Chicken Wings in Black Bean Sauce


I love the funky savoriness of Chinese fermented black beans (douchi). I also love chicken wings. No big surprise then that I love them together. Rather than packaged, loose black beans (which need to be swirled in water and drained several times), for convenience I use the Master brand of fermented black beans bottled in oil. I find other prepared black bean sauces sometimes too salty and add other ingredients, including garlic, whose portions I’d rather control myself.

Chicken Wings in Black Bean Sauce

  • Servings: 2-3
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2 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 tbsp. fermented black bean sauce (preferably Master brand), drained of excess oil
23 c. minced green onion, divided
1 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. minced ginger
2 lb. chicken wings, cut into 2 pieces, tips discarded, fat trimmed
23 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. sugar 
1 tbsp. soy sauce
4 small seeded and minced chili pepper (optional)
14 c. dry sherry
14 c. minced cilantro

Heat wok over high heat until very hot and add oil. Add black beans, 13 cup of the green onions, ginger, and garlic and stir-fry mixture for 30 seconds.

Add chicken wings and stir-fry mixture for 2 minutes.

Stir in broth, soy sauce, sugar, sherry, and chili peppers (if using), bring liquid to boil, and simmer mixture, covered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Reduce liquid in wok, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced (about 14 cup) and starts to sizzle but not scorch, about 10-15 minutes more. Remove pan from heat. Toss wings in reduced sauce until coated.

Transfer wings to cookie sheet, lined with aluminum foil and fitted with wire rack, and bake wings until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Transfer wings to platter and sprinkle them with remaining 13 cup green onions and cilantro.

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Big Things Come in Small Packages: Pop Pop Thai Street Food


It’s a reality that in the U.S., it’s hard to find street food. You know, when you can buy locally prepared food from street vendors or carts that specialize in a single item (or two). The closest we’ve come to it are the hot dog or ice cream carts, but they’re few and far between, certainly not part of a crowded phalanx of other carts that feed hungry eaters, a scene very common in most of Asia. The food truck phenomenon today closely approximates the mobility and portability we associate with street carts, though not their singular menu focus or cheap prices. Much of what we now know as Thai food got its start in the ‘streets,’ but now the dishes have been aggregated into a single menu and offered in restaurants instead.

The very name of Pop Pop Thai Street Food, located in the Haller Lake area of north Seattle, reminds us of this popular form of eating, though it too is a sit-down restaurant. It’s part of a sprawling, non-descript shopping center, a far cry from a setting where masses of people look to buy a quick meal from street hawkers. The restaurant is hard to find as it doesn’t face Aurora Avenue, but rather LA Fitness at the northern end of the lot. The storefront is small, barely 15ft wide. Inside, there are just a few tables, no more than eight or so. At a mere 12 items, the menu is briefer than what you’d find at most Thai restaurants.

But, big things can come in small packages. The food here is very well prepared. Friends took my wife and me here for a late lunch.

Papaya salad (☆☆☆) is bright, crunchy, slightly sweet and savory. Sliced (raw) green beans, julienned carrots, halved grape tomatoes and chopped peanuts blended nicely with shreds of green papaya. The vinaigrette was a wonderful combination of tamarind, lime juice, sugar, garlic, chiles and fish sauce. The interesting ingredient were tiny dried shrimp, which you can substitute with fresh cooked shrimp or salted crab. I liked them, my wife not so much.

Papaya salad

Papaya salad

Hainanese chicken rice is quite popular in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, where it is the national dish. Pot Pot serves the Thai version called kao mun gai. What I’ve tasted before have been rather bland, which made me wonder why this dish is so popular. I’ve concluded that those kitchens likely have been taking shortcuts on the rice that is lacking in rich chicken flavor. Not having been in the mother lode of Singapore and Malaysia, I have nothing to compare local interpretations against. I do know that Pot Pot’s is better than any other chicken rice I’ve had up to now (☆☆☆). A dark brown sauce, composed of fermented soybean sauce, chiles, galangal, and spices, made a huge improvement to the braised chicken pieces, conveniently deboned, sliced and with flabby skin (characteristically) left intact. The addition of a sauce is a Thai variation; most Hainanese chicken is simply brushed with sesame oil. A gingery chicken broth was also served on the side in a cup.

