Kukai Ramen Revisited


Whither the new ramen restaurants? Maybe we’re victims of the digital age where rumors and hype of restaurant openings hit the fan so far in advance that when they finally do open, it’s almost a non-event. Since last fall, Seattle rameniacs have been waiting for the opening of two high-profile restaurants—Shibumi and Jinya. We’re still waiting while staring at the “open soon” promises on the internet. Now, we hear that Santouka, a famous chain from Hokkaido, will be opening its first restaurant in Washington state in April, right here in Bellevue. (It has a big presence in Southern California, more locally in Vancouver, B.C.) I stated before that the greater Seattle area currently has a lackluster ramen scene, certainly not befitting a city of its size on the West Coast that has cultural and economic ties to Japan as well as a good-sized Japanese American community and enough Japanese nationals on work visas to stimulate demand.

When it comes to pass that the newbies do finally open their doors, Seattle will have taken a giant stride toward ramen legitimacy.

Meanwhile, in need of a ramen fix, three of us headed over to Kukai Ramen in Bellevue, a strong contender for the area’s best ramenya. When my wife and I ate there last July, we thought highly of the tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) and tsukemen (☆☆☆). Today, arriving past the noon hour, along with our daughter we waited for a mere 10 minutes before getting seated.

My wife decided on the yuzu shio ramen, which piqued her interest on our last visit. Yuzu is a citrus fruit widely cultivated in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. It seemed unusual that any sort of citrus acidulation would be imagined as a natural complement to a meat-based broth. So it was a surprise that, rather than tasting tartness, the broth only had the fruit’s essence. One explanation is that yuzu zest was used instead, a common cooking technique for adding citrus flavor without the acidity. Condiments included a generous amount of yu choy, finely shredded green onions, spinach, mizuna and a pinch of dried red chile threads (silgochu in Korean). Kukai’s excellent menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) is house-made. The noodles were perfectly cooked. A large slice of roasted pork was tender though unremarkable. The only drawback was a layer of uncooked albumen near the yolk of the seasoned soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago). This was a very fine ramen (☆☆☆½), unusual, savory, with intriguing citrus notes.

Yuzu shio ramen

Yuzu shio ramen

My daughter first picked the tonkotsu ramen from the regular menu. After the waitress left with our order, I noticed on the specials placard that miso ramen was available today. The waitress graciously made the change and recommended the standard broth instead of low-sodium that my daughter wanted with the original tonkotsu order. If it was not to her liking, there would be no problem in switching to the low-sodium version, a gesture that we all thought was very customer-oriented. As it turned out, the regular broth was fine. Miso ramen is a Hokkaido specialty—Kukai even went so far as to use miso from there. The noodles were slightly thicker than those used in the yuzu shio ramen and curly, rather than straight. Complementing this sturdy broth was a serving of sweet corn. Bean sprouts, slice of pork, menma and green onions completed the ingredients in this good ramen (☆☆☆).

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

My spicy ramen—whose hotness level patrons can choose among mild, medium (my choice) or hot—arrived in a milky pork-broth similar to tonkotsu but with the addition of a chile blend and garlic. As in the miso ramen, the noodles were thicker. Yu choy, green onions, bean sprouts, menma and a perfectly cooked egg ($1 extra) were nice additions. The pork slice had a slight off-taste that previously refrigerated or frozen pork can pick up. My rating: a solid ramen (☆☆☆).

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

Also doing business as an izakaya, Kukai has a limited selection of small bites, including edamame, gyoza, takoyaki, house salad and onigiri. We wanted to sample their two most popular: chicken wings and chicken karaage (deep-fried marinated chicken). The karaage came to our table first. Boneless chicken thigh pieces, battered with potato starch (katakuriko), were fried to perfection, served with a lemon wedge. Sprinkled with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were crispy, succulent and not in the least greasy, as fine a version as you’re likely to have anywhere (☆☆☆☆).

Chicken wings

Chicken karaage

The wings were similarly faultlessly fried, also coated in potato starch, making them lightly crispy, a pinch of green onions adding color. A scattering of fried garlic bits on top greatly enhanced their appeal. What made these wings even more interesting was a pool of sweetened yuzu juice underneath, a tad sugary for my taste but nevertheless adding to a unique, unconventional and tasty appetizer (☆☆☆½).

Chicken karaage

Chicken wings

With ramen to fill our stomachs, there were enough appetizers left to take home. Regardless of how the ramen newcomers fare, Kukai will likely remain among the best ramen restaurants in the Seattle area.

