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.


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


Mom’s Tamales—L.A.’s Best?

Nestled against the hills of Lincoln Heights, my wife’s old stomping grounds, is Mom’s Tamales, considered one of the best tamalerias in Los Angeles. Recipe handed down from grandmother, to mother and and now to current owner, the tamales are so popular that any of the six on the menu may be unavailable at any time because customers may have depleted the day’s stock. Bulk purchases can be made by the dozen either steamed or unsteamed ($3 cheaper).

The business’ exterior is not much to look at, the front of a brick warehouse from all appearances except for the restaurant’s name painted high on the wall in Mexican tri-colors. Similar non-descript buildings are to the north, a dirt yard surrounded by chainlink fencing and an overgrown property hiding a crowing rooster to the south.

Inside, things are more cheery, floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall, tables spread out over the telltale warehouse space and a mural on the north wall. Still, for all the windows, it was dim inside.

momstamales - 1

My brother-in-law and I arrived at 9:30am shortly after Mom’s opened. The breakfast menu looked interesting—machacachilaquileshuevos rancherosspinach and eggs and one of my favorites, chorizo con huevos. But, this place is known for tamales, so both he and I opted for the tamale combination, any two tamales paired with rice and beans. My choices were spinach and cheese and chicken molé. I had never come across the latter before; since I love molé sauce, I had to have one. Both fillings were very tasty, as was my brother-in-law’s cheese and jalapeno. But what distinguished these tamales was the extraordinary masa, more light and fluffy than I can ever recall having eaten. Are these the best tamales in L.A.? Could be.

Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured Mom’s in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives a few years ago.

Mom’s Tamales
3328 Pasadena Ave
Los Angeles CA

Bánh Khọt and Bánh Xèo at Hà Tiên Quán Restaurant (San Gabriel, CA)

While in San Jose (CA) at a Vietnamese restaurant, friends KirkJ and his wife ordered and loved a specialty that I had never heard of—bánh khọt, that he points out is difficult to find in the Seattle area. It’s apparently equally scarce elsewhere, not as common as its cousin, bánh xèo, whose batter is made from the same ingredients of rice flour and coconut milk. Rather than the omelet-like presentation of the latter, bánh khọt seem like little tartlets, grilled in special cast iron pans that look like Japanese takoyaki or Danish ebelskiver pans. The cakes are a little more than 2 inches across and are topped with some sort of savory filling, usually fresh shrimp or chopped or ground dried shrimp. Bánh khọt are traditionally eaten as breakfast or snack in Vietnam, and by wrapping a lettuce leaf and herbs around them before dipping them in nước chấm. The ideal examples are crispy on the bottoms and edges, but soft in the center. Sometimes, a dollop of coconut cream is spooned or drizzled on top.

Bánh khọt and bánh xeo are wrapped with lettuce leaves and herbs, dipped in nuoc cham

Banh khot and banh xeo are wrapped with lettuce leaves and herbs, dipped in nuoc cham

As my wife and I were on our last full day away from home, what better opportunity to try finding bánh khọt than in the San Gabriel Valley, home to many Vietnamese restaurants. A quick internet search turned up Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel, apparently the only restaurant that makes them in the valley. A few restaurants in Orange County have them as well.

Even if three of us came for a specific reason, looking over the menu was treading in unfamiliar territory. Some of the standard repertoire of Vietnamese dishes are here, but most of it, written only in Vietnamese and its romanized alphabet, is probably unrecognizable to those unacquainted with the cuisine in and around Hà Tiên in western Vietnam, where the family who owns the restaurant is from.

Bánh khọt and bánh xèo were pictured on the menu right next to each other. We decided to try both. Almost as an afterthought, we also asked for two types of fried spring rolls: chả gìo ré and chả gìo thường.

The presentation of the bánh khọt (☆☆) was striking, cups of yellow shells with an orange filling of what I imagine was ground shrimp. It was hard to tell since I detected no shrimp taste, let alone taste of any kind. In fact, turmeric’s earthy quality dominated. These were not the crisped shells that I was hoping for either, just rice flour’s unmistakable chewiness. I have to say though that the  shells were admirably thin.

Banh khot

Banh khot

Equally disappointing was the bánh xèo (☆☆) that was filled with a mountain of bean sprouts, too much for my liking, and so few shrimp that we all asked, “Where’s the shrimp?” That was it, nothing else. The crepe was also coated with a glistening layer of frying oil. As with the bánh khọt, turmeric broadcast its color and flavor. This dish does not hold a candle to the bánh xèo at Greenleaf in my neck of the woods.

