Biang Biang, the Winning Sounds of Xi’an Noodles


Don’t let the modest place fool you. Xi’an Noodles has some of the best noodles in Seattle. It’s one of the rare restaurants that specialize in one thing and do it extremely well. In this case, the specialty is the kind of noodles made in the Chinese province of Shaanxi (which touches Sichuan at its southwest corner), hand-made and pulled by noodle makers who stretch and slap the dough against the counter that make the sounds biang biang, as the Chinese hear it. Not ever having seen this done, which I might one day if I stick around long enough and peer into the open kitchen, I imagine the sound more like a comic-book whap, but whap whap mian doesn’t have that bouncy ring. Neither does thump.

Lily Wu trained in Xi’an, Shaanxi’s capital, with a teacher on how to make the noodles properly. The process is time-consuming and requires discipline and stamina. It would be much easier if a machine could do the work. But, Wu makes the pasta by hand daily. The noodles are very wide and thin, appropriately called ‘belt noodles’ in China. They’re also hand-torn (called ‘hand-ripped’ on the menu) which give them a slightly ragged edge. With her husband, she puts in long hours to run the restaurant named after the city.

One can have these noodles sauced (dry) or in noodle soups (my daughter feels the former is the tastier way to have them here). The vast majority are spicy, which is indicated on the menu with chile symbols. There is also a rice noodle option for the soups.

Spicy Tingly Beef Noodles (pictured above) were excellent. As I expected from freshly made wheat noodles, they were chewy and springy. Because of their width and sauce-covered slickness, they were tricky to grab hold of, let alone maintain a grip on with chopsticks. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the sauce its numbing quality, chile oil and dried pepper flakes, its heat. Straight from the kitchen, these noodles were not exceedingly spicy nor anesthetizing, better to taste nuances of shredded and chopped braised beef, cabbage and green bell peppers in a very flavorful sauce. If you crave more hotness, you can pile on chile oil from the condiments bar. At the top of the menu is Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles, the most Shaanxinese way to have them.

For the chile-averse, there aren’t too many choices. Cooked fresh tomatoes in Stir Fried Tomato Egg noodles made the sauce teeter on the edge of being too sweet (or was it added sugar?) but they were tempered by scrambled eggs. Other mild choices are Stewed Pork Noodles and Vegetable Noodles.

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Xi’an Noodles serves other things, such as the hotpot-like malatang, which is not on the formal menu but is advertised by signage and tubs of ingredients in a separate cooler section. Also on the menu are a few popular street food items, like roujiamo (called ‘burgers’ on the menu). The restaurant has been doing business for less than a year (grand opening, May 1, 2016) but the word has already spread, helped by being included in Seattle Met magazine’s list of 100 Best Restaurants. Expect waits at prime dining hours.

Tidbit: For some now-lost historical reason, biang is the most complex Chinese character to write, consisting of 57 strokes, yet doesn’t even appear in a dictionary. One theory is that it was invented by a noodle shop owner. It almost looks like a pot of boiling noodles.

Xi’an Noodles
5259 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
206.522.8888

Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright


Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.

o1

Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

goPoké
625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104
206.799.9560

Winter on Orcas Island


Orcas Island has been one of our favorite local spots to vacation. Our family used to camp regularly in the summers at Moran State Park, memories that our daughters still hold today. Lately, with the kids now grown and having their own families, my wife and I have been going to Orcas during off-seasons to avoid crowds. In the summer months, taking the ferry can be an exercise in frustration. Still, I’ll never tire of ferrying through the San Juan Islands.

ferry-to-orcas

We had never gone there in February and are not apt to again. It isn’t that we won’t appreciate the slower pace or minimal number of tourists but that many recreational activities and attractions are not available or open for the year. When we arrived on Sunday, the weather was still frosty outside. The higher elevations, like Turtleback Mountain, were covered in snow. I thought it would be spectacular to get a 360-degree view of the San Juans all covered in white from atop Mount Constitution, but as I suspected, the entrance was closed. And, when Monday rolled around, it snowed—quite a lot. In the town of Eastsound, Orcas’ hub and commercial center, which is a little above sea level, 8″ or so of fluff accumulated, more higher up. And the nights dipped below freezing. Lucky for us, one of our favorite bookstores, Darvill’s, was open for business.

Restaurants, we discovered, are spottily open, at this time of year typically closed for two days of the week. We did appreciate that they must’ve arranged among themselves to stagger the closures on different days to always have a restaurant or two for tourists’ sake.

For a small town, Eastsound has a number of very good restaurants and cafés. With not much else to do, we still did manage to eat quite well. Continue reading

Wok and Woe: HardWok Cafe (Bellevue, WA)


Yet another Taiwanese restaurant opened recently in Bellevue to join others in the greater Seattle metro area to cater to the significant number of Taiwanese-American residents. With Facing East, MonGaDough Zone and Din Tai Fung already attracting the faithful on the Eastside, it’s become a bit more difficult for newbies to break in. HardWok Cafe does an admirable enough job with food. However, since its opening last August, a nagging problem seems to persist with service, an unforgivable management lapse after a half year of operation. The emphasis here is on popular street food with smaller portion sizes to match, clearly a format for diners to share plates.