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Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.243.7527

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Shanghai Café’s Surprise Casserole


What do you get when you blend perfectly cooked squid and shrimp, succulent chicken breast, meaty shiitake, shaves of dry cured and smoked ham reminiscent of a Smithfield, chicken meatballs and nappa cabbage, each revealing its essence in a rich chicken broth as fine as I’ve ever tasted? You get the Shanghai Café Tofu and Cabbage Casserole (☆☆☆☆), a hidden treasure in an already first-rate menu. It really is a soup with surprises beyond its unremarkable name, casserole only referring to the serving vessel. In a way, it’s like hotpot that the kitchen has already prepared for you. Adding to the soup’s cornucopia are tofu, snow peas, exquisitely carved garnishes of carrots and mung bean noodles. At $18.95, it is a good-sized meal for three people.

If my wife and I hadn’t seen another patron eating it some years ago, we might never have tried it on our own. This is a soup, casserole, hotpot or whatever, that is now one of our comfort foods when there is a chill in the air.

Spicy cucumber

Spicy cucumber

Shanghai Café
12708 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.603.1689

How to Keep Cilantro Fresh Forever


Ever tire of cilantro becoming slimy and black after only a few days in the fridge? Here’s a tip for keeping them fresh forever. Maybe not forever, but certainly much longer than one has a right to expect. I’ve successfully kept cilantro alive and fresh for two weeks until all of it was gone, an impossibility when left in the plastic produce bag from the market.

It’s best to do the following when the cilantro is brought home. Remove the cilantro from the produce bag, toss out the twister and throw away any stems and leaves that are past their prime or are already bent. While holding the stems together loosely in your hand, rinse thoroughly under cool running water to remove dirt. This step obviates the need to rinse the leaves again. Remove excess moisture by shaking or lightly whacking the bunch on the side of the sink (my preferred method). Cut off about 1″ of the stems at the root end.

Find a glass jar just tall enough to let most of the leaves stick up over the rim like a flower arrangement. You don’t want a jar that’s too short or too tall. Fill the jar with a couple inches of water. Place the bunch into the jar, making sure that all the stems are submerged in water. Allow the cilantro to dry off on the countertop until almost dry, about 2 hours. Drape the produce bag loosely over the entire arrangement; it isn’t necessary to tuck the bag under the bottom of the glass. Place the jar in the refrigerator. The cilantro will keep fresh for many days. All you need to do is change the water whenever it starts to discolor and cull stems and leaves that are yellowing. Without the bag cover, the cilantro will wilt.

Veggies to the Max: Bombay House


Purely vegetarian restaurants are hard to come by. Chances are better in large metropolitan areas, Seattle included. To cater to the growing numbers of vegetarians, it’s small wonder that there aren’t more Indian vegetarian restaurants in America since the subcontinent is generally regarded as the greatest source of vegetarian cuisine in the world. In the Seattle metro area, there are only a handful. It seems that remaining a vegetarian-only restaurant is difficult to sustain since it relies on a certain clientele to keep it going. An Indian vegetarian restaurant in particular might face a greater challenge since a standard one normally has a very good veggie entrée selection while simultaneously satisfying carnivorous appetites. Udupi Palace came and went in Bellevue. Now, in Bellevue’s Eastgate area, Bombay House opened last year, occupying the space formerly held by O’Char, a Thai restaurant. Will it survive? Only time will tell.

recess

Situating Bombay House at this location might at the very least appeal to the Indian employees who work across I-90 at the Eastgate Microsoft, Verizon and Boeing complexes. Its closest competition is India Gate, which is much closer to the high-tech companies and is a good restaurant besides, having been there for many years. At lunchtime, it’s de rigueur for Indian restaurants to offer all-you-can-eat buffets. I can’t think of a single one in this area that doesn’t. Time was when these buffets cost $5.95, but nowadays it’s more like $10. Because of competition, prices are within $1 of each other across all restaurants, so an edge might boil down to offering more buffet items or demonstrating higher quality, perhaps even service or ambience. For $9.95, Bombay House had eleven entrées, plus condiments and chai. Spice Route in the Overlake area has many more. A nice touch was serving freshly made naan at the table, drizzled on top with what possibly was ghee. Service was friendly and cheerful.

The entrées themselves were tasty, though nothing was extraordinary. Both my wife and I did really like the palaak paneer. Other items included daal maharani, Bombay aloo, vegetarian korma, karhi pakora, coconut-tofu masala, two kinds of rice, pakora, and spinach soup. About half were vegan, which is good news for vegetarians on a stricter diet. All the items were mildly, if at all spicy, a big plus for my wife, with the exception of a tasty, hot mint chutney and a chile sauce that seemed very much like Indonesian sambal oelek. The lone dessert item was kheer, a rice pudding with very nice cardamom flavor. A large urn dispensed unsweetened chai.

entrees

The buffet was rather typical, somewhat diminished by a limited selection. Bombay House will not win over India Gate patrons to any significant degree. Yet, glancing at the dinner menu, I do envision the restaurant appealing to vegan customers, as they will be able to eat over 60 percent of the main dishes.

