COA, Great Mexican Dining in the Skagit Valley


Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

The Bard came to mind because the broth bubbled non-stop in a fiercely hot molcajete, like a fire underneath that didn’t extinguish until dinner was almost done. This wasn’t a witches’ brew but a tasty stew of grilled chicken, carne asada, shrimp, nopal, tomatoes, pico de gallo, pickled red onions and queso asadero (top image). The molcajete (the dish has assumed the name of the basalt vessel it’s served in) was sublime, the best I’ve eaten outside Orick (California). If there’s anything that’s a problem with superheated vessels, it’s that the proteins continue to cook and become tough. Even so, this molcajete was glorious, a riot of color, flavor and texture, but was more than two of us could finish.

It was clear that COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria aspires to be more than the run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant. The revelation started with lunch where pollo en molé was so good that we returned later for dinner to assess the molcajete. Always on the lookout for great molé, COA rewarded me with a sumptuous version spooned over chicken breast slices, though I would’ve preferred a more succulent leg. A combination of many ingredients, molé, if not Mexico’s most famous sauce, is surely the most complicated, typically consisting of fifteen or so ingredients, including dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and sometimes chocolate. COA’s has over 30, evidence that the restaurant has serious aspirations. North of the border, making molé from scratch is rare, a great one even more so. Chocolate-based molé doesn’t appeal to everyone (my immediate family included) because chocolate and fruit components seem more appropriate for dessert, but done right it rivals the world’s best sauces. What passes for molé at most restaurants is, in fact, too sweet, one-dimensional. It likely comes out of a jar. Beneath the understated sweetness and bitterness, COA’s had a savory foundation from rich stock, and complexity that defied description.

Pollo en molé

COA’s side dishes show nice touches, too. Instead of refried beans, whole dried pintos are stewed to perfect creaminess on the inside and accented with queso fresco. A mango pico de gallo tops a side of salad.

Then, there are the salsas. A flavorful mild one comes with freshly made tortilla chips (gratis), which are thicker than usual and served in a small bucket (refillable) rather than basket. If heat is more to your liking, be sure to ask for the spicier salsas. One is a creamy avocado salsa verde, the other made with nothing but ground dried red chiles and oil, both addictive and plenty hot.

Avocado salsa verde and red chile salsas

Billing itself as a tequileria is an indication that COA promotes serious tasting of Mexico’s national spirit. The lineup of blancos, añejos and reposados can be tasted neat, as flights or in cocktails. Mezcal makes an appearance, too. While enormous, their cadillac margarita was too sweet for my taste, the only letdown in an otherwise great dining experience.

Catching the end of a late tulip season in the Skagit Valley was the occasion for finding COA in La Conner. (There’s also one in nearby Mount Vernon.) Restaurants like this make me glad that dedication to quality is alive and well in small towns.

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
214 Maple Avenue
La Conner, WA 98257
(360) 466-0267

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
102 S. 10th St
Mount Vernon, WA 98274
(360) 840-1938

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Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley


Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
626.308.0803

A Weighty Question—Does Windy City Pie Have Seattle’s Best Deep Dish Pizza?


Do I like Chicago deep dish pizza?

At one time, the answer would’ve been an emphatic ‘no,’ not because I tried it (I hadn’t) but any pizza thicker than a half inch and crust not made with “00” flour with its low gluten and crackly edges was not my preference for a great pie.

That was before I had a sample of a deep dish pie at Patxi’s in Seattle that someone else ordered. It had no meat, just tomato sauce, spinach, pesto and cheese. Surprisingly the cheese wasn’t on top but underneath a chunky tomato sauce, as is the custom in Chicago. And it was thick and hearty, best eaten with knife and fork. The first bite shattered my prejudice of what makes a good pizza.

Last Friday, my son-in-law got takeout from Windy City Pie, which specializes in Chicago-style deep dish. He walked in the door with a single box roughly a foot square, which if it were ‘traditional’ pizza would barely satisfy the four of us. But the content was something to behold, easily an inch high, a massive pie smothered in thick, bright tomato sauce and edges charred as if left in the oven too long, clearly not what a pizza is supposed to look like.