The day before, friend DesM enjoyed a very good Beef Noodle Soup (and atrocious service, the details of which I won’t go into because they’re laughable). Both he and I decided to put our appetites together and order family-style. The results were mixed. Today, the service was fine.

Though the presentation looked promising, Taiwanese Style Rice Noodle with Meat Sauce was bland. By way of comparison, the version at another Taiwanese restaurant, Kung Ho, in the Factoria area is much more savory.

Taiwanese Style Rice Noodles

Taiwanese Style Rice Noodles

Similar in shape to triangular nigiriPork Sticky Rice was for me a revelation, the inside filled with savory pork, shiitake and peanuts, the glutinous rice enclosure draped with a kind of gravy.

Pork Sticky Rice

Pork and Cabbage Dumplings were tasty enough, but for my money I much prefer to have stuffed pork dumplings in the form of xiao long bao, which HardWok also offers.

Pork and Cabbage Dumpling

The best dish was a terrific example of mala in which a sauce or broth is peppery and quite spicy. Spicy Mala Beef mostly had various kinds of fish cake, served with a bowl of sesame-sprinkled rice. A small amount of rice in a separate bowl helped to temper a scoop of the fiery soup ladled over it; still there was plenty of nose-blowing.

Spicy Mala Tang

Service issues aside, HardWok Cafe is worth a return visit to explore its extensive Taiwanese menu. There is no shortage of dessert items, including boba milk (bubble tea) and shaved ice that are so popular in Taiwan. One that caught my eye, if for no other reason than its monumental size and impressive presentation, is the honey toast that comes with a variety of fillings. Imagine a loaf of hollowed out, toasted sweetened bread, refilled with toasted squares of the inside, topped with fruit, ice cream, whipped cream and syrups, and you get an idea why many patrons save room for this extravagance.

Banana Honey Toast (posted by Huong L. on Yelp)

HardWok Cafe
667 156th Ave SE
Bellevue, WA 98007
Lake Hills Village
(425) 590-9058

Bite of Montreal in Vancouver: Poutine and Bagels


In a city known for its international cuisine, including my personal favorites of Japanese izakaya and ramen and Chinese restaurants in nearby Richmond worthy of Hong Kong, I’ve come across really tasty examples of not local (i.e., Northwest) food but grub transplanted from Montreal.

No doubt you’ve heard of poutine, the Québécois fast-food combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. At first, the thought of it wasn’t all that appealing to me, but then I realized that Yanks drench their fries in ketchup, chili or even melted cheese, so the concept of smothering fried potatoes with sauce is not just a Canadian thing. Over a year ago, I had very good poutine at Fritz European Fry House in Vancouver, judged mainly on its gravy, a deeply satisfying, savory bombshell. There were a few hiccups.  Starting off very crispy, the fries softened under all that hot gravy and the cheese curds melted and became stringy.

Poutine at Fritz's European Fry House

Poutine at Fritz’s European Fry House

While in town again, I was looking at a Vancity internet map last month when I noticed another poutinerie (that also sells hot dogs) only blocks from our hotel. Mean Poutine is only a counter operation on Nelson near Granville. There is nowhere to sit though you can stand and eat at the counter. My wife got a single order for takeaway and brought it back to our room. I didn’t see any visible gravy, though the fries were clearly wet. I thought it odd that it seemed to have disappeared, more like dissolved into the potatoes. The fries were cut thinner than Fritz’s but they were superior, having a double-fried texture and a very thin batter that gave them an appealing crunchiness. The curds also kept their shape. An interesting twist, one which I liked, was the addition of sliced green onions.

Mean Poutine

Mean Poutine

Many Canadians eat these snacks late at night, which explains why Fritz is open until 2am-4am, depending on day of the week, and Mean Poutine until 4am. This is not a good idea if you’re trying to keep the poundage off.

Great bagels on the West Coast are hard to find. The ones here tend to be softer than their East Coast counterparts, verging on being bread-like. I’ve heard East Coasters complain about western bagels. In college in L.A., I had a Jewish buddy from New Jersey who more than once made the same claim. And so did Joel Siegel when he moved from Montreal to Vancouver. He decided to open Siegel’s Bagels in 1990. He incorporated his vast experience that he accumulated while working at a Montreal bagel shop. The bagels would be boiled in a kettle, baked on shivas in a 25-ton wood-burning stone-hearth oven. At the original Kitsilano location and the newer one on Granville Island, you can watch them being made.

