are in southern California. In late December, when my wife and I go there to celebrate the holiday season, the citrus and persimmon trees are already full of fruit, ready to be picked. My father-in-law used to dry lots of persimmons in the sun until they got leathery, a process that would take weeks. People he’d given them to remarked how delicious they were. He doesn’t do that anymore. The flocks of wild parrots that swarm the San Gabriel Valley feast on the soft, ripened ones, making the partially eaten ones unwholesome.

There are several kinds of citrus trees. Quite seedy, the oranges are better for juicing rather than being eaten. The grapefruits are not as sweet as those that come from Florida or Texas, but they’re not bad. The kumquats are sweeter than any we’ve ever purchased.

The fruit that is everyone’s favorite is the mandarin orange (or satsuma tangerine). With their easy-to-peel rind, they are a great snack. I can easily eat a half dozen of them daily. For some inexplicable reason, last year the mikan (as they called in Japanese) were the sweetest that they’d ever been (and the skins hardest to peel). My theory was that the tree had been pruned just prior to the fruiting season and therefore more energy directed to fewer fruit, but (if true) the quality should have carried over to this year as well. Instead, they were bigger and not as flavorful though still good to eat. We used a nice specimen with single leaf still attached to top the traditional New Year’s kagami mochi. Even though it’s made of plastic, we got rid of the “head” and replaced it will a real tangerine.

The fruit trees are a sight for sore eyes after we first arrive from the Pacific Northwest.

Kumquats

Kumquats

Grapefruit

Grapefruit

Oranges

Oranges

Persimmons

Persimmons

Kagami mochi

Kagami mochi

Metamorphosis of an L.A. Son: A Book Review


My sister-in-law got it as a Christmas gift from a friend. I saw it laying on the coffee table at my father-in-law’s house. A different kind of cookbook, if you can call it that. It’s more of an autobiography with recipes sandwiched between chapters. The subject of the book is no stranger to the Los Angeles eating scene: Roy Choi, the mastermind cook behind perhaps the most talked-about food truck in America, Kogi BBQ.

The name of the book is L.A. Son. Its subtitle: My Life, My City, My Food. It’s a good thing that my sister-in-law didn’t take it home right away. I glommed onto it and read it from cover to cover in a matter of days.

It’s easy enough to be drawn superficially to the book, printed on thick, matte paper stock with beautiful photographs of the recipes and evocative images of places that figured importantly in Choi’s life. There’s something about the unconventional, non-artsy cover that also appealed to me—a picture of a smiling Choi sitting at a table, walls behind him papered with Korean-language newspapers presumably somewhere in a Koreatown restaurant. He is pointing his finger in the air as if greeting a friend who just walked in. “Wassup?” The meat and prize of the book is his story.

The book is a memoir of his life’s full circle, written in a combination of informal conversation and street language (the book is co-authored by Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan). It started in L.A. that at first were the surroundings that derailed his life and ended up there transformed, with stops in New York City, the deserts of California, Lake Tahoe, Japan and Sacramento in between. Born in South Korea, he immigrated with his parents to L.A., home to the largest population of Koreans outside of Seoul. Early in life, he was a trial to his parents, who eked out an existence in Southern California, working where they could, starting several small businesses, relocating many times. They were rarely home. They cared but were too busy with work; they were also alcoholics. An unattended latchkey kid as early as five years of age, rather than be confined at home, he roamed the streets of K-town, Hollywood and Orange County and got involved in L.A.’s underbelly. As he writes, he had “no lock on his life.”

“I hopped on and off buses, getting off in Koreatown, where I discovered tamales and sniffed out kimchis …. I found hot dogs and carne asada being grilled at the park, studied the jars of soybean paste stocked in market aisles. I rode my way down to Little Tokyo and tasted fish-shaped pastries filled with red beans, grabbed aluminum foils filled with savory pancakes.”

Choi’s obsessive personality drove him to failure—and success. He became part of a multiracial lowrider group that went around looking for trouble, got into drugs, picked fights.

“Crease the jeans with a whole can of starch. Roll joints with two Zig-Zags. Pack the cigarettes for five minutes, till the tobacco goes down by 30 percent. Comb in some Tres Flores. Sprinkle baby powder on the shoes, which will leave powder puffs when you take off running from the cops. Pack the sawed-off shotguns, 9 mm Berettas, 357 revolvers, rifles, UZIs, butterfly knives, numchucks, chains, bats, brass knuckles, police sticks, big hunting knives, little 22 pistols.”

He could get caught up in self-destructive behavior on end, only to be pulled out of it by people who cared (including his parents). Everyone gets signs in life that give him choices. People appear and situations arise that have a profound impact on the direction of one’s life. Choi eventually recognized who and what they were.

Always, Choi’s love and awareness of food pokes through the pages. Whether he was in the depths of despair or cooking in the kitchen of Le Bernardin, his descriptions reveal an exceptional awareness, respect and appreciation of food. His mother, a great cook, was ever making things in the kitchen, leaving a lasting impression. Choi never says though implies it, but she must have had a great influence on him and his gastronomic abilities.

For example, he remembers his parents’ Korean restaurant, Silver Garden in a sketchy part of Anaheim, started when he was 8. His mother’s cooking became so popular among Koreans in Orange County that lines formed out the door. He was a perceptive child to remember the sights and smells.

“The back alley was an orchestra of food. Porcelain barrels of fermenting bean paste …. Right next to these barrels were salted fish, croakers or mackerels, hung and tied together, accordion style. In the pit of the alley were crates and crates of onions, scallions, garlic, mung beans, soybean sprouts, ginger. … There were buckets on the floor for marinated spicy crab and sesame spinach. Other buckets for the short ribs marinating in thick black sauce. More buckets for the mountains of kimchi waiting for salted baby shrimp and oysters to be added. … Big blenders overflowed with savory pancake mixes.

“[There were] case of soju and beer, bags of dried chile flakes, sacks of unpeeled garlic and onions, jars of unpeeled ginger, kochujang, cucumbers, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and pounds and pounds of rice. Then there were the cases of oranges and apples.”

Still, his life would be a series of ups and downs. It wasn’t until he saw Emeril Lagasse on TV, when he was at one of his low points, that he knew what his life’s goal should be—to become a chef.

Choi’s road to realizing that dream was going to be hard. He was going to train at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Can a street-tough guy from L.A., several years older than the average first-year student, buckle down, exercise discipline and graduate? Would academics be a challenge? Remarkably, he excelled, was an eager student. A mandatory externship was in limbo until a fateful encounter with Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin in New York City (and friend of Anthony Bourdain, who published the book under Ecco Press). In the end, Choi was the class valedictorian.

We don’t learn anything about what he’s up to now, let alone his wife and daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. It’s as if he wanted to exorcise the demons of the past and leave it at that. As Choi says in the intro, he had to write the book. There is no more mention of his parents after they left him in Hyde Park at the doors of the CIA, an omission that makes the book seem incomplete.

And the recipes? They are secondary to Choi’s pretty interesting life story. They’re wedged between chapters and correlate to the content of the chapter they follow, ranging from street food to creations worthy of the finest restaurants. His first recipe is for kimchi, which is symbolic of the first food he loved. It’s an eclectic mix, with examples of his fusion approach to cooking, an expression of the love he has of the great culinary melting pot that is L.A. You won’t find the recipe for his Korean tacos though. You’ll just have to eat it when you’re in L.A.