Banh xeo

Banh xeo

In both cases, nước chấm provided needed zip to otherwise bland entrées.

It was fortunate that we added fried spring rolls to our order at the last minute, or the whole meal would’ve been a disappointment. The menu showed four kinds. With no English translation, we asked the waiter what the differences were. What we heard was though the filling was the same (ground pork mainly), the wrappings were different, which the waiter said he couldn’t explain well enough. Chả gìo thường (☆☆½) is the more familiar spring roll wrapped in wheat flour skin, which makes for a very crackly crunch. The revelation was chả gìo ré (☆☆☆) because the wrapping can be an incredibly lacy rice flour netting that is time-consuming to make and therefore uncommon. HTQ may have used a vermicelli noodle shortcut instead. As the waiter said, the filling was made with pork.

Cha gio thuong

Cha gio thuong

Cha gio re

Cha gio re

It might be a better idea to return here for their regional dishes.

Hà Tiên Quán Restaurant
529 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(Cash only)

Bún Gà Nướng at Monsoon East

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.

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Phở Bở at Monsoon East

My lunch excursion started out as a drive to I Love Sushi for a bowl of their terrific nabeyaki udon, but alas the restaurant (and every other place in the lot) was gone—demolished because of new construction, presumably another high-rise project, having met the same fate as other strip malls in the valuable downtown Bellevue real estate market. (I later learned that I Love Sushi relocated to Lake Bellevue, only a short distance away.) Then, I went over to Ginza Japanese Restaurant in Old Bellevue, but the door hours indicated that lunch is not served on Saturdays. It didn’t take too much longer to decide on Monsoon East, on the next block over, where my wife and I have had many outstanding meals.

Not having Vietnamese beef stew (bở kho) for lunch, I settled on their beef noodle soup (phở bở) which the menu describes as being made with an oxtail broth. At $10, it qualifies as the most expensive bowl of phở I’ve ever paid for, but the provenance of the beef is the Painted Hills consortium of Oregon, which supplies high-quality meat to the Northwest’s finer restaurants. Would I be able to tell the difference? Indeed, I could. Thin slices of both rare and well-done beef were extraordinarily tender, literally melting in the mouth. This possibly might be the first time I’ve ever had rare beef so delicate, not surprising since it comes from a Wagyu breed. In other restaurants, these rare slices become chewy as the hot broth toughens them. My usual choice for beef slices in phở is well-done brisket; it is always more tender and flavorful because of higher fat content. Monsoon’s was among the best. Though both cuts were generously sized, teeth or chopsticks easily cut them to smaller size. Because of adhesion, it also took a bit of work to separate individual slices. I dipped each piece in a little dish of chile sauce and a stellar hoisin sauce that very well could be house-made.  The rice vermicelli was a combination of thin and thicker noodles, perfectly cooked, and not coiled in a sticky ball that many restaurants cook ahead of time for convenience. There was a generous amount of bean sprouts and Thai basil as condiments, with sliced jalapeños and a wedge of lime.

And what about the broth? It was very dark, concentrated in flavor, intensely tasting of beef, with a slight tang, and boldly revealing warm spices of star anise and cinnamon stick. It might be the finest phở broth ever to cross my lips. It’s no wonder since it’s made with ox-tails, simmered in the stock over three days, releasing their flavor and gelatin, and Painted Hills beef and aromatics. The broth was replete with green onions, cut small and in larger pieces. There were also slices of red onion. Is the phở worth $10? Yep. This is a breathtaking soup (☆☆☆☆).


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Seattle’s Restaurant Week, Monsoon’s Catfish Claypot

It was the Spring run of Restaurant Week again earlier this month. Over 130 Seattle area restaurants offered three dinner courses (a starter, main and dessert) for $30. Some restaurants also had a lunch menu for $15. Monsoon East in Bellevue (and its sister restaurant, Monsoon, in Seattle) always seems to participate in this and the similar October festivities, which is great news to those of us who love this restaurant.

One of their signature dishes—and one which we practically get every time—is the Catfish Claypot (cá kho tộ). Even if it is one of their most popular dinner items, it was fantastic to see it on the Restaurant Week menu. It is a delicious entrée of catfish (☆☆☆☆) braised in a thick, savory and caramelized sugar sauce and served piping hot in a claypot, with shallots, ngo òm, morning glory stems and sliced jalapeño to wake up the taste buds. Fish sauce lends this dish its savoriness and balances its sweetness. Despite the dish being a little spicy, no less so because of cracked peppercorns, my wife devours it, as I do, as if there were no tomorrow. On steamed rice, the sauce is ridiculously tasty. Unlike most other places we’ve had it, the catfish has no hint of muddiness, a testament to the kitchen’s prowess.

