If phở hadn’t become Vietnam’s most popular dish here in the States, the vermicelli noodle salad known as bún might have taken its place. At least, that’s what I like to think because I love them both and sometimes it’s hard to pick between the two. For me, the choice might come down to the weather. Served at room temperature, bún is a refreshing meal, ideal for summertime eating: cooked and cooled rice noodles are topped with fresh salad (shredded lettuce, cucumber, aromatic herbs and bean sprouts), chopped roasted peanuts, and usually some sort of meat or seafood (grilled pork in bún thịt nướng being the most popular), still warm from the grill or pan, and a small cup of nước chấm served on the side for dipping. I got into the habit long ago of pouring the sauce over the rice noodle salad like a dressing.
My wife and I had lunch at Monsoon East a few days ago. She wanted the ox-tail pho (phở bở) that I so enjoyed almost a month ago. Bún was also on the menu. My choice was the first on the short list, a grilled chicken noodle salad (bún gà nướng).
So, why does Monsoon’s bún rank at the head of my list? I’ll start with the salad toppings, certainly of excellent quality but easy enough for restaurants here in Seattle to get—romaine lettuce, thinly sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts and mint. Monsoon uncommonly garnishes with fried shallots, those crispy and flavorful allium tidbits so addictive in Southeast Asian cooking. The noodles, thicker and round in cross section rather than square (as in phở), were perfection, making me wonder if they were freshly made as is commonplace in Vietnam, rather than rehydrated from dried pasta. The generous portion of chicken breast had attractive grill marks, imparting a pleasant light smokiness that counterpointed the lemongrass marinade. The imperial roll (chả giò) gets its extraordinary savor from ground kurobuta pork (sourced from Carlton Farms), shrimp and fish sauce, and glutinous crispiness from the fried rice paper wrapping. The filling also revealed glass (mung bean) noodles and bits of chopped vegetables. These rolls were so good that my wife asked if they could be ordered separately. Indeed, they could. To top it all off, Monsoon’s nước chấm is bright and exceptionally savory. The salad weighs in at $11, not a bargain when compared to other restaurants’ prices, but the quality ingredients and kitchen mastery to produce a superior bún (☆☆☆☆) makes it worth an occasional indulgence.
It’s the peak of summer, but you’d never know it by this picture. There was a heavy rain the night before and the clouds hadn’t yet lifted.
I’ve been a fan of Mongolian beef ever since the first time I had it at Hunan Restaurant (long since shuttered) in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. Thin slices of beef, green onions and dried red chiles, tossed in a sweet-savory sauce, all scooped on top of fried cellophane noodles (saifun), was a combination I had never tasted before but took an immediate liking to. Since Hunan’s closure, I was always on the lookout for equally good versions. The problem was that the dish at most restaurants had been cloyingly sweet, making me wonder if Chinese chefs resignedly capitulated to American tastes by adding too much sugar.
After an errand, I was in the neighborhood of King’s Chinese Restaurant. Mongolian beef was at the top of the lunch menu. That settled it for me.
The complimentary hot and sour soup was a very good version, properly tart and peppery, with the surprising addition of finely minced fresh red chiles, rather than dried red pepper flakes, for added heat.
The first impression when the entrée arrived was not the rather large slices of beef but their thickness, about 3⁄8“. This might have been a problem if the pieces had been chewy but a common Chinese kitchen technique of velveting ensured tenderness. Even so, it required a little work only to take small bites. Everything else was pretty spot on, from the pungency of the scallions and onions, flavorful brown sauce that was a touch sweeter than it needed to be, underlying spiciness from the dried chiles and fluffy bed of crispy cellophane noodles. If it weren’t for the meat issue, this Mongolian beef (☆☆☆½) almost measured up to Hunan’s.
King’s Chinese Restaurant
13200 NE 20th St.
Bellevue, WA 98005
Far from Middle Earth (or New Zealand, for that matter), this storage bunker at the Bellevue Botanical Garden looks for all the world like a hobbit house—or gaol?
