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

What’s In a Name? Chinese Seafood Noodle


It won’t win any prize for names. Chinese Seafood Noodle recently opened in Lake Hills Village. The former Lake Hills Shopping Center that used to host Paldo World, Liebchen Delicatessen and Wonton City, has been demolished and replaced by a fancier, mixed-use complex of housing, office space, restaurants and the Lake Hills Library. If the Village ever gets completed—it’s been stuck in slo-mo development far too long—there will be a vibrant center in the middle of the Lake Hills neighborhood. I only noticed the restaurant on foot when I happened to be looking in its direction from the library. You would never see it driving past on 156th Ave SE, obscured by arbors in the central plaza, nor from Lake Hills Blvd where a temporary chain-link fence and other obstructions block the view.

The interior is very sparse. A polished concrete floor. Large expanses of undecorated walls. But, there are ambitious plans to spruce things up, including the addition of a bar. The restaurant’s isolation does little to attract passersby. On two visits, there were many empty tables.

I was surprised to learn from the waiter that Chinese Seafood Noodle is part of the Green Leaf restaurant enterprise. That is a pretty impressive credential.

For now, the menu is printed on paper. It’s short, 22 items on the Chinese menu, 13 on the Vietnamese, the latter a tie-in to the management’s Green Leaf roots. In fact, phở and bún make an appearance, though on our second visit, the bún items were crossed out, the result of not yet being equipped to make (I’m guessing) the toppings, which include grilled pork, egg roll, grilled chicken and grilled shrimp. These will eventually show up again ($11-$13).

The specialty is southern Chinese seafood soup, which you can order with a choice of starches: noodles, rice cakes or rice (pao fan). The broth is the story here. Understated and complex, it tastes of chicken and sea with hints of ginger. Long-simmering with chicken bones imparts a cloudiness and density that reminds me of miso ramen broth. There’s not a lot of seafood in the soup, a couple of Hood Canal shrimp (heads and tails intact), a few littleneck clams and rings of calamari, even unexpected pieces of beef, everything perfectly cooked. Added are baby bok choy and cilantro for greenery and triangles of pan-fried egg. The wheat noodles are thickly cut like udon and soft. A nice soup ($13.99, ☆☆☆). I couldn’t help but think that the steep pricing might’ve been stimulated by the regrettable upsurge in ramen prices recently.

Chinese Seafood Noodle

Chinese Seafood Noodle

Ginger Chicken Combo ($7.99, ☆☆☆) couldn’t have been more succulent nor nicely presented, poached chicken breast with skin and bone still attached, cut crosswise into half-inch thick slices. But, the scallion-ginger sauce was way too salty.

Ginger Chicken

Ginger Chicken

The Sausage Fried Rice had nice chew, lop cheung was tasty and the vegetables freshly cut rather than coming out of frozen packages. Chinese versions are not my favorite Asian fried rices, but this (and the ones from the kitchen of Shanghai Café) was quite good ($7.99, ☆☆☆), marred again by a liberal hand with salt.

csn-3

Sausage Fried Rice

On our first visit, we were given a complimentary order of Pork Lettuce Boat. It’s listed on the menu under ‘Fusion Food.’ It’s similar to a Vietnamese shredded pork lettuce wrap, but instead of pickled vegetables (đồ chua), there is a layer of kimchi. (☆☆☆½)

Pork Lettuce Boat

Pork Lettuce Boat

With a Green Leaf pedigree, it shouldn’t take long for things to get rolling. For now, there’s a certain temporariness, a limited (and paper) menu, a small clientele, foot-dragging on the part of the Lake Hills Village developer (Cosmos) that still has not secured enough leases from other businesses, all conspiring to keep Chinese Seafood Noodle from realizing its full potential.