Caramelized Idaho catfish claypot

Caramelized Idaho catfish claypot

The other Restaurant Week items we had were no slouches either, including a sautéed calamari dish that boasted perfectly cooked squid, and their cocktails are some of the best in town, but the catfish claypot stays in our memory. Perfection.

Monsoon East
10245 Main St.
Bellevue, WA 98004


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Vietnamese Kitchen Mastery: Tamarind Tree

Is it possible that Tamarind Tree is the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle? One might be tempted to say so after patronizing it.

And why is it that it doesn’t come up in culinary conversations as much as, say, Green Leaf, which many do regard as without equal in these parts? One reason could be its location where the parking is always dreadful, the restaurant obscured from view atop a steep driveway just off Little Saigon’s South Jackson Street. The parking lot is ill-designed, slapdash, a pain-in-the-butt. Tamarind Tree has been doing business in the same place for many years. I’m embarrassed to say that 2005 was our last visit, three times! Had it not been for friends who took my wife and me there for dinner tonight, the pitiful streak may have gone on indefinitely. My wife and I did, however, enjoy equally fine food at Tamarind Tree’s sister restaurant in downtown Seattle, Long Provincial, in 2010 and 2011, the last visit with the same friends with us tonight.

As soon as you walk through the front doors, the tastefully decorated and appointed interior is in stark contrast to the strip-mall hodgepodge outside. Even in midday, it’s dark inside though not in a bad way, subtle lighting giving enough illumination to read the menu. We got seated next to an indoor gas fire pit. The radiated heat from the towering flames made us too warm.

Though we ordered green papaya salad, what arrived instead was a regular papaya salad that didn’t appear on the menu. That the salad was different didn’t dawn on us until later, still a good version (☆☆☆) topped with nicely grilled shrimp. With a bamboo skewer running down its length, the entire shrimp with carapace and abdominal segments still attached was meant to be eaten, shell and all. Not being keen on eating the head, I pulled it off and ate the rest. The sliced papaya, beautifully scored on the outer surface, jicama and carrots provided nice crunch and minced basil and fried shallots added their distinctive flavors.

papaya salad

Papaya salad

Next to arrive was chili chicken lemon leaves (thịt gà xào xả ớt), looking like a plateful of sauced boneless chicken thighs. These were savory, garlicky and sweet with herbal and citrusy lemongrass notes (☆☆☆).

Chili chicken lemon leaves (thịt gà xào xả ớt)

Bún chả Hà Nội is always an impressive presentation, a platter with a deep dish of meats, rice noodles and a garden of lettuce and herbs. Using whole green lettuce leaves as wrappers, you’re encouraged to place a small amount of noodles in the middle and add slices of grilled pork (thit nướng̣), pork patties (cha nướng̣) and herbs (Thai basil, mint, perilla leaves), roll the whole thing up, dip into nuoc cham and eat. The sauce served with the meats is good enough to eat by itself, almost like a boldly seasoned gravy. This was an outstanding bún chả (☆☆☆☆).

Bún chả Hà Nội

Bún chả Hà Nội

A vegetarian clay pot may not seem to hold out much savory promise, but La Vang pot rice (cơm kho thố La Vang) was quite a revelation (☆☆☆½), courtesy of three kinds of mushrooms (oyster, shiitake and tree ears). The rice dish was further enhanced by braised tofu, carrots and daikon radish (in place of the menu’s chayote squash), altogether a special vegetarian dish.

La Vang pot rice (Cơm kho thố La Vang)

La Vang pot rice (Cơm kho thố La Vang)

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng) had not yet arrived when we were well into the spread before us, so we were hoping that the waiter forgot to write it up. He hadn’t. It takes the kitchen longer to make the dish. There were five slices of grilled, charred Chinese eggplant (☆☆☆½), soft and silky, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and green onion. What was amazing still was yet another outstanding dipping sauce, sweet, savory and spicy like nuoc cham but sharing the eggplant’s appealing smokiness.

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng)

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng)

The four of us couldn’t possibly finish the magnificent feast. It did convince me though that Tamarind Tree’s Vietnamese kitchen is one of the best in town and that the restaurant deserves our returning more than sporadic visits once in a long while.

Tamarind Tree
1036 South Jackson Street, Suite A,
Seattle, WA 98104