Tonkotsu Kara Miso Ramen at Santouka


Major construction on the northwest corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way prevented a friend and me from having lunch at La Cocina del Puerco because of the lack of parking spaces. So as I drove up to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, I noticed no one standing outside waiting to be seated. Friend was agreeable to stopping there for a bowl of ramen.

We got immediately seated at a tiny two-person table at the entrance along a partition. Feeling cramped like that is not a pleasant dining experience, made worse by so narrow a space to the next table that a customer has to move sideways carefully to get through. Once we sat down, we forgot the unpleasantness and decided what we wanted. Both of us had tonkotsu kara miso ramen, a variation of regular tonkotsu miso with a spicier broth and garnished with threads of dried red chiles (silgochu).

Service was so fast that I began to wonder how the noodles got done so quickly. I admit though that boiling fresh noodles takes only minutes, but it just seemed fast. Regardless, the noodles had nice bite, firm and springy, was a little weightier than thin noodles and curly rather than straight. Halfway into the bowl, they became noticeably softer but still nicely textured. Condiments included kikurage (wood ear fungus), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and scallions.

The chashu was chewier than it should have been, duplicating the experience I had on my last visit, certainly not the buttery, meltingly tender legends I read about of other Santouka outlets.

The broth was exceedingly salty. The menu describes the broth as having salt added, but you have to wonder if that’s necessary when miso already has enough sodium. The combination of miso and chile paste (the agent I’m assuming is responsible for spiciness) does mask any subtleties the pork and seafood tonkotsu broth is trying to reveal. Even if this is a well-made ramen (☆☆☆), I should stick with the tonkotsu shio.

Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004
425.462.0141

Food Trucks: Roll OK Please & 314 Pie at the Eastside Food Truck Snackdown


An event like the Eastside Food Truck Snackdown is problematic for a solo diner, such as yours truly at this second annual Crossroads shopping center gala. With twelve mobile trucks to choose from, I’m not able to sample more than a couple things.

I cased the possibilities three times. A few trucks drew my attention, among them one that was selling only paleo-diet meals (Outside the Box), fried chicken (Ezell’s Express) and Indian tacos (Off the Rez). One positive trend I noticed was the use of organic produce and grass-fed beef by more than one truck.

I settled on an item that I fell in love with in New Zealand, a meat pie, offered here by 314 Pie. The proprietors are neither Kiwi nor Aussie, but were inspired by the savo(u)ry snacks from Down Under. I found the Steak, Cheese and Mushroom Pie (☆☆½) somewhat of a disappointment. The crust was too thick, where fluting was needed to keep the substantial, vented crust restrained. The NZ pies I’ve eaten had thinner shells (no fluting) with a flaky, puff pastry-like top. 314’s steak was substantial, much more generous than its Kiwi cousins’, taking it beyond the realm of snacks to a bona fide meal. Though tender and flavorful, there was little savory sauce that should barely ooze out like Down Under pies. This pie will not make me forget the ones I’ve had from Copenhagen Bakery or Sheffield Pie Shop.

Steak Pie

Steak, Cheese and Mushroom Pie

Beef and mushroom pie

Beef and mushroom pie (Copenhagen Bakery, Christchurch, NZ)

In order to try something else, I ate only half the pie, the rest to be eaten on another day. From the familiar, I decided on something that I’ve never had before. Roll OK Please sells Indian snacks called kathi (or kati). They sort of remind you of taquitos. Paratha bread is rolled around a filling and then pan-fried. The Chicken Kathi Roll features grilled chicken breast marinated in yogurt and garlic-ginger masala. Cilantro-mint chutney and pickled onions give a flavor boost. You can add the excellent complimentary hot sauce, which is more like a fine mince of Thai chile peppers and garlic moistened with vinegar. A side of cucumber raita cooled things down. Though I felt chicken thigh would have been a tastier choice, this was still a very good snack (☆☆☆½), especially with that killer sauce.