Bombay House
15100 SE 38th St. # 305A
Bellevue WA – 98006
425.746.2114

Lunch at Jenny Phở


Tucked in one corner of an Issaquah parking lot that shares space with PCC, Michael’s, Office Depot and Aaron Brothers is Jenny Phở. While the name suggests specialization in the popular Vietnamese noodle soup, the menu is a lot more extensive with headings for wonton soup, stir-fried noodles, fried rice, rice dishes, curries and vermicelli dishes.

condimentsThe interior is sleek, clean and attractive. Upon entering, we were offered any table we wished, one reason being that at slightly past the lunch hour, there were quite a few empty tables. Utensils and condiments at each table were what one would normally expect at a phở restaurant: chopsticks, soup spoons and little dishes in their own receptacle, sauces in another.

It’s hard not to be surprised at the relatively high prices, all the main dishes save for the phở in double digits. Phở ranges in price from $7.50 to $9.50 for a small bowl, $1 more a large. My wife and I both ordered the phở chin (with cooked beef brisket slices). We have for some time swung over to cooked beef over raw, not for hygienic reasons but because they often taste better and don’t become overly chewy when plunged into hot broth. When the soup arrived, as is the wont of many phở restaurants these days, the vermicelli was at the bottom of the bowl in a tight ball which the diner has to pry apart before eating. I can only imagine that the noodles are made ahead of time and rolled up, ready for hot broth to be poured over them. This does affect their texture slightly, becoming a tad gummy but acceptable enough that a good bowl of noodles can still be enjoyed.

On the other hand, the broth was of high quality, savory, redolent and tasting of warm spices, including star anise and cinnamon, with a pleasant touch of sweetness. I was also surprised at the number of beef slices, easily about a dozen, where most restaurants only serve anywhere from a third or half that amount. Garnishes included the usual—bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime and sliced jalapeños. Overall, the phở was quite good (☆☆☆) and worthy of your attention unless you’ve become accustomed to Than Brothers prices.

Phở Chin

Jenny Phở Vietnamese Noodle Soup & B.B.Q. Restaurant
1810 12th Ave NW, Suite D
Issaquah, WA 98027
425.427.0057

Oh Poo, Is Tilapia Good for You?


I often wonder, is seafood safe to eat anymore? Out there in our waterways floats a vast stew of toxins, the worst offenders being heavy metals and chemicals from industrial pollution, not to mention dangerous amounts of radioactive isotopes from Fukushima-like disasters. Unlike soil, whatever gets dumped into the oceans spreads far and wide, only to be taken up by the organisms that live there. The conventional (current) wisdom is that the lower down in the food chain a fish species is, the less likely it’s accumulated enough toxins to trouble the health of humankind. And that’s the fine point, isn’t it? Because all seafood has some level of contamination. It boils down to a matter of statistics, what the probability is that something as large as tuna or small as sardines that you’re about to pop into your mouth will do you long-term harm. If you don’t want to be consumed or paralyzed by fear and worry, you just have to take your chances, unfortunately. Or do without.

Image from wikipedia

As appalling as the presence of poisons in our oceans is, within the past few years, journalistic exposés have uncovered human activity that is in a way even worse simply because it’s deliberate—the aquaculture of tilapia, which has become the dominant, if not sole white fish (no pun intended) to appear on restaurant menus. You fancy fish tacos? How about sweet-and-sour fish or Szechwan fish fillets? Pescado a la Veracruzana? Odds are, it’s tilapia. Diners like tilapia’s mild flavor and restauranteurs are happy about its low cost. Moreover, they are easy to raise on fish farms. To meet soaring demand, farms throughout the world, especially in Latin America, China and southeast Asia, have proliferated. There will be no foreseeable tilapia shortage.

Therein lies the problem, particularly the tilapia sourced from China and southeast Asia.

Back in 2011, the only issues raised by The New York Times were farm-raised tilapia’s questionable heart-healthy benefits (very little omega-3 and very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids) and ecologically troublesome waste pollution at fish farms. Yet, a year later, Bloomberg News reported that the tilapia raised in unregulated farms in China, the world’s largest producer, are being fed raw animal sewage or manure, though this practice has been known for years.