Among a stand of purple echinaceas (coneflowers), one of them dared to be different.
I was amazed by this tree trunk that looks like an elephant’s head.
Yesterday when I arrived in Southern California to visit my wife’s relatives, we were all treated to a classic Filipino dish, adobo, prepared by a family friend, Ronnie E. (His recipe for Bacon Bok Choy follows.) This particular dish, rather than being made with either chicken or pork, uses both, a recipe he learned from his mother. I’ve made adobo in the past. As tasty as they were, they were quite vinegary and a tad salty. Ronnie’s is more restrained and balanced, not as garlicky, even if a whole head is called for. The long simmering tames the stinking rose’s harshness, much like roasting garlic. And instead of incorporating vinegar at the start of braising, Ronnie finishes the adobo with a small amount.
Pork and Chicken Adobo
- 1 1/2 lbs. bone-in, skinless chicken thighs, cut through the bone in 2″ segments
- 2 lbs. pork shoulder (pork butt), cut into 2″ cubes
- 1 head minced garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 to 1 cup soy sauce (depending on saltiness)
- black pepper, to taste
- 1 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
In a large pot, combine chicken, pork, garlic, bay leaves, 1/2 cup of soy sauce and black pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 10 minutes, adding more soy sauce to taste. Continue to simmer covered for about an hour until chicken and pork are tender.
Remove pot from heat, add vinegar and stir. Serve with steamed white rice.
Bacon tastes good with almost anything. By itself, bok choy is pretty bland, almost grassy in taste. While my wife loves the stuff, I find its sole redeeming feature is its crunchiness when not overcooked. Could the addition of bacon improve things? This recipe, prepared by Ronnie E., a friend of my wife’s family, convinced me that I could make more room for bok choy.
- 2 strips of bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2″ slices
- 1/4 of a small onion, cut crosswise into 1/2″ slices
- 1 tbsp. fish sauce
- Ground black pepper
- 5 heads of baby bok choy, cut crosswise into 1″ slices
Over medium heat, fry bacon until almost crisp. Add onions and sauté for 3 minutes until softened. Add pepper to taste and fish sauce, stir to combine, then bok choy. Toss the mixture occasionally until the bok choy is cooked but not overdone, approximately 5 minutes or so. Serve.
For my money, the best soft tacos in Bellevue are served at El Maestro del Taco. La Cocina del Puerco served terrific ones too but the restaurant closed a few years ago. Cocina was a sit-down restaurant, while Maestro is a food truck that also sells tortas, cemitas, sopes, quesadillas and a carne asada plate (with rice and beans). It also sells burritos that can be ordered with any meat offered in a soft taco (lengua, cabeza, beef cheeks, adobada, asada and carnitas). My favorite taco filling there is asada, which is the reason I got a burrito filled with the same thing.
I can say unequivocally that El Maestro del Taco’s burrito is in a league by itself.
Let’s start with the flour tortilla wrap. Unlike at most places where the ends of a gigantic tortilla are tucked in before the burrito is rolled, a single turn of an 8-inch one barely covers Maestro’s substantial filling, potentially a big mess if the filling pushed out at one end when the other is bitten into. Fortunately, the whole thing is swaddled in foil. The absence of the tucks eliminates excessive tortilla that can double, even triple upon itself otherwise. A small matter maybe, but one appreciated by me. Plus, the tortilla itself is thin yet stretchy enough not to tear, putting all the emphasis on the filling.
It starts with shredded iceberg lettuce for a pleasant crunch and generous slices of avocado for creaminess. Sliced pickled jalapeños add spiciness and zing. Rather than whole beans, Maestro uses savory refried beans that act as a glue to hold the rice together. The supremely flavorful asada is chopped and in generous quantity that there’s no mistaking it as the main ingredient, unlike other places (such as Casa D Taqueria) where the filling is mostly rice and beans, tasty as they may be. Also excellent is the tomatillo salsa that comes with the burrito. At $5, this classic burrito (☆☆☆☆), like everything else here, is a bargain.
El Maestro del Taco
15615 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008