Chicken Kathi Roll

Chicken Kathi Roll

Middle East Piece


Artist Miri Golan advocates peace and understanding through her organization, Folding Together. In collaboration, Israelis and Palestinians create origami cranes from their respective language newspapers and string them together in the manner of Sadako Sasaki, the Hiroshima bomb victim who folded a thousand cranes. These were displayed at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

peace cranes

Tonkotsu Ramen at Yoe’s Noodles (Bellevue, WA)


The Taiwanese presence in the Bellevue Chinese restaurant scene is unmistakeable. And why not? The Eastside city has a large demographic of Americans of Taiwanese descent. It was no surprise that Din Tai Fung established its first Northwest location in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square complex. Many Chinese restaurants in the city, some explicitly serving Taiwanese cuisine and others not, are owned by Taiwanese. Yoe’s Noodles is a different animal. One might be curious about why a Taiwanese-owned restaurant serves a Japanese menu with descriptions in both English and Chinese. Not so strange when one finds out that Japanese food is popular in Taiwan, no doubt a byproduct of the 50-year Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. Besides ramen, also on the menu are udon, soba, donburi and bento box.

I contemplated getting the Nagasaki chanpon (champon), which originated in that city at the turn of the twentieth century and was concocted as a way to satisfy Chinese students’ preferences.

But, in the end, I decided to try the ramen at the top of the menu, Yoe’s Ramen with Signature Tonkatsu, the broth’s name no less begging for the kitchen’s prowess to be judged. It was disconcerting though that the menu used the incorrect word—tonkatsu instead of tonkotsu. My first taste of the broth was not bad. It did have the requisite milky quality, but lacked complexity. The noodles, thin and curly, relied on eggs rather than kansui for springiness. There were too many bean sprouts for my taste, pork slices that were a bit dry and a half egg whose white part was made overly salty by soy sauce and yolk hard-cooked. In short, even allowing for the restaurant’s promotion of fusion cuisine and its reasonable price ($8.95), Yoe’s tonkotsu ramen fundamentally does not compare favorably (☆☆) with that of Bellevue’s three new Japanese ramenya (Jinya, Santouka and Kukai).

Yoe’s Noodles
1411-C 156th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
(425) 643-8528

Shaved Ice at Happy Melon


My experiences with Hawaiian shave ice have been dismal in the Northwest. (Hawaiians do not use a “d” at the end of “shave.”) As recently as two weeks ago at Marination Ma Kai in West Seattle, the ice has always been crushed into pellets, tiny to be sure, but pellets nonetheless, crunchy rather than snowy like those made in Hawaii. I am ever searching for good shave ice locally, ready to face disappointment every time.

So it was a mild shock that the shaved ice at Happy Melon, which recently opened in Factoria, was actually not bad. Connected to Jing Jing Asian Market in such a way that it seems part of it, Happy Melon uses an ice machine that does indeed scrape ice from the top of a rotating block, but the result is still not powdery but rather flaked in the style of Chinese xue hua bing. The result is still leagues better than anything else around here. A mound of ice is huge enough to hold three separate flavors of syrup, of which there are many, and scooped into a big plastic cone, which to me always raises the question of environmental friendliness, even in Hawaii. The three syrup flavors I got—passionfruit, mango and coconut—were very sweet and somewhat lacking in intense fruit flavors like those in Hawaii. Still, the shaved ice is good enough (☆☆½) that I won’t have to consider flying to the islands just to satisfy my craving.

Shave ice with passionfruit, mango and coconut syrups

Shave ice with passionfruit, mango and coconut syrups

Happy Melon's server and shave ice machine

Happy Melon’s server and shave ice machine

Besides shave ice, Happy Melon sells bubble teas, espresso and Chinese baked items and has hot deli foods.