Yang Shuiquan, chairman of a government-sponsored tilapia aquaculture association in Lianjiang, 200 kilometers from Yangjiang, says he discourages using feces as food because it contaminates water and makes fish more susceptible to diseases. He says a growing number of Guangdong farmers adopt that practice anyway because of fierce competition.

“Many farmers have switched to feces and have stopped using commercial feed,” he says.

Do all farms in Asia practice this? No. I’m sure that many fish farmers have ethical standards.

In the wild, tilapia naturally feeds on algae and aquatic plants. It appears they thrive on poop, too. Because they aren’t carnivores, they’re touted as harboring very low levels of heavy metals. But, by feeding them fecal matter from farm animals, that “advantage” has been turned on its head so that consumers are exposed to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli instead. Won’t the FDA keep our food safe? Good luck with that. Would cooking the fish to high enough temperatures be enough to destroy these bacteria? Maybe. You’d be right to assume that in order to keep illness and infection in check, antibiotics, some of them carcinogenic, are heavily used.

To be objective, isn’t large-scale food production safety in general a problem? Yes, but the practices noted above emotionally are more revolting, nauseating even. Buyer beware! I’ve had my share of tilapia lately, but in protest, not anymore.

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Recipe: Zoomeboshi Tuna Sandwich


I like savory sandwiches, which you’re no doubt thinking is a preference of most people. I say this only because tuna sandwiches are oftentimes too sweet, a result of a heavy hand with relish. Yet, a tuna sandwich without some relish seems a bit one-dimensional. Over the years, I’ve developed a recipe that suits me just fine. It has one surprising ingredient which I borrowed from popcorn enthusiasts. That ingredient is nutritional yeast, whose glutamic acid boosts the salad’s savoriness. The allium bite of minced onions likewise appeals to me. I prefer the sandwich open-faced on lightly toasted bread.

tuna sandwich

1  7.5-oz. canned albacore tuna, drained
2  tbsp. minced onion
1  tsp. sweet relish
1  tsp. nutritional yeast
3  tbsp. mayonnaise, or to taste (I like a creamier consistency)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3-4  lightly toasted white bread, cooled

Combine first six ingredients together in a bowl until it reaches the desired consistency. Spread tuna salad on toasts and serve.

Breathtaking Beauty Down Under: New Zealand


One of the most stunning places in the world to visit is New Zealand, a land of towering mountains, spectacular glaciers, turquoise lakes and volcanoes, a testament to the restlessness and creativity of immense geologic forces. It was for good reason that Peter Jackson filmed his entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now the Hobbit, there in his own country, which needs very little CGI to showcase its spectacular beauty and double as Middle Earth. If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know that my daughter and her family live there, in Christchurch. In one month, my wife and I will be visiting once again, to flip over the season (winter to summer)—and again mutter about the British Empire for driving on the wrong side of the road. For the first time ever, we will also be visiting Australia, more specifically, Melbourne, Phillip Island and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

The image above was taken by my daughter in Mt Cook National Park, nestled in the spine of mountains, running north-south in the middle of New Zealand, called the Southern Alps for reasons not hard to figure out. (A larger image is available here.)

Lunch at Seven Stars Pepper


On the heels of eating at Chef Cheng Biao Yang’s Uway Balatang did a friend and I have lunch at Yang’s previously-owned restaurant just down the street, Seven Stars Pepper, in the Ding How Shopping Center in Little Saigon. Truth be told, this was not our first choice today but rather Lemongrass in the same shopping center for its magnificent (Vietnamese) beef stew. As we walked through the door, someone intercepted us and informed us that they were not open (for reasons unexplained), even though the neon “open” sign was lit and the front door unlocked. That’s how we wound up upstairs at Seven Stars Pepper instead.

Widely regarded as cooking authentic Szechuanese dishes, Chef Yang made quite a name for himself at Seven Stars Pepper where then rarely known dishes like chong gin hot chicken, cumin lamb, dan dan noodles and Szechwan crab became popular and beloved among non-Chinese Seattle diners, one big impetus being provided by the rave reviews of Nancy Leson, Seattle Times food critic at the time (and now its food writer). (I make the ethnic qualification because the Chinese community has its own network of the latest Chinese food and restaurant developments well before the English-language press reports on them.) Yang eventually sold the restaurant, reportedly unhappy about the dismal parking situation at Ding How (poorly lit, cramped underground parking where all weight-bearing posts show signs of vehicle scrape marks), and opened Szechuan Chef on the Eastside where more generous suburban parking was presumably more to his liking. He has since sold Szechuan Chef and gotten involved in two more restaurants, including his latest, the aforementioned Uway Balatang.

