Batchoy, My Brother-in-Law’s Way

I thought my brother-in-law said bok choy. He repeated: batchoy, a Filipino noodle soup dish that had its origin in Iloilo where he happens to be from. While it’s traditional to use pork organs, a pork neck bone was used instead. Combine that with spare ribs and beef bones with marrow, shrimp paste and brown sugar and simmer for a long time and the result was thick with gelatin and flavor, a tad funky from marrow essence. Any meat and fat were scraped from the bones and shredded.

He brought the broth, which he made at home, over to my other in-laws’ house in southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (where I stayed with my wife for the holidays) and made the rest of the batchoy, boiling the noodles (a thick pancit), frying roughly chopped garlic and pork cracklings, slicing green onions. I was expecting to eat a sandwich for lunch. What do you suppose I ate when the batchoy showed up?

Home-made cracklings

Home-made cracklings

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

Noodle Soups at Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo (Los Angeles, CA)

One of the best—if not the best—reasons for eating in Los Angeles’ sizable Koreatown is the opportunity to taste specialties not on standard Korean menus. For instance, take kalgooksoo (or kalguksu), a noodle soup similar to Japanese udon with its thick wheat-based noodles in a rich broth. Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo specializes in it, so highly regarded that a wait to get tables is all too common. Arriving early before the noon crowd is a better way to avoid human traffic at the door. Though my wife and I got there at 11am, within a half hour, all the tables were already occupied.

Instead of banchan, a sort of appetizer is served. A bowl of steamed barley is accompanied by three kinds of kimchi—cabbage, daikon radish and young radish leaves (yeolmu)—as well as a gochujang miso paste (dwaenjang) that can be daubed on the barley with a little sesame oil.

The soups arrived after a wait of 15-20 minutes. The bowls were quite large, holding a generous portion of noodles and broth with other ingredients. Manila clam kal guk su (☆☆☆½) easily harbored two dozen clams (bajirak) which started out perfectly cooked but not surprisingly became more rubbery as they sat in the steaming hot, delicious clam-flavored broth. Also included were slices of high-starch potatoes that were much too mealy and kabocha.

Manila clam kal guk su

Manila clam kal guk su

More impressive was chicken kal guk su (☆☆☆☆, top image). The small half chicken shredded easily with chopsticks, obviously simmered long to make the wonderfully rich broth enhanced by aromatics and other flavorings.

What make these soups a great comfort food, besides the broth, are the noodles. They are typically made from scratch with flour, kneaded and hand-cut with a knife, giving them a superb doughy, springy texture. Hangari delivers in spades.

Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo
3470 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90010

Lorne and Lunch at Chopstix Noodle Bar (Lorne, AU)

Of all the towns along The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Lorne is possibly the most popular vacation destination. Galleries, boutiques and bars populate the main drag through town. Lorne also appeals to families as the beach park, much of it covered in grass, has picnic areas, playground, trampoline center, swimming pool and skate park. It even has a resident population of cockatiels that vies with seagulls for scraps of human food.


The beach, while not the best along The Great Ocean Road, is fine enough, with surfers out in good number.

lorne beach

Lorne also has many restaurants. A walk through the town’s center reveals one restaurant or café after another. There is enough variety to satisfy everyone, it seems.

The restaurant that caught our eye was Chopstix Noodle Bar which features dishes from all over Asia, including sushi, potstickers, spring rolls, satays, Singapore noodles, kway teow, and so on. Ordinarily, this eclecticism spells disaster, at least in my estimation. No Pan-Asian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at was successful at making all their dishes taste good. With a reach from Japan to Southeast Asia, Chopstix is mighty ambitious with its menu. Skeptical, my wife and I passed on it and went walking in search of another lunch spot.

But one dish I saw on the menu stuck in my mind: nasi goreng, a good example of which I had yet to taste when dining out, not because there aren’t any out there but Indonesian restaurants in Seattle are rare. We went back to Chopstix. Also on the menu was Philippine Style Chicken Noodle Soup, an interesting enough sounding dish that we gave it a shot, too.

Though a tad sweet, the soup broth had good chicken flavor with a sneaky chile kick that occasionally brought on coughing. There were generous servings of vegetables (bean sprouts, nappa, green onions, julienned carrots, sliced red chile) and plenty of wide rice noodles. A good soup (☆☆½).

Philippine Chicken Noodle Soup

Philippine Chicken Noodle Soup

My wife and I both were surprised at how delicious the nasi goring was, even if it lacked some typical garnishes like cucumber, tomatoes or even fried shrimp chips (krupuk). The Indonesian fried rice had plenty of flavor from ketjap manis and possibly oyster sauce, chicken thigh pieces, tiny shrimp, green onions, baby bok choy, shredded carrots. We easily polished off this dish (☆☆☆½).