Chinese Seafood Noodle
595 156th Ave SE Ste C-3
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.502.9595

Dim Sum at Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village (San Gabriel, CA)


The Mainland corporation that owns Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village reportedly spent big bucks on possibly the fanciest Chinese restaurant ever to open in the LA basin. Chefs would be brought in directly from Shanghai, the ambience would appeal to the fussiest diners and menu to match. The debut was such a big deal that curious and expectant customers created major traffic jams along W Valley Blvd. That was back in December 2011. The hysteria has since died down. Opulent furnishings remain—chandeliers, ebony woods, crushed red velvet walls, French-style chairs (backrest and legs sprayed with silver paint), all a kind of  faux luxuriousness that prompted some reviewers to think bordello or a 19th-century dining car, obviously not the intended effect. Apparently, this kind of over-the-top excess is not rare in Shanghai.

From the start, the reviews have been mixed. Local diners, including those in the Asian restaurant mother lode of the San Gabriel Valley, weren’t overly impressed. At first, the food quality was attributed to growing pains. But, the same, no more than above-average ratings persisted, unimpressive for a restaurant with such high ambitions. Management issues? A lack of dedicati0n to quality? Chef turn-over problems?

And then, there is the curious policy of employing two separate staffs of chefs for the daytime and dinner hours. One wonders if local chefs rule the kitchen during the day, imported Shanghainese ones at night.

The dinner menu is very impressive. I’m referring to its physical appearance, looking like a slick bound catalog, almost an inch thick, with full-color photographs of its menu items on plastic-laminated pages. It struck me that, with the current price written next to every item, these menus would have to be re-printed whenever prices change. Only a single such menu appeared to be available for each table.

A week ago, four of us were here for dim sum, however, so the standard dim-sum-menu-cum-tally-sheet was also placed before us.

The reviews did identify two oustandingly prepared Shanghainese dim sum items. The first is xiao long bao, which we’ve had many times before and didn’t bother to order this time.

The other is shen jian bao, labeled Pan Fried Shanghai Style Bun. This is an interesting hybrid where a similar savory ground pork filling and gelatin slice as XLB are tucked inside a pleated, slightly yeasty wrapper, pinched at the top, steamed, the bottom half coated with white sesame seeds and briefly fried, the top sprinkled with black sesame seeds and green onions. When done properly, the bottom should have a nice golden, crispy hue and the dumpling should release a hot, soupy interior, similar to XLB. A tad thick at the top, Shanghai’s was savory, crispy and doughy at the same time, though there wasn’t much soup that burst out. (☆☆☆)

Shen jian bao

Shen jian bao

We couldn’t pass up Abalone Sticky Rice, a dim sum rarity. This was more subtle than other sticky rices, probably so as not to overwhelm the shellfish flavor. A single slice in each lotus leaf-wrapped packet was perfectly tender though subdued in abalone taste. (☆☆½)

Abalone sticky rice

Abalone sticky rice

The brine for the special pickled fresh cucumbers was rather sweet. We’d never seen a maraschino cherry accompany this dish. (☆☆☆)

Pickled cucumber

Special pickled cucumber

I couldn’t resist ordering something from that beautiful menu—stir-fried scallops with pepper. Though the photograph showed both red and green chiles, only green ones were used. Despite the scallops being perfectly cooked, the dish seemed curiously bland and oily. Would this dish be better at dinnertime when the Shanghainese chefs take over? (☆☆½)

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Stir-fried scallops with pepper

Is it possible that evenings might provide a more exciting dining experience? I might never find out because it’s also much more expensive.

Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
250 W. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
626-282-1777

Radish Cake at The Jade Seafood Restaurant (Richmond, B.C.)


It’s simply called Fried Radish Cake, the English shorthand for the more descriptive Chinese ideograms on the menu. Customers of The Jade Seafood Restaurant in Richmond order it as part of a dim sum meal or as a snack.

The chefs at Jade don’t make the radish cakes in the usual way, which is to steam, then pan-fry a mixture of grated daikon, cornstarch and rice flour. Formed into squares or rectangles, they usually contain bits of barbecued meat or dried shrimp or both. A less common preparation is to cube the steamed cakes into smaller pieces before frying, then stir in an egg and sauce. Jade uses the latter technique.