Siegel’s bagels are seriously good. The bagel can by itself be an object of meditation: what the perfect one should be like. They have the requisite crispy exterior, a dense and chewy inside with a slight sweetness that make almost all bagels I’ve had before pale in comparison. But for me, they find their greatest expression in the form of Siegel’s signature Montreal smoked meat sandwich on a sesame bagel. Siegel’s has not only transplanted the quintessential Montreal-style bagel to Vancouver, it also imports (weekly) smoked brisket from Montreal, which is then thinly sliced and steamed in-house. All that’s needed is a slathering of plain yellow mustard to complete a whole that is greater than its parts, at once chewy, crispy, nutty, salty, sweet, tart and savory in perfect balance.

Siegel's smoked meat bagel sandwich

Siegel’s smoked meat bagel sandwich

Vancouver is lucky to have a taste of Montreal in its own backyard, and so am I only a three-hour drive away.

Fritz European Fry House
718 Davie St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 684-0811

Mean Poutine
718 Nelson St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 568-4351

Siegel’s Bagels (Granville Island Public Market)
1689 Johnston St #22
Vancouver, BC
(604) 685-5670

Siegel’s Bagels (Kitsilano)
1883 Cornwall Avenue
Vancouver, BC
(604) 737-8151

Noodle Mania at Green Leaf Bellevue


It takes only one sip to judge soup broth. Any more, then it hasn’t made a good enough impression. It took me a single one to become wowed. My friend who sat across from me and who ordered the same hủ tiếu hoặc mì dặc biệt at Green Leaf Bellevue Vietnamese Restaurant had the same sentiment. The broth was that good.

Green Leaf in Seattle’s International District has been serving good Vietnamese food for many years. It wasn’t until recently that the owners decided to expand locations in Seattle’s Belltown district and on Aurora Avenue. And, only last week, Green Leaf opened one in Bellevue to take over the spot previously occupied by Chinese Seafood Noodle, which was owned by the same people but never seemed to gain any traction.

My wife and I kept an eye open for Bellevue’s official opening, which was slow in coming after noticing its name appear on the storefront earlier this year. The restaurant is not easy to spot when driving by, blocked from view in Lake Hills Village by commercial buildings along 156th Ave SE. It’s behind the Lake Hills Library. As of this writing, there isn’t even a sign for it on the street-side directory. Last Sunday, we saw that Green Leaf finally opened its doors. The waiter said it had only done so two days before.

I had phở, which I liked at the original location. Theirs is an excellent version, primarily for its delicious broth. The well-done beef pieces were another matter, the chewiest I’ve ever had, surprising since they’re typically the tenderest cuts elsewhere. They weren’t fatty enough nor cut that thin. I’ll order differently next time. On the Eastside, I’ve found no better phở except for the sublime one served by Monsoon East.

green-leaf-pho

Pho chin (well-done beef)

I returned to Green Leaf with a lunch buddy on Thursday. Hủ tiếu is an alternative to phở but is much less known in the U.S. They are both noodle soups. The difference is the broth where phở is beef-based, hủ tiếu made mainly with pork. It’s also common to have a choice among rice, egg or tapioca noodles. Green Leaf offers the first two.

The soup is served in a large bowl. The same was true of the phở, clearly meant for larger appetites or sharing. That single dip of the spoon was all it took to convince me that this was one of the finest broths I’ve ever tasted. It was clear and rich in umami from long simmering of pork and chicken with judicious additions of herbs and spices, not in the least redolent of phở’s warm spices. The only vegetables were sliced scallions in the soup and bean sprouts, jalapeños and cilantro served on a plate. Fried shallots lent crunchiness and their nice allium flavor.

I disliked only the spareribs in the special combo (dặc biệt), which also included shrimp, squid, fish balls, sliced fish cakes, minced pork, and quail eggs. The meat was hard to bite off the bone because they vulcanized in the hot broth. Praise be to the kitchen because the squid in particular was phenomenally tender such as I’ve never had. The amount of rice noodles was very generous, in fact, too much so in my opinion. They eventually soaked up almost all the broth. If you’re the type to add extra noodles, you needn’t worry here.

Green Leaf has a menu worth going through deliberately. I plan to do just that in the months ahead.

Green Leaf Bellevue Vietnamese Restaurant
683 156th Ave SE
Bellevue, WA 98007

Would You Eat Your Pet Guinea Pig?


If you know anything about Peruvian cuisine, you’ll know that guinea pig (called cuy; pronounced coo-ey) is considered a delicacy. Peruvians don’t eat it regularly, but consider it a rare treat. My wife and I saw it on many restaurant menus and we knew that no culinary adventure in Peru would be complete without feasting on one. It’s remarkable that we delayed this for a good while, especially after seeing these cute critters in a pen at a weaver’s co-op in Chinchero (see above). Time was running short when we got to Puno near Lake Titicaca. There it was on the menu of highly regarded Mojsa—Traditional Oven Baked Guinea Pig. We took the plunge. It was now or never.

As it turned out, it was very tasty. Did it taste like chicken? No, not really. It had a taste of its own. The batter made it very crispy, the meat was juicy, the fat plentiful and gelatinous. We were glad that it didn’t appear split in half with little paws and head still attached.

cuy-2