Related posts—best shave ices

Happy Melon
12402 SE 29th St
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.644.3548

Genki Sushi (Bellevue)


The popularity of kaiten-zushi has revolutionized the eating of sushi since its inception in Japan in the late 1950s. No longer do customers have to sit at a bar with limited seating and order from the sushi chef who promptly and expertly makes it while you wait. Instead, a conveyor belt with ready-made sushi snakes its way clockwise through the restaurant, gliding past customers who both face the belt at the bar or sit crosswise in booths. There is no longer a master sushi maker (typically) but chefs who can still put out decent product. In order to reduce cost, most of these restaurants use automatic nigiri making machines, a far cry from the art of making sushi-meshi (sushi rice) that can take an apprentice years to master. And while a master sushi chef knows how to purchase and identify the best quality seafood, the kaiten chefs usually rely on prepackaged seafood from a wholesaler. You can argue that this concept demeans the traditional sushi-making and eating experience or democratizes it so that more people can enjoy it. Sushi typically comes three on a plate which, along with other dishes such as boiled edamame, fried calamari and shrimp, or desserts, customers can remove from the belt and eat. The plates are color-coded which determines their price, almost always under $5. Let’s just say that I’ve done my fair share of eating at kaiten-zushis and enjoyed them, even when I’ll have to admit that none of them has ever given me a “wow” experience. For that, I hope I don’t have to eat and pay a king’s ransom at Jiro in Tokyo.

Genki Sushi is a chain of kaiten-zushi started in Japan in 1990. It has since expanded throughout the world with almost 200 branches. In the U. S., it quickly gained traction in Hawaii before spreading eastward to Washington state and California. The one in Bellevue is located in Factoria Mall, accessible both from inside the mall and outside. Like most sushi restaurants of this type, it is longer in one dimension than the other to make it easier for the preparers to load the moving belt from their work area.

As at other kaiten-zushis, the food, if not first-rate, was fine overall, fresh-tasting and satisfying (☆☆½), definitely easy on the wallet. The ramen, on the other hand, was weak (☆☆). Genki has also joined the ranks of others in offering certain sushis topped with sauces, most of them mayonnaise-y or sweet-and-spicy, which depending on your point-of-view is either horrifying (non-traditional) or greatly expands the variety. You take your pick.

Tempura crab roll

Tempura crab roll

Dynamite roll

Dynamite roll

Ramen

Ramen

Creamy scallop roll

Creamy scallop roll

Spicy tempura roll

Spicy tempura roll

Tamago (egg) nigiri

Tamago (egg) nigiri

Genki Sushi
3928 Factoria Square Mall SE
Space B04
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.747.7330

Lunch at Southgate Garden Restaurant


I enjoy chiropractic adjustments not only because I feel better afterward but because my chiropractor is a good friend and fellow foodie. At our sessions, my wife and I wind up talking to him more about food than our spinal health. So, it was with great surprise and excitement that today we were given the highest endorsement for Southgate Garden Restaurant, only blocks away. Ever since taking over the Denny’s spot in Bellevue, Southgate had been a mediocre restaurant, not bad but not great either. Recently, there had been an ownership change though the name remained the same. As I understand it, the folks who prepared banchan at the back corner of Paldo Market, now closed, took over. Our chiropractor told us that a few of his Korean patients gave their recommendation. He is now a regular customer. Could there be a challenger to Seoul Hotpot, our favorite on the Eastside? We immediately went there after our adjustments to find out.

The first thing we noticed was that the parking lot was full, even at lunchtime. This was very rare before. When we walked in, there were no obvious physical changes to the layout or decor, basically the same as before. But most of the tables were occupied, consistent with the parking situation outside. We were seated in one of the remaining free booths.

There is a lunch menu, a welcome change from the “old” Southgate, consisting of a variety of bibimbop (rice bowls with savory toppings), soups, stews and soon dubu (soft tofu stews). The barbecued items are reserved only for dinner. We also noticed on the dinner menu eun dae goo jorim, an incredibly tasty braised black cod dish that we enjoyed with friends at a Korean restaurant in Lynnwood.

The meal started off well with very tasty banchan (☆☆☆), six of them in total. Exceptional were the potato salad with corn, cucumber and surimi; pajeon (pancakes with green onions); and kongnamul (bean sprouts with sesame oil). One in particular we’d never had, a square of what looked like a slightly yellowish soft tofu but combined with egg, yielding a custardy appetizer.

Banchan

Banchan

Usually preferring spicy dishes, I chose a beef and egg soup (yook gae jang). In the soup were shredded beef brisket, egg, green onions, bean sprouts, taro stems (torandae) and sweet potato noodles, all arriving at the table bubbling hot in an iron pot. It was so hot, in fact, I burned my tongue on the first sip. This was a delicious soup (☆☆☆½), at once spicy and savory, and substantial enough (especially when I mixed in my white rice) to satisfy an empty stomach.