Jade’s creative kitchen has twists up its sleeve though. The cubes were sautéed with XO sauce, just enough to provide a touch of heat and bits of dried seafood without making the cakes wet. Instead of adding an egg into the pan, it was cooked separately, shredded and sprinkled on top of the dish. These by themselves would have been a pleasant enough surprise, but into the mix were tossed in fried garlic chips and edamame. For presentation, the radish cubes were served in two squares of large wonton-like skins, one rotated 45o relative to the other, fashioned into an edible ‘bowl’ and deep-fried. Fantastic and inventive (☆☆☆☆).

We also loved Jade’s justifiably famous har gow (☆☆☆☆). Four large dumplings were filled with sweet, succulent shrimp that burst with intense flavor and snapped when bitten into.

har gow

On the other hand, the service was horrendously inattentive, which did spoil our overall meal experience.

The Jade Seafood Restaurant
8511 Alexandra Rd
Richmond, BC V6X 1C3
604.249.0082

Dumpling Nirvana: Dough Zone


When Din Tai Fung came into town, the Seattle area suddenly was made aware of how superb xiao long bao can be. There have been versions of it served by restaurants in these parts, but never the billowy, savory, soup-filled dumplings that the great restaurant from Taiwan made. Almost immediately, the crowds descended on Lincoln Square in Bellevue where Din Tai Fung set up shop. It became almost impossible to get seated right away, a wait of an hour or so not uncommon. The opening of another branch in University Village in Seattle eased the situation somewhat, but the long waits are still there. Along with the high-profile, upscale location came high prices. XLB aficionados began to wonder if they could ever find dumplings this good at more reasonable prices anywhere else in the area.

Two years ago, Dough Zone began business in a strip mall behind Crossroads Shopping Center. It took over the spot vacated by El Comal, the Salvadorean restaurant that branched out to the Eastside from Seattle but never got traction there. On the menu was xiao long bao, not to mention all manner of dumplings, noodles and pancakes. It didn’t take long for word to get out: their stuff was good, REALLY GOOD. Rumor has it that someone associated with the DTF enterprise in Bellevue opened this place up. If that’s true, then the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. DZ became so popular that it too generated its own long lines. To relieve the pressure, a second location opened in Bellevue in the Fred Meyer lot, right off NE 24th. A third location in Issaquah is currently being planned. We went to the new location.

doughzone1

There is no menu, just a small order sheet on which you indicate the desired quantity of items next to their names, just like you do at DTF (though it has a fancy, glossy menu with pictures). This practice is becoming more commonplace at dim sum restaurants, too.

Let’s start with XLB. Dough Zone’s (unhelpfully and confusingly called juicy pork buns) has the same, impossibly thin wrapper twisted around the savory, aromatic ground pork filling. The filling is superbly flavored, but the real test of xiao long bao is the encasement of soup (or broth) that should ideally be hot enough to almost burn one’s mouth and pack a lot of flavor for such a small quantity. DZ’s does this with flying colors. What does this mean with respect to Din Tai Fung? It is its equal if not better, hard as this might be for DTF fans to imagine. The only thing missing was shredded fresh ginger to go along with the soy sauce and black vinegar, but, hey, that’s a minor quibble. I rate this at the top of my list (☆☆☆☆).

Juicy pork buns (xiao long bao)

Juicy pork buns (xiao long bao)

But, this was not all. Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumpling was just as fantastic (☆☆☆☆). Rather than minced, the shrimp was left whole combined with ground pork, both surrounded by a wrapper a la jiaozi or gyoza, but with the shrimp tail artfully poking up from the top. These, too, had a flavorful broth inside, if not as plentiful as XLB. All I can say is, magnificent.

Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings

Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings

We also sampled two of their soup noodles. Noodles with Szechuan Sauce (☆☆☆) exhibited the málà duality that typifies dishes from that province, though nothing as intense as anything coming out of Spiced‘s kitchen. Reddish-orange in hue, the broth was mouth-numbing from Szechuan peppercorns and spicy from dried chiles. And it’s very savory, with no meat of any kind, only green onions and spinach. The noodles also had a nice firmness.

Noodle with Szechuan Sauce

Noodle with Szechuan Sauce

Under ‘Chef Specialties,’ Noodles in House Special (☆☆½) mixes shredded cucumbers, bean sprouts, egg, carrots, cilantro and dried tofu, not unlike Vietnamese bún in presentation when it comes out of the kitchen. At first, it looked like a cold noodle dish, but underneath the vegetable topping was a hot sauce. Immediately, I smelled something funky like shrimp paste but different, an off-odor that translated to an equally funky taste. It didn’t appeal to me, whatever it was.

Noodles in House Special

Noodles in House Special

Other appealing-looking dishes whizzed by in the hands of the waiters serving other tables. I wonder what that was? Wow, look at that! Aside from a few duplications of Din Tai Fung’s menu, there were items that are not. These will have to be tried on subsequent visits, that’s for sure.

Update (4-3-15): My wife and I returned for another lunch visit.

We’re convinced that DZ excels at steamed dumplings. Crab meat buns (☆☆☆☆), which are filled more with ground pork than crab, are the virtual twins of xiao long bao. They’re filled with a delicious soup that literally bursts in your mouth when you bite into them, piping hot when they arrive at your table. Externally, they are indistinguishable from XLB. These are crazy good. I’m still mystified by why they’re listed under ‘Buns’ on the menu.

Crab meat buns

Crab meat buns

We ordered two different soups. They’re small enough that it’s possible to order other things from the menu without gorging yourselves. Of the two, pork wonton soup (☆☆½) had clean, muted flavors, tasting of seaweed, with small nuggets of ground pork wrapped in wonton skins. Hot and sour noodle (☆☆☆½) lies between a soup and brothy noodles in presentation. The broth or sauce, however you want to classify it, was spicy and vinegary, but, man, was it good. Trying to slurp up a reasonable amount of slippery bean thread noodles while trying to carry on a conversation really became difficult, almost comical, since they seemed to be infinite in length. Fried soy beans gave this salty dish a nice crunchy texture.

Hot & sour noodles

Hot & sour noodles

Pork wonton soup

Pork wonton soup

We also had to try something we saw float by in a waiter’s hands the last time. Beef pancake rolls (☆☆☆) were pan-fried rolls like enchiladas rolled around slices of five-spice-flavored beef and chopped cilantro. They seemed like they could use some sort of dipping sauce.

Beef pancake rolls

Beef pancake rolls

Dough Zone
14625 NE 24th St, Ste 4B
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.641.5555

Tasty Noodle House: Dalian Cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley


Friends of mine recently lamented that their dining experience at Dalian House in Bellevue (Washington) was forgettable. They wondered if they’d ordered the right things at a restaurant that presumably serves Dalian food. This got us to exchanging emails about the cuisine of the second largest city in the Chinese northeast province of Liaoning. Dalian’s proximity to the sea has blessed the cuisine with all sorts of marine creatures. When reviewing for the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold wrote about the ecstatic dishes that he had at Tasty Noodle House in San Gabriel, some of which featured jellyfish head and sea cucumber.

As it happens, I am in the San Gabriel Valley with my wife’s family, having just returned from New Zealand. My wife posed the idea of eating out at a Chinese restaurant tonight. Well, what about Tasty Noodle House, I suggested. Everyone was game. So, four of us went there for dinner. According to Gold, when the menu changed from a printed sheet to a beautifully designed laminated one sometime in 2010, so had the menu morphed into authentic Dalian. Sure enough, seafood made more of an appearance: shrimp, fish, squid, oyster and the aforementioned sea cucumber and jellyfish. I also read somewhere that vinegar figures more prominently in Dalian cuisine than in other Chinese cooking. Pickled napa is used in several dishes at TNH, most of the appetizers are dressed with vinegar sauce, meats are marinated and a bottle of black vinegar is on every table. Dalian specialties of buns (bao), pancakes and dumplings are also well represented on the menu, items that have gotten generally positive Yelp reviews.