Windy City Pie’s Omnivore Pie (house sausage, pepperoni, spinach, roasted garlic)

The crust was more bread-like, closer to dense cornbread in texture with some chew. The bottom was darkened brown by a hot pan and crunchy enough to be challenging to cut with a knife. The edge around the pie and spots on top were blackened. At first you might think this was carelessness on Windy City’s part but it replicates what some pizzerias in Chicago and Detroit made famous, a cheesy, frico-like and heavenly quality. I love a zesty tomato sauce; Windy City didn’t disappoint. House-made sausages were in large, tasty chunks. Best on top on ‘traditional’ pizza where its crispness and paprika flavor can be appreciated, the pepperoni here stayed limp buried in all that sauce, which may explain why sausage is the preferred meat in Chicago. The Omnivore is a pie that’s worth the drive to Phinney Ridge. For next time, I’m eyeing the Classic that ditches the pepperoni, spinach and roasted garlic in favor of roasted red peppers and mushrooms. Vegetarians can rejoice with four specialty pizzas on the menu. Build-your-own is also an option.

Windy City Pie has the best deep dish pizza in the Seattle area. Might it hold its own against competition in Chicago? I wouldn’t bet against it.

As of this writing, it isn’t yet open for dine-in business (TBA). Orders must be made online and picked up (Wednesdays-Sundays, 4-9pm).

Update (April 1, 2019): Windy City Pie is officially open for walk-in business.

Also: The same folks who run Windy City have a sister operation, Breezy Town Pizza, in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, located inside Clock-Out Lounge where beers, cocktails and other beverages can be ordered. The menu is not quite the same as WC though the Chicago- and Detroit-style (though not as thick) is on it with the same charred, cheesy rim. The crust is a proprietary sourdough recipe. One bite of the PPC (Pepperoni Paint Job) had me convinced that the pizza gods have blessed Seattle with another winner.

Breezy Town’s PPC

Windy City Pie
5918 Phinney Ave N.
Seattle, WA 98103

Breezy Town Pizza
4864 Beacon Ave S.
Seattle, WA 98108
312.884.9527

Shanghai Cafe Continues to Surprise—Beef with Black Bean Sauce


Shanghai Cafe remains my go-to Chinese restaurant even as new ones open in the Seattle area. My wife and I tend to order the same things every time, menu items that have stood the test of time over the 20 years we’ve been customers. (You can read about our favorites here.) Years ago, one of the long-time waitresses kidded us on our (almost) unwavering selections. 

Last night for dinner, as the year’s first snow started to fall, we decided to give a new dish a go. 

I want to enthuse about their Beef with Black Bean Sauce. After the first bite, it was obvious that this would join our other favorites, a dish so savory and funky from fermented black bean sauce that all my wife and I could say was ‘Mmm.’ Many Chinese restaurants seem stingy with this condiment as if to insinuate its flavor. Douchi should be the star, not a shrinking violet. Dishes using it should be emphatic like chicken with black bean sauce at Yea’s Wok, refinement be damned. For the same reason, I downgrade restaurants that use pesto to color its pasta green rather than generously sauce to highlight basil’s herbal and pungent qualities. There were enough mushrooms to compete with beef slices in volume, maybe a cost-cutting measure. Yet they were perfectly cooked without being spongy while adding their own earthy flavor. Basil leaves lent nice anise notes and color. Despite the sauce verging on being too salty, tempered when spooned on steamed white rice, I’ve found another gem at Shanghai. 

I’ve said before that Shanghai Cafe is unsung and under-appreciated. For good reason, it’s lasted decades at the same location in the Factoria commercial area of Bellevue. For sure my wife and I try new Chinese restaurants but seem always to return here because it’s comfort food. Likewise to my daughter and her husband who crave Shanghai’s vegetarian options whenever they’re in town. 