Yook gae jang

Yook gae jang

My wife chose one of the soft tofu soups, Spicy Soft Tofu with Egg and Vegetables, dialed down in spiciness per her request. The broth was relatively clear and tasty. The soup was chockfull of tofu, three kinds of mushroom (enoki, white and oyster) and topped with a raw egg by the waitress at the table. Like my soup above, the soup came to the table bubbling hot, also in an iron vessel.

Spicy Soft Tofu with Egg and Vegetables

With the reinvention of Southgate, the Eastside Korean restaurant scene has dramatically turned for the better, a wonderful development for us because it is much closer to home than Seoul Hotpot. In fact, if other dishes turn out as well as those we had today, we might make it our go-to Korean restaurant.

Update 10-8-13: We returned here with friends to celebrate a birthday. Here’s what we ordered: japchae, seafood pajeon and braised block cod (eun dae goo jorim). 

The yam noodles (japchae) were adequate (☆☆). The vegetables were cut rather large (cabbage, carrots, napa) and the flavors of sesame oil and soy sauce were faint. This was a surprisingly bland version compared to others we’ve had.

Yam noodles (japchae)

Yam noodles (japchae)

The seafood pancake (haemul pajeon), on the other hand, was praiseworthy (☆☆☆), generous amounts of squid, octopus and green onions in a thick “omelet” made of egg and rice and wheat flours. The pancake was accompanied by a dipping sauce (soy sauce, garlic, green onions, rice vinegar and sesame oil).

Seafood pancake (haemul pajeon)

Seafood pancake (haemul pajeon)

The best dish was the braised cod (☆☆☆½), served bubbling hot in a stone casserole. Several pieces of sablefish steaks were combined with tofu, rice pasta and white radish, braised in a thick, briny gochujang broth, and topped with sliced green and red bell peppers, cooked egg strips and enoki mushrooms. Mildly spicy, it is one of those dishes that satisfies with its boldness and, to the newly initiated, surprising ingredients. The radish in particular, doing a good imitation of turnip, was soft and flavorful. At current market prices for black cod, it is also an expensive dish ($32.95), roughly the going price at any Korean restaurant that serves it.

Braised black cod casserole (eun dae goo jorim)

Braised black cod casserole (eun dae goo jorim)

Update 10-19-13: Three of us had lunch here. Besides the beef and egg soup (yook gae jang, see above), we also ordered the Bibimbop with Bulgogi in a Sizzling Stone Pot (bulgogi dolsot), a very good dish (☆☆☆½) with generous servings of namul (shiitake, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, zucchini), a fried egg (rather than a raw one) and shredded, toasted seaweed. And the bonus, of course, is the crusty layer of sesame oil-flavored toasted rice on the bottom of the bowl which can be scraped off and eaten. There was little fault to be found with this bibimbop.

Bulgogi bibimbop (bulgogi dolsot)

Bulgogi bibimbop (bulgogi dolsot)

Southgate Garden Restaurant
3703 150th Ave SE
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.603.9292

What’s Up with Happy Hour at Ruth’s Chris?


A meal at Ruth’s Chris can be a king’s ransom, as it is at many steakhouses these days. (Incidentally, where did they get that name that just doesn’t roll off the tongue?) By all accounts, you can expect to pay even more dearly at the nearby John Howie Steak at the Bravern. I doubt that I’ll ever indulge in a steak at these places, certainly not at the stratospheric prices they command. That’s why it was a surprise to me when I discovered that happy hour at Ruth’s Chris was such a bargain. I’d been coming here just for that reason since 2007, most of the time to enjoy what I considered to be a very good cheeseburger—and at only $6 for a half pounder (which used to be $5). The accompanying fries have always been ordinary. The “prime” bites, as the restaurant calls its HH noshes, has changed slightly over the years, but the burger was always on the menu and the item I would most often choose, even when the other selections elicited praise from fellow diners, including myself when I rarely ventured beyond the sandwich.

