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

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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
 

Lunch at Szechuan Chef


When chef Cheng Biao Yang, one of Seattle’s luminaries of Chinese—and specifically Szechuan—cooking sold Szechuan Chef to pursue another restaurant opportunity, fans began to wonder the inevitable. Would there be a decline in quality? As the weeks went by, there began to be reports that, yes, things have started to go downhill. I used to go there regularly when chef Yang was at the helm, always impressed with the menu. In particular, visions of Chongqing Chicken and Szechuan Dungeness Crab danced in my head. The Cumin Lamb, with its copious use of the musky herb that never appealed to me, had legions of fans. I went one more time without having realized that ownership had changed hands, but I noticed an entirely different wait staff. I don’t recall what I ordered, but I do remember that the dish tasted differently than before, not quite as good. When I found out that chef Yang had gone, I made the decision not to come back. That was back in 2009.

For lunch today, we decided to have some banh mi at Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, which opened a branch last year in Bellevue after the original Lynnwood restaurant started getting rave reviews. Aren’t most restaurants open on Sundays? Not Yeh Yeh’s, as we discovered when we drove up. So the next choice was Kukai Ramen (in the old K-Mart Plaza now dominated by Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market) that has been getting lots of kudos since its opening only months ago. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and there was a line of people waiting outside. Apparently, this is always how it is. Maybe we should go to Szechuan Chef? I asked my wife. I thought you didn’t want to go there again, she replied. Hesitatingly: Maybe we should see if things have improved. My wife, ever the good sport, agreed to go.

The interior was the same as it was before, except that the walls were lined with sconces that looked like a full moon glowing through a thick fog. A poetic touch. Better yet, the tables were mercifully more diner-friendly than before when the legs were big rectangular posts that bumped up against your knees. The walls were painted in lighter tones. The same line of plastic bamboo stalks separated the entrance from a portion of the dining room.

A big plus was that the lunch menu was being observed seven days a week. On the regular menu, Chongqing Chicken and Szechuan Dungeness Crab would have to wait for another day. Instead, we ordered Pickled Pepper Chicken and Hot Black Bean Shrimp from the lunch menu.

Hot and sour soupHot and sour soup was bracingly tart from an excess of vinegar. It wasn’t unpalatable but did downgrade a soup otherwise fine with the pungency of white pepper and chockfull of tofu shreds, bamboo shoots, tree ears, dried chile flakes and bits of egg. This soup is becoming quite common in many Chinese restaurants, and there are some excellent versions served locally.

Despite being designated with 3 chiles (on a 1-5 chile scale), Pickled Pepper Chicken was muted in flavor and not spicy enough. Young bamboo shoots, julienned carrots, sliced napa cabbage, tree ears, preserved vegetables, pickled red chile peppers and tender strips of chicken breast were almost upended by lots of sliced celery, which always seems to me a cheap substitute for better vegetables, a way to add inexpensive crunch. Still, the entrée was not bad, just somewhat spiritless for a Szechuan dish.

Pickled Pepper Chicken

Pickled Pepper Chicken

My wife’s Hot Black Bean Shrimp had a different problem. Fermented black beans should be a noticeable presence, let alone flavor, in an entrée named with it (the great Black Bean Chicken at Yea’s Wok comes to mind). Though a few beans could be seen in the mixture, their flavor was barely detectable in the sauce. Still, the dish was tasty enough with other flavors, though milder than my wife would’ve liked. Like my lunch, it too had bamboo shoots, carrots and celery, but used green cabbage instead of napa in a savory garlic sauce, with a few whole dried red chile peppers to add a touch of heat. Again, not a bad dish, just not a memorable one.

Hot Black Bean Shrimp

Hot Black Bean Shrimp

In summary, these two dishes failed to generate much excitement. Even without ordering the two outstanding courses that I loved from the original Szechuan Chef, a restaurant trying to carry on with the same name should stand on its own with dishes that call you back rather than reminisce about what you miss from the old place. I likely won’t be going back.

Szechuan Chef
15015 Main St
Ste 107
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.746.9008
 

Spring in the Bellevue Botanical Garden


The recent run of good weather made it ideal for us to visit a local garden and admire the springtime displays. One of the small horticultural treasures in the Seattle area is the Bellevue Botanical Garden, a stone’s throw away from the Bellevue commercial district. It’s a resource for gardeners and a showcase for flowers, shrubs and trees that are native or adapt well to our climate. Despite the northern latitudes, many plants thrive quite well here because of the moderating influence of the Japanese ocean current and our legendary moisture. The garden recently expanded its mission by acquiring adjacent properties to include native wetlands and woodlands.