Kao mun gai

Kao mun gai

Of all the Asian fried rices, I like the Thai versions the best. Sure, I have a soft spot for Hawaiian rice and I even make my own (see ‘Recipes’), but whenever I dine out at Thai restaurants, more often than not I’ll order fried rice. To be sure, they’re more savory from the use of fish sauce, but they can also be vibrant, spicy, a touch sweet, salty, mixed with any number of chopped vegetables (and maybe pineapple), with a choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu). My favorite is Noodle Boat’s Kow Ob! Gai Tod (which truthfully is not fried at all, but baked, though for all intents and purposes, it’s practically the same). Pot Pot Fried Rice is a very good example (☆☆☆), a nice blend of Chinese broccoli, tomato, egg, onion and cilantro—and a savory sauce.

Pop Pop fried rice

Pop Pop fried rice

Crispier wings are hard to imagine than Pot Pot’s Chicken Wings (☆☆☆½). They have no batter, all the more to accentuate the burnished skin that crackles with every bite. Simply seasoned, they’re delicious by themselves, but the sauce, based on a vinegary chile sauce (similar to sambal oelek), elevates the dish to hit the balance that Thai cooking tries to achieve of being salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Chicken wings

Chicken wings

Competing for the afternoon’s best dish was Panang Beef Curry (☆☆☆½) whose sauce begged to be paired with rice, thick, coconut-ey, spicy and aromatic. You know that the kitchen is on its game when the beef is done just right and you can’t have enough of that curry sauce.

Penang beef curry

Panang beef curry

Pop Pop belies its staid shopping center environment. If you close your eyes when you’re tasting the food, you can almost imagine that you’re on a street in Thailand. I’d like to close my eyes here more often.

Kukai Ramen Revisited


Whither the new ramen restaurants? Maybe we’re victims of the digital age where rumors and hype of restaurant openings hit the fan so far in advance that when they finally do open, it’s almost a non-event. Since last fall, Seattle rameniacs have been waiting for the opening of two high-profile restaurants—Shibumi and Jinya. We’re still waiting while staring at the “open soon” promises on the internet. Now, we hear that Santouka, a famous chain from Hokkaido, will be opening its first restaurant in Washington state in April, right here in Bellevue. (It has a big presence in Southern California, more locally in Vancouver, B.C.) I stated before that the greater Seattle area currently has a lackluster ramen scene, certainly not befitting a city of its size on the West Coast that has cultural and economic ties to Japan as well as a good-sized Japanese American community and enough Japanese nationals on work visas to stimulate demand.

When it comes to pass that the newbies do finally open their doors, Seattle will have taken a giant stride toward ramen legitimacy.

Meanwhile, in need of a ramen fix, three of us headed over to Kukai Ramen in Bellevue, a strong contender for the area’s best ramenya. When my wife and I ate there last July, we thought highly of the tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) and tsukemen (☆☆☆). Today, arriving past the noon hour, along with our daughter we waited for a mere 10 minutes before getting seated.

My wife decided on the yuzu shio ramen, which piqued her interest on our last visit. Yuzu is a citrus fruit widely cultivated in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. It seemed unusual that any sort of citrus acidulation would be imagined as a natural complement to a meat-based broth. So it was a surprise that, rather than tasting tartness, the broth only had the fruit’s essence. One explanation is that yuzu zest was used instead, a common cooking technique for adding citrus flavor without the acidity. Condiments included a generous amount of yu choy, finely shredded green onions, spinach, mizuna and a pinch of dried red chile threads (silgochu in Korean). Kukai’s excellent menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) is house-made. The noodles were perfectly cooked. A large slice of roasted pork was tender though unremarkable. The only drawback was a layer of uncooked albumen near the yolk of the seasoned soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago). This was a very fine ramen (☆☆☆½), unusual, savory, with intriguing citrus notes.

Yuzu shio ramen

Yuzu shio ramen

My daughter first picked the tonkotsu ramen from the regular menu. After the waitress left with our order, I noticed on the specials placard that miso ramen was available today. The waitress graciously made the change and recommended the standard broth instead of low-sodium that my daughter wanted with the original tonkotsu order. If it was not to her liking, there would be no problem in switching to the low-sodium version, a gesture that we all thought was very customer-oriented. As it turned out, the regular broth was fine. Miso ramen is a Hokkaido specialty—Kukai even went so far as to use miso from there. The noodles were slightly thicker than those used in the yuzu shio ramen and curly, rather than straight. Complementing this sturdy broth was a serving of sweet corn. Bean sprouts, slice of pork, menma and green onions completed the ingredients in this good ramen (☆☆☆).