Nasi goreng

Nasi goreng

Chopstix Noodle Bar
96 Mountjoy Parade
Lorne 3232, VIC, Australia
03- 5289-1205

Lunch at Jenny Phở

Tucked in one corner of an Issaquah parking lot that shares space with PCC, Michael’s, Office Depot and Aaron Brothers is Jenny Phở. While the name suggests specialization in the popular Vietnamese noodle soup, the menu is a lot more extensive with headings for wonton soup, stir-fried noodles, fried rice, rice dishes, curries and vermicelli dishes.

condimentsThe interior is sleek, clean and attractive. Upon entering, we were offered any table we wished, one reason being that at slightly past the lunch hour, there were quite a few empty tables. Utensils and condiments at each table were what one would normally expect at a phở restaurant: chopsticks, soup spoons and little dishes in their own receptacle, sauces in another.

It’s hard not to be surprised at the relatively high prices, all the main dishes save for the phở in double digits. Phở ranges in price from $7.50 to $9.50 for a small bowl, $1 more a large. My wife and I both ordered the phở chin (with cooked beef brisket slices). We have for some time swung over to cooked beef over raw, not for hygienic reasons but because they often taste better and don’t become overly chewy when plunged into hot broth. When the soup arrived, as is the wont of many phở restaurants these days, the vermicelli was at the bottom of the bowl in a tight ball which the diner has to pry apart before eating. I can only imagine that the noodles are made ahead of time and rolled up, ready for hot broth to be poured over them. This does affect their texture slightly, becoming a tad gummy but acceptable enough that a good bowl of noodles can still be enjoyed.

On the other hand, the broth was of high quality, savory, redolent and tasting of warm spices, including star anise and cinnamon, with a pleasant touch of sweetness. I was also surprised at the number of beef slices, easily about a dozen, where most restaurants only serve anywhere from a third or half that amount. Garnishes included the usual—bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime and sliced jalapeños. Overall, the phở was quite good (☆☆☆) and worthy of your attention unless you’ve become accustomed to Than Brothers prices.

Phở Chin

Jenny Phở Vietnamese Noodle Soup & B.B.Q. Restaurant
1810 12th Ave NW, Suite D
Issaquah, WA 98027

Noodlemania in Little Saigon: Uway Malatang

In the relative obscurity of the Pacific Rim Center that sits just east of I-5 (and therefore qualifies it as technically located in Little Saigon instead of Chinatown), the art of hand-pulling noodles is being practiced by Chef Cheng Biao Yang in his latest restaurant venture, Uway Malatang. The man seems like a restless spirit who every few years sells a successful restaurant, only to open another one soon thereafter. He’s made a full circle as Seven Stars Pepper, which he once owned, is just down the street, with stopovers at Szechuan Chef in Bellevue and Spicy Talk Bistro (which Yang’s brother now operates) in Redmond in between. Uway Malatang represents a new addition to Chef Yang’s culinary repertoire as he is now the master noodle maker, an art he learned in China only recently.

I had lunch here with a friend, a direct result of a feature article written by Nancy Leson that appeared in the Seattle Times this past Sunday. We were seated at first at a table by the entrance. But the waitress offered to reseat us so we could watch the chef make the noodles in a small room visible behind a glass window. The seeming effortlessness with which he pulled the noodles speaks to the countless hours he practiced to perfect the technique. Such exhibitions are rare in the restaurant industry, much like being able to watch a master pizza dough maker spin and toss the dough in the air. You can watch the manufacture of the xiao long bao and other dumplings at Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung through glass windows at the entryway. The only other time I’ve witnessed a master make fresh Chinese noodles is at the now-closed Bamboodles in San Gabriel, California.

Both my friend and I ordered different dishes so that we could get a taste of each other’s. I knew what I wanted already, Szechuan style beef noodle soup. Even with a choice of hand-shaven noodles, I opted for the pulled noodles for obvious reasons. They arrived in a large bowl, so attractively garnished with cilantro and green onions that I wanted to dive in immediately. The first bite of noodles was excellent, fresh-tasting and glutinous with a slight springiness. But, as the minutes ticked by, they began to soften in the hot broth. This is sort of expected for thin noodles that are made with no more than wheat flour, baking soda and water. Which means that the broth should do its part in noodle soup appreciation, for while the star begins to fade, the supporting cast has just as big a job to keep the customer happy. I found the broth disappointing, salty and lacking depth. There was some flavor from the beef chunks, which were hit-and-miss tender and gristly, cabbages and onion, but the overall impression was one of thinness (☆☆½). This problem reminded me of the shortcoming of the above-mentioned Bamboodles, a collection of broths that didn’t measure up to the noodles. While the sinewy texture and fattiness of meat don’t appeal to Westerners, their almost ubiquitous appearance in all kinds of Asian cuisines indicates that they are not considered a defect.