Which brings me to my current beef. The burger (☆☆) today was an aberration, a big disappointment. While the beefy flavor was there, the patty was dry. Combined with the over-toasted bun, it was all I could do to swallow without quaffing it down with the Red Hook Wise Cracker. There should be no excuse for this at a premium steakhouse, even if the kitchen has to satisfy the crush of orders from all the diners who flock here.

But this isn’t my only carp. My wife used to love the seared ahi tuna. She complained that the last two times she ordered it, the tuna was excessively salty. This time, the waitress suggested that the rub be lightly applied, but the ahi (☆☆½) was still saltier than it needed to be. The mustard and soy sauce seasoning didn’t help matters either.

What’s up with happy hour at Ruth’s Chris? Their standards have been slipping. It may not be a total disaster, as our friends commented that their chicken wings and shrimp appetizers were more than satisfactory. Maybe it’s time for me to switch gears and order something else.

Cheeseburger with fries

Cheeseburger with fries

Seared ahi tuna

Seared ahi tuna

Ruth’s Chris Steak House
565 Bellevue Square
Bellevue, WA 98004
425.451.1550

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya


The biggest Asian restaurant opening to hit the Eastside since Din Tai Fung has been that of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya. Kukai is a highly successful ramen chain in Japan. The Bellevue branch is the first in the States. No sooner had Kukai opened its doors than the lines started forming. For weeks, you could never get immediately seated, exacerbated by its limited weekday hours when their doors close for 2½ hours in the afternoon. And forget about weekends. You need to have the patience of Job to get a seat. About a month and a half ago, we attempted to go but were confronted by a line outside. We skipped it and went elsewhere.

Today, we were in the area and decided to give Kukai another go. This time, we got seated immediately.

The first thing that we noticed upon entry was the noise level. I’ve ranted before about restaurant cacophony; Kukai is right up there with the worst. We got seated at a two-person table, barely inches away from diners on either side of us. Our waiter informed us that the most popular ramen in Japan is the tonkotsu and the most popular izakaya item, the takoyaki.

For me, the choice was obvious—the tonkotsu. My wife wanted cold noodles to temper the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Her choice was the tsukemen, cold noodles and accompaniments that are dipped in a broth served on the side. Her choice of the broth was tonkotsu, the others being shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken. You would think that the tonkotsu of both our dishes would be the same, but you’d be wrong. I’ll comment on this later.

The tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) broth was delicious, salty, not as porky nor milky as the most genuine versions, but tasty nonetheless. The ramen noodles were perfectly cooked, al dente, and kept their toothsome texture almost to the end. Virtually a hallmark of a great ramen accompaniment is a seasoned half-cooked egg (ajitsuke tamago) with a firm white and creamy yolk, the way the Japanese prefer it. Served whole, Kukai’s was almost perfect with a yolk that was a half congealed. Also included were bean sprouts, pork chashu, shredded green onions and rings of dried red chile. At $11, tonkotsu ramen is not an inexpensive noodle soup.

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen (Note: egg cut in half with chopsticks by me)

Diners have the option of choosing a “traditional” or low-sodium broth. Even though I like to watch my sodium intake, the issue of ramen’s saltiness (both fresh and packaged) really comes down to the broth where almost all of it is concentrated. The obvious strategy is not to finish the broth once everything else is eaten, though the temptation might be great to polish it off.

The noodles of the tsukemen (☆☆☆) were flat, cut like a thin fettucine, an interesting variation that worked quite well. They were accompanied by menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and yu choy, all topped with finely shredded dried seaweed. They also came with slices of pork chashu, like my tonkotsu ramen. The meat was from a larger cut than usual, tasty but the texture somewhat dry. A surprising twist in the dipping broth was a citrusy zing that turned out to be really appealing with this style of ramen.

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Additional toppings are available for $1.50 each, which in some instances is excessive. Seriously, additional bean sprouts or scallions for $1.50? An egg is not included in many ramens.

Both these ramens were quite good, among the best in the entire region. Based on Kukai’s success here, there’s little doubt that the chain will open more restaurants elsewhere. For next time, an intriguing option to try is the Yuzu Shio Ramen. For small plate snacking or a lighter meal, there is the izakaya menu.