If sea cukes and jellyfish aren’t your thing, also challenging on the menu are pig organ meats: intestine and kidney. Still, there are many dishes that less adventurous palates, such as ours, can eat. We opted for four items. Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆) has alliums aplenty. Copious slices of brown and green onions didn’t detract from a very savory, peppery brown sauce that appears on many of the menu’s other dishes. The beef could have lived up to its description more; it was slightly chewy.

Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce

Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce

I thought of puff pastry when I took a bite of Scallion Pan Cakes (☆☆½), a popular item on the menu. They were incredibly thin yet consisted of many fine layers of dough, the outermost one crackery and delaminating in spots. Bits of green onions were visible but whose flavor was barely detectable. What took away from otherwise wonderful pancakes was the taste of old, rancid frying oil.

Scallion Pan Cakes

Scallion Pan Cakes

Sautéed Green Beans (☆☆☆) were crisp, garlicky and cooked with Dalian dried baby shrimp.

Sauteed Green Beans

Sauteed Green Beans

The best entrée was Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆½), luscious, silky vegetables that are less heavily laden with oil than elsewhere, in a beautifully restrained yet flavorful sauce.

Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce

Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce

After such a satisfying meal, the menu invites return visits. To make things even better, the wait staff is far and away the friendliest we’ve ever encountered at a Chinese restaurant. Strange that I’d never noticed before, but the restaurant is located in the same strip mall as Golden Deli, Southern Mini Town and both Ton-Chan and Newport Seafood Restaurant before the former closed (replaced by Benten Ramen) and the latter moved to bigger digs down the street. I might be forgiven because Tasty Noodle House is at the far western end, past the point where the strip mall makes a right angle turn. Again, this begs the question whether Las Tunas Plaza is the best mini-mall for foodies in all of the San Gabriel Valley. It keeps surprising me.

Update (2-20-15): We were disappointed by a return meal for lunch.

The Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot (☆☆) that I had high hopes for was a soup rather than stew, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it changed my expectations of it. The broth was seemingly flavored only by the pickled napa, thus becoming tart. Instead of unctuous slices, the pork belly was tough, not having seen any prior braising, again a shift in expectation, not chef’s intent. Long, linguine-shaped starch noodles were slippery to pick up and translucent and firm  enough that they ironically seemed like jellyfish strands. The interesting ingredient was frozen tofu. When these soybean wonders are frozen, they take on a spongy texture that makes it easier to absorb other flavors. But, as the broth was thin, there wasn’t much to assimilate.

Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot

Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot

Of the two kinds we ordered, Cabbage Pork Dumplings (☆☆☆) was tastier than Leek and Fish Dumplings (☆☆½). A generous dozen crowded each plate; at $6.99 and $7.99, the dumplings are a bargain. They’re meant to be eaten quickly, dipped in soy sauce and black vinegar, for they cool off quickly. Their thick skins were practically a necessity as the dumplings tended to stick to the plate as the dough lost moisture; anything thinner, the dumplings would have torn. More to the point, they’re able to withstand pan-frying as potstickers.

Cabbage pork dumplings (top), leek and fish dumplings (bottom)

Cabbage pork dumplings (top), leek and fish dumplings (bottom)

Tasty Noodle House
827 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA
626.284.8898
(Cash only)

Mongolian Beef at King’s Chinese Restaurant


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.

king hot and sour

The first impression when the entrée arrived was not the rather large slices of beef but their thickness, about 38“. 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
425.378.8009