Despite Yang’s departure, Seven Stars Pepper is still short-listed by food critic Jay Friedman (Serious Eats) as serving some of the best Szechwan food in the city.

Friend and I shared two dishes: chong gin hot chicken (from the regular menu) and pickled vegetable fish (from the lunch menu).

The fish dish derives its distinctive flavor from the pickled vegetables (mustard greens) and pickled red chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns. Seven Stars Pepper uses a subdued amount of peppercorns which greatly diminished the dish’s typically fragrant and numbing impact. With tilapia, the kitchen also added thin diagonal slices of celery, carrots, tree ears and baby bamboo shoots to add crunch. Overall, while it doesn’t have the traditional tingling peppercorn quality, this was a tasty and savory if mildly spicy entrée (☆☆☆).

Pickled vegetable fish

Pickled vegetable fish

The same restrained hand with peppercorns made the chong gin chicken, shall I say, inauthentic but not necessarily without merit. While the crispy nuggets of battered chicken thigh, dry-fried greens beans, scallions and a liberal amount of dried red chile peppers were fine enough to earn good marks (☆☆☆), the hallmark má là quality was missing. For a more potent sinus-clearing and mouth-numbing experience, I’d have to go to one of Yang’s current restaurants (Uway Balatang and Spicy Talk Bistro) or Spiced.

Chong gin hot chicken

Chong gin hot chicken

I have to wonder if the decision to use less peppercorns has to do with appealing to a wider palette. This seems like an odd decision for a restaurant primarily catering to a Vietnamese and Chinese clientele.

Seven Stars Pepper
1207 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
206.568.6446

Why This Little Problem at Trader Joe’s?


I am a big fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s my go-to store when I go shopping. Why? Because they have great values, no sale prices to worry about, have an increasing inventory of organic foods at excellent prices, and amazing variety for a store of its size. Furthermore, very few of their products have artificial ingredients. Trader Joe’s has a business model that works, high-quality and hard-to-find products at very fair prices. When I go grocery shopping at several stores during the day, I make it a point to go to TJ’s first because I will save a good deal of money.

That being said, there are some issues that have bugged me over the years.

When a new item is introduced—and each month brings new products—other things have to go. If those things include one of your favorites, you’re out of luck. With very limited shelf space, products that don’t sell well will be removed from stock, simple as that. Can I really blame them for that?

But, to me the most annoying problem is the tendency for some items not to be as fresh as they could be, so far confined to produce and food products that could go stale. Take, for example, their raspberries. I seek out organic berries whenever possible, since they are highly susceptible to pesticide contamination. Without chemicals, it’s pretty important that the time from farm to store be as brief as possible. I get the feeling that TJ’s sometimes gets their raspberries, a delicately soft fruit, toward the end of their freshness cycle in order to pass along good prices to shoppers. More than once, I’ve had to return raspberries that have spoiled within a day or two of purchase. By way of comparison, I’ve never had to do that for berries bought at Whole Foods or PCC. To be clear, I’m not saying this always happens, but it has enough times that I now closely examine all highly perishable groceries. (Tip: I’ve discovered that berries last much longer when removed to Mason jars than when left in their plastic clamshells.) Molding is not as much a problem with strawberries and blueberries.

Their organic Persian cucumbers are very prone to molding and organic onions to mildewing faster than when bought elsewhere.

On more than one occasion, I’ve bought avocados from TJ’s that absolutely refused to ripen.

In short, when it comes to produce at Trader Joe’s, while most of it is just fine, it does pay to be vigilant. To their credit, they will take back anything you don’t like.

I mentioned staleness. I no longer buy raw nuts from TJ’s. I’ve had to return many because they tasted stale straight out of the cellophane bag, a sign that the oils have gone rancid. One jar of an Egyptian-inspired mix called dukkah, consisting of fennel, anise, coriander and sesame seeds, ground almonds and kosher salt, a great accompaniment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread, has also tasted stale even though it was eaten well before the pull date.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lack of freshness in some of TJ’s packaged snacks. A bag each of sea salt and pepper lentil chips and of soy sauce-flavored savory thins were likewise stale, again opened before their pull dates.

So what gives with Trader Joe’s? With over 400 stores nationwide, one would think that the chain would exert its clout to ensure more stringent food safety. Low prices doesn’t have to mean relaxed standards. I’m not alone in my concern, as any search on the internet will show. Complaints have been posted for many years now, which seems to suggest that TJ’s doesn’t care. Could that be?

Regardless, I still love TJ’s. Along with countless other fans, I would be genuinely bummed if they were ever to go out of business.