8-23-13: On a return visit, I ordered the shoyu ramen (☆☆☆½). Again, the noodles were perfectly cooked. The broth, again salty, was nonetheless delicious with a slight sweetness. I will have to try the low-sodium broth next time. Gyoza (☆☆☆), clad in a thin skin, was nicely browned and flavorful.

Shoyu ramen

Shoyu ramen

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.243.7527
Menu
 

Banh Mi Usurper on the Eastside? Yeh Yeh’s


Getting a good banh mi sandwich on the Eastside is problematic. Several places sell them, but not exclusively, which doesn’t mean that they’re bad. It’s just that the best places, like those in Seattle, specialize in this delicious Vietnamese sandwich. Much attention is paid to using the freshest bread and preparing the variety of fillings that go in it. A restaurant that happens to offer the sandwich on the side doesn’t bode well for giving it the attention that it deserves.

Yeh Yeh’s has had quite a loyal following in Lynnwood since 2008, surprising since that part of the greater Seattle area is not particularly a haven for Vietnamese cuisine, certainly not like Seattle’s Little Saigon. Food critic Nancy Leson of The Seattle Times has eaten there and liked it. Last year, Yeh Yeh’s opened a branch in Bellevue. It too has developed a following.

A friend of mine and I decided to check things out. The restaurant is located in a strip mall west of Fred Meyer, so parking is not the problem it is in Little Saigon. Inside there are tables for eating in, though not many, all lined up along the south wall in the skinny interior space. The entire menu is sandwiches, not only banh mi but also pastrami, Philly cheese steak and BBQ beef brisket. Whether the last three are riffs on the traditional classics, I might never find out.

I usually order a grilled pork banh mi sandwich, so it was no surprise that I did so here.

A very good sign was that the sandwich (☆☆☆) was served warm, straight out of having been lightly toasted in the oven. The striking visual difference when compared to others I’ve had locally was the bread’s dimensions: wider and shorter, not in the least suggestive of a baguette. One bite was enough to tell me though that the bread lacked for nothing—crispy on the outside, light and tender on the inside, with a delicate chew that all make it possibly the best banh mi (those two words actually refer to the bread, not the sandwich) I’ve sunk my teeth into. Every bite was accompanied by a nice crackly sound.

Unlike its brethren from Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli, the bread is not slightly hollowed out, which means the filling tends to get squeezed out at the opposite end as you munch away. The grilled pork was nicely seasoned with Vietnamese flavors, had good charred taste and was relatively lean. The cucumbers were sliced flat rather than cut as spears like the Seattle versions—not a bad thing, just different, which may have more to do with freeing up space for the prodigious amount of do chua, the pickled carrots and daikon shreds. This quantity is primarily responsible for some reviewers’ comments that this banh mi sandwich is “huge” or “massive,” and the reason I feel it somewhat detracts from the experience as a whole. It tends to overwhelm the flavor of the meat, which some judicious paring down would cure. More than that, the marinade was too spartan in its sweetness and vinegariness, which more salt in the pickling bath would have improved. Whether there were too few cilantro sprigs or not depends on whether you like the herb or hate it. I could’ve used more.

In short, though there were some quibbles I had with the fillings, Yeh Yeh’s serves a very good banh mi sandwich, one which I won’t mind getting here instead of having to drive across the bridge to Seattle. At $3.85, the price isn’t out of line either. And their bread is the bomb.

Grilled pork anh mi sandwich

Update (6-4-14): A return visit did not fare so well. The bread lost its light crispiness of my last outing, being chewier and a bit denser. It’s almost as if the bread was microwaved, though there were only small ovens in view. This was the puzzling part. A second difference was that the do chua was fortunately not as voluminous as before, but it still lacked enough vinegariness and salt that the best examples exhibit. No apparent mayonnaise-like spread or Maggi sauce was evident, which normally adds some savoriness to the sandwich. Yeh Yeh’s banh mi has now become one of my least favorite (☆☆) in the Seattle area.

Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches
14339 NE 20th St
Suite D
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.644.5273