The images below (specimens are not labeled) show that there is much to enjoy at this time of year.  They were taken on two separate visits (today and April 24).
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Dinner at El Comal (Bellevue, WA)—CLOSED


We celebrated a friend’s birthday by taking her out to a Salvadoran restaurant. El Comal has been in Bellevue for several years running now, having moved once from its location set back in a strip mall on the eastern edge of Crossroads Shopping area to one in the same mall but closer to 106th Ave NE. Salvadoran restaurants are not too common in the greater Seattle area, though there are several, including Salvadorean Bakery in an area of town known as White Center. It turns out that El Comal is owned by the same two sisters who started the bakery in 1996.

As an aside, there seems to be some confusion about whether to use the term Salvadoran or Salvadorean. Though the restaurant uses the latter, other natives use the former.

The menu has an intriguing list of entrees. Though names of many items seem straight out of a Mexican menu, our waiter informed us that the only item not Salvadorean in preparation was the Wild Hot Wings.

Four of us shared three dishes: Pollo Guisado, Camarones Guanacos and (on the waiter’s recommendation) Carne Adobada.

Somewhat puzzling to us was the Pollo Guisado (☆☆). The chicken thigh pieces were dry and stringy in a stew of vegetables (carrots, green beans and potatoes) in an unremarkable tomato broth, ochre-colored from achiote. The chicken likely got dried out from overcooking. The side of rice was tinged yellow with flecks of vegetables, tasty and nicely textured. Also on the side was a house salad.

Pollo Guisado

Pollo Guisado

The shrimp (Camarones Guanacos, ☆☆) were fine but again the entrée as a whole didn’t impress anyone much.

Camarones Guanacos

Camarones Guanacos

Lastly, the marinade made the grilled pork tenderloin (Carne Adovada, ☆☆) a sight too vinegary. Considering that the tenderest part of the pig had been marinated, again it was surprising that it wasn’t more tender than it was. This dish also had the interesting, earthy flavor of achiote. What little there was of it, a side of black refried beans was very good. As with the chicken stew, sides of rice and salad accompanied the grilled pork.

Carne Adobada

Carne Adobada

Salvadoran corn tortillas, served with our meals, are different from their Mexican cousins in that they are thicker. They also are the basis for Salvadoran pupusas in which the tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings. These will wait for another visit.

The dinner was concluded with two desserts. A custardy dessert in a cookie crust that had more of a pie crust texture, the Tartaleta (☆☆½) was topped with fresh kiwi, strawberries and blueberries that were dusted with grated white chocolate. The Tres Leches (☆☆☆) came with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, a very nice dessert that gave the distinct impression of a rum cake, but the fourth diner in the group held his ground by not detecting any at all. The waiter denied that any alcohol was used. The three of us chalked it up to culinary sleight-of-hand.

Tartaleta

Tartaleta

Tres Leches

Tres Leches

El Comal – **CLOSED**
15920 NE 8th St #2
Bellevue, WA 98008
(425) 643-1500
Location

Cinco de Mayo at Tapatio Mexican Grill (Bellevue, WA)


After a throat-parching, warm day of hiking in the Cougar Mountain Regional Park, we headed straight to a Mexican restaurant for a late lunch. There were no Cinco de Mayo specials, except for a few drinks and snacks for happy hour, somewhat of a disappointment since many area Mexican restaurants were offering specials (off-menu) just for the celebration. There were certainly a lot of customers today. Whether typical for a Sunday or because it was May 5, I have no idea.

Our first order of business was margaritas. The house margarita (☆☆), likely made with a pre-mix, was $4 for happy hour, but the Cadillac version (☆☆½) was prepared from scratch with a premium tequila. Aside from being too sweet, the Cadillac was very nice and potent, served on the rocks, while the house was just sweet enough but watered down.

House and premium margaritas

House and Cadillac margaritas

The chips were crispy. The salsa, made from canned tomatoes, was spicy, tart and not too bad.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

Sunday’s special was carne asada (☆☆½). The beef was thin, nicely grilled, tasty, chewy. On the side came pico de gallo, well made Mexican rice and refried beans cooked with vegetable oil rather than lard. A tasty scoop of guacamole was also included.

Carne asada plate

Carne asada plate

I requested jalapeños—by which I meant the pickled kind—but I got these instead, beautifully grilled and delicious (☆☆☆). An open flame must tame the chile’s heat. Even my wife, whose stomach can’t tolerate spicy foods, ate one and loved it.

Grilled jalapeños

Grilled jalapeños

Chile verde (☆☆½) was cooked in tomatillo sauce, with a consistency and creaminess very much like suiza, with spinach, a uniquely prepared sauce that was quite flavorful. The dish was marred by pork pieces that were not very tender.

Childe verde plate

Childe verde plate

Besides being much too noisy, a complaint that I have with many restaurants, Tapatio prices are high. The entrées were $14.50 and $16.99. The portions were huge though, so we had to take almost half home.

Tapatio Mexican Grill
Loehmann’s Plaza
13720-C Factoria Blvd. SE
Bellevue, WA
425.373.0855
Menu