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

My spicy ramen—whose hotness level patrons can choose among mild, medium (my choice) or hot—arrived in a milky pork-broth similar to tonkotsu but with the addition of a chile blend and garlic. As in the miso ramen, the noodles were thicker. Yu choy, green onions, bean sprouts, menma and a perfectly cooked egg ($1 extra) were nice additions. The pork slice had a slight off-taste that previously refrigerated or frozen pork can pick up. My rating: a solid ramen (☆☆☆).

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

Also doing business as an izakaya, Kukai has a limited selection of small bites, including edamame, gyoza, takoyaki, house salad and onigiri. We wanted to sample their two most popular: chicken wings and chicken karaage (deep-fried marinated chicken). The karaage came to our table first. Boneless chicken thigh pieces, battered with potato starch (katakuriko), were fried to perfection, served with a lemon wedge. Sprinkled with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were crispy, succulent and not in the least greasy, as fine a version as you’re likely to have anywhere (☆☆☆☆).

Chicken wings

Chicken karaage

The wings were similarly faultlessly fried, also coated in potato starch, making them lightly crispy, a pinch of green onions adding color. A scattering of fried garlic bits on top greatly enhanced their appeal. What made these wings even more interesting was a pool of sweetened yuzu juice underneath, a tad sugary for my taste but nevertheless adding to a unique, unconventional and tasty appetizer (☆☆☆½).

Chicken karaage

Chicken wings

With ramen to fill our stomachs, there were enough appetizers left to take home. Regardless of how the ramen newcomers fare, Kukai will likely remain among the best ramen restaurants in the Seattle area.

Related posts

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

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Late Lunch at Harmon Brewery (Tacoma, WA)


After the high-calorie dim sum meal at Jade Garden this morning, we weren’t very hungry even in mid-afternoon. We walked up and down Pacific Avenue during a respite from the Washington State History Museum to find a place to have a quick bite. Nothing appealed to us until we came across Harmon Brewery that was about to offer happy hour in just a few minutes (3pm).

IMG_4403

The happy hour menu advertised all Harmon beers and house wines for $3 and a range of nibbles from salads, nachos, sandwiches and more.

The brewery crafts several styles of beer, including the Expedition Amber Ale that I ordered. It was hoppy, smooth and amber-colored, a pretty good brewski.

We split a Caesar salad and, get this, BONELESS chicken wings. The salad was serviceable (☆☆½), not particularly memorable. Recently, my wife read or overheard somewhere that young adults nowadays don’t like handling chicken wing bones. Really? Heaven knows, there are plenty of young adults at UW Tacoma next door. This no doubt was the impetus for inventing this hybrid thing called boneless chicken wings. The “wings” were actually something akin to chicken tenders made into wing shapes, battered and fried. Chicken skin, which may be another reason why some people may shun them, was nowhere in sight or bite. But the batter was generous and, to the restaurant’s credit, quite crunchy. The buffalo wings we ordered were nicely slathered with, not Tabasco, but probably the milder Frank’s hot sauce. When all was said and done, whatever-you-want-to-call them were pretty good (☆☆☆) if you don’t think of them as real wings. I was pleasantly surprised.

Caesar salad

Caesar salad

Boneless buffalo chicken wings

Boneless buffalo chicken wings

Harmon Brewery
1938 Pacific Ave S
Tacoma, WA 98402
253.383.2739

Dinner at Huê Ký Mì Gia (Kent, WA)


Despite the name’s association with businesses Chinese, especially with 99 Ranch Market its anchor store, The Great Wall Shopping Mall in Kent also houses restaurants of other Asian nationalities. There are Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants inside, besides Chinese ones. Among them is a Vietnamese, or more accurately, a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant, Húe Ký Mì Gia, that also calls itself a Chinese noodle house. A quick glance shows separate menu sections for egg noodle soups, rice noodle soups, bún (rice vermicelli salads), chow mein, chow fun and stir-fried rice vermicelli. There are also appetizers, stir-fried dishes and rice dishes. A restaurant like this one would expect to find in Little Saigon, and sure enough there is a branch there. But, there are lots of Southeast Asians who live in the South end—Renton, Kent, Federal Way and Auburn—and the growing number of restaurants that cater to their tastes is a reflection of this demographic. We had an early dinner here with friends.

The Fried Wonton (☆☆½) had the thinnest of skins. While crispy, light and somewhat oily with ground pork filling, they were unremarkable.