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There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

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Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was unremarkable like the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. At one of them, a diner sat near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy.

The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Her soba is the stuff of legend.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Japanese austerity, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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Nue: The World’s Street Food


It’s the thing nowadays to have street food at restaurants. Many of us have gone traveling abroad that noshing on things foreign is not the hesitation it once was. International food is now within easy reach, a cookbook, restaurant or food truck away. These are exciting times if your palate runs far and wide. 

In Seattle, up until now, street food has been relegated to a specific national cuisine. Three years ago, Nue opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with a dedication to global street food, bites from all parts of the world, a result of the food finds of co-owners Chris Cvetkovich and Uyen Nguyen when they go traveling abroad. An ambitious agenda, to be sure. The name nue is based on a mythical Japanese chimera whose body is composed of different animals. One manifestation combines monkey, snake, tiger and tanuki, a metaphor for the culinary variety one should expect to find inside.

Take Filipino Tosilog for instance, a popular breakfast item in the Philippines. I personally like fried rice and eggs in the morning, so this combination along with tocino (cured pork meat) sounded like a winner. The meat is a marriage of sweet and savory from straightforward ingredients of salt, sugar, spices and lots of garlic and sticky from caramelization. The fried rice (sinangag) is prepared with nothing more than soy sauce, green onions and bits of fried garlic, served alongside two sunny-side-up eggs. I only wish Nue was closer to me for breakfast. 

Filipino Tosilog

Chengdu Chicken Wings Tower (top image) has quite the following. This is quite understandable. It can be ordered by themselves or paired with waffles. The presentation is spectacular, about a half dozen fried wings stacked vertically, pinned together by two bamboo skewers and underlain by a pool of bracing dipping sauce. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the batter their characteristic bite and numbing sensation. Dipped in the sauce of red bird’s-eye chiles, mint, basil, lime juice and fish sauce, the wings took me to heaven. 

Sunny Bunny is a curry dish based on bunny chow from South Africa. Truly street food, kind of like a bread bowl, it was a staple of East Indian laborers who worked in and around Durban but now popular all over South Africa. Nue uses a partial Pullman bread loaf hollowed out in the middle and filled with a thick, bold masala curry of chicken and vegetables and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. If the original bunny was made to be portable for migrant workers and the torn-off bread pieces used for dipping, Nue nixes all that by generously ladling the curry to overflowing, obliging you to use fork and knife. 

South African Sunny Bunny

How do the chefs at Nue make those perfect fried eggs?

I’m usually indifferent to cornbread. This changed a bit when I had Nue’s based on a Caribbean recipe that includes pineapple and shredded coconut. It’s moist, slightly sweet and buttery, that competes with another terrific cornbread that I had at the Turquoise Room (La Posada Inn, Winslow, AZ). 

Cornbread with Whipped Butter and Maple Syrup

Others in my dining group had Puerto Rican Mofongo (plantain mash, smoked chicken and fried eggs) and Mexican Desayuno Michoacana (chorizo, sweet potato, pasilla pepper, avocado crema, fried tortillas and eggs). 

Nue’s plan is to change the menu periodically based on exciting culinary finds throughout the world. These have appeared in the past or are now on the menu: Israeli Shakshuka, Syrian salad, Dutch Patat Oorlog, Egyptian ‘Eggs Basyounadict,’ United Nations Fried Rice, East Indies Brussels Sprouts, Ecuadorian Biche de Pescado, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and so on. With all this variety, there is one potential drawback. For sharing, an eclectic mix poses the risk of choosing food with no complementary flavors. In fact they can compete, as I and dining companions have found on two separate occasions. The Sunny Bunny fought the chicken wings and tosilog for dominance, for example. That’s not to say that the dishes in themselves weren’t good. The three just mentioned were outstanding, in fact. Don’t let that stop you from dropping in. Nowhere else in Seattle can you find such a culturally diverse menu of high quality. Like the Japanese monster, Nue boldly embodies its mixed bag of diverse elements.

Nue
1519 14th Ave
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 257-0312