Fried Wonton

Fried Wonton

To have at least a semblance of ordering something relatively healthy, we ordered a simple stir fry of BBQ pork and vegetables (baby bok choy, carrots, broccoli, snow peas, onions and cilantro). The sauce was flavorful enough but the dish failed to impress (☆☆). The sauce was too watery, pooling at the bottom rather than coating the more than adequate amount of vegetables.

Stir Fried BBQ Pork with Vegetables

Stir Fried BBQ Pork with Vegetables

We had a choice of having our noodles crispy (Hong Kong style) or soft. The soft chow mein had much more vegetables than seafood, consisting of shrimp, squid, imitation crab and fish balls, but it was nonetheless tasty (☆☆☆), sauced very nicely. The fact that the vegetables were exactly the same ones in the stir fry leads me to wonder if the kitchen uses them in any menu item with vegetables. While they were perfectly cooked, it was monotonous. I’m of the opinion that bok choy is not a good vegetable for pairing with chow mein, or any other pan-fried noodles, because of its high water content. They are better suited for soups and stews.

Soft Seafood Chow Mein

Soft Seafood Chow Mein

The star of the show was Fried Garlic Chicken Wings (☆☆☆½), which our friends highly recommended. I can understand why. They were coated lightly with a garlicky and slightly spicy batter, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Simple and somewhat greasy yet delicious, meaty and addictive, the dish had a bonus of flavors in the little bits of batter that detached from the chicken and settled on the bottom of the serving dish, fried garlic mixed with green onions. Could the garlic stay put in the batter without making the batter too thick? Probably not, so I’ll have to content myself with nibbling on these tidbits instead. A superfluous sweet chile sauce was served on the side.

Fried Butter Chicken Wings

Fried Butter Chicken Wings

Huê Ký Mì Gia Chinese Noodle House
The Great Wall Shopping Mall
Suite 152
18230 East Valley Highway
Kent, WA 98032
425.282.1268

Dinner at Wolf Creek Bar & Grill (Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop, WA)


Sharing the same kitchen as the excellent dining room at Sun Mountain Lodge would seem to bode well for Wolf Creek Bar & Grill. But the chef who oversees the fine restaurant likely has nothing to do with the bar & grill. While the food we had here was not terrible, it was pretty much standard tavern fare.

To its credit, there were half a dozen beers on tap, including the fine Icicle Dirtyface Amber and the middling High 5 Hefeweizen.

The Mediterranean Plate (☆☆) was poorly executed, the components gathered together like an afterthought. It doesn’t take much to cut carrot and celery sticks, scoop out a few Kalamata olives from a jar and slice up some pita bread. The stuffed grape leaves (dolmades) were filled with mushy, bland rice. And the hummus was so thick, you could stick a spoon in it without the utensil falling over. That wasn’t all. The hummus had no detectable tahini paste or much lemon juice. I guarantee this would not pass muster on the dining room side.

Mediterranean plate

Mediterranean plate

The Caesar salad (☆☆½) fared better. The dressing only suffered from a light hand with the lemon juice. Otherwise, nice garlic croutons and restrained garlic and anchovy flavors were present.

Caesar salad

Caesar salad

Crispy chicken wings (☆☆☆½) were clearly the best thing we ordered—a crunchy batter, balanced sweet and savory barbecue sauce, and a tasty cilantro ranch dressing.

Crispy chicken wings

Crispy chicken wings

We did overhear another waitress informing her customer that the chicken curry soup was a lodge specialty and has been served for over 20 years. Next time.

Our experience and that of many other reviewers seem to indicate that an upgrade in the menu items is in order to equal the rest of the lodge experience. The wait staff, as is true of the entire Sun Mountain Lodge personnel, is very friendly.

Osechi Ryori (New Year’s food)


Today is New Year’s Day. Like every year, the family can relax and enjoy each other’s company, watch some BCS bowl games and—let’s get down to it—eat the food that we’ve labored all day yesterday to prepare. Somehow, in a small kitchen, everything gets made, the only things done elsewhere being teriyaki chicken wings and chashu (char siu) that are barbecued in the backyard.

The cooks included my father-in-law, three sisters-in-law, two brothers-in-law, a nephew, my wife, my daughter, a longtime family friend and myself. In other years, my other daughter and her husband have also helped. Because they now live far away, they can’t always join us. Friends of the family also drop by occasionally, sharing in the repast.

The food will be our primary source of sustenance for the next few days. In the past, we’ve made way too much food, more than we could reasonably finish. As a practical matter, this year we’ve made a concerted effort to ‘downsize.’
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