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

All was not lost, because my friend’s hot and spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef dish was memorable (☆☆☆½). The noodles were equally as fresh as hand-pulled but the sauce was anything but weak. It was savory with a touch of tartness (likely from black vinegar), caramel overtones and spicy. Contrasting crunchiness was provided by cucumber slices, green onions, tree ears and aforementioned beef gristle. Friend was so impressed by this dish that he swore to bring his wife here. When I return, I’d likely order the same.

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Uway Malatang makes a big deal of its hot pots, too. In fact, when you first enter the restaurant, there are chilled ingredients on the left which you can mix and match (one-pound minimum) to make your own hot pot, augmented by a choice of eight broths. These might require some experimentation before you find what appeals to you.

Hot pot ingredients

Hot pot ingredients

Also included on the menu are many of the favorites that have appeared at Chef Yang’s previous restaurants. Chongqing chicken or cumin lamb, anyone?

Update (5-17-14): We had an early dinner here with another couple.

(Fried) salt and pepper squid is generally a good dish to order whenever a Chinese restaurant has it on the menu. The calamari has a thin, crispy batter typically made with cornstarch; the flavor is boosted by addition of scallions and a bit of green chiles to add a touch of heat. An important consideration is not to overcook the squid, which Chef Yang is careful not to do. The intriguing addition is ground Szechwan peppercorns, which added their characteristic numbing quality and floral fragrance, raising this entrée out of the ordinary (☆☆☆).

Salt and Pepper Squid

Salt and Pepper Squid

Besides pulled noodles, chef Yang also makes hand-shaven noodles, which make an appearance in chow mein. Other than the pasta having a slight powderiness, the sauce was good, with thin pieces of tender pork, green onions and cabbage (☆☆½).

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

The best dish of the afternoon was tofu with eggplant (☆☆☆½). Chinese eggplant slices were meltingly soft, likely after having absorbed a prodigious quantity of oil, in a savory sauce mixed with fried tofu and scallions. But, it is an oily dish.

Tofu with eggplant

Tofu with eggplant

It’s a little worrisome that there were only two other dining parties this afternoon. Foot traffic seems to plague all the businesses in the multi-story Pacific Rim Center, no matter what time of day. Even with ample free parking, its location on a steep hillside (which provides a little thrill when the car enters the parking structure tilted sideways at 30o) at the edge of Little Saigon, physically separates the shops from the main commercial area up the block, where most people do their shopping on foot. Could it be that Uway Malatang is therefore too much out of the way to make the effort worthwhile? If so, that’s a shame because there is talent in the kitchen.

Update (4-11-16): Chef Yang no longer helms Uway Malatang. As of July 2015, he opened Country Dough where he is now making Szechwan guo kui, flatbread filled with meat or vegetables.

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Uway Malatang Restaurant
900 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98104

Guay Tiow Tom Yum at Pestle Rock

I’m dog-sitting my daughter’s dog while she and my wife are in California for my wife’s father’s birthday. One of the benefits of doing this is that I have the vast domain of Ballard’s restaurants to choose from for five days, all within walking distance. I won’t do this for all three squares; I’ll likely make breakfast most of the time.

It’s not surprising that I decided to hit up Pestle Rock again, one of my favorite Thai restaurants. To keep it simple, all I wanted was a bowl of soup noodles. Guay Tiow Tom Yum sounded good.

What makes this tom yum different is the inclusion of noodles, thus guay tiow. Variations of guay tiow, which means flat noodles, appear throughout SE Asia. The most famous version is likely char guay teow, stir-fried flat noodles that are made in Singapore and Malaysia.

Guay tiow tom yum doesn’t use flat noodles but rather thin rice vermicelli in a spicy soup base, redolent of lemongrass and bursting with assertive flavors of lime juice, fish sauce, chiles and sugar. While I generally am not a fan of sweet soups, tom yum typically has a healthy dose of sugar, fortunately offset with a generous splash of lime juice. It may also be usual in Thailand for a good amount of roasted dried chile pepper flakes to be added, but at Pestle Rock, mercifully a jar of it arrives instead along with other spicy condiments, typical in Thai restaurants. The soup is plenty spicy as is, enough to loosen my sinuses in any case and cause me to cough at one point.

In keeping with the restaurant’s use of high-quality ingredients, ground Carlton Farms pork made an appearance, tender morsels with good flavor. Vegetables included bean sprouts, sliced scallions and perfectly cooked green beans. Though the menu mentions cilantro, none was used. The killer though was the addition of “rendered pork belly garlic,” an ingredient or description I’m trying to get my head around. If there were fried garlic pieces with the chicharrones, it wasn’t all that apparent. The fried pork pieces were delicious, crispy, and deep in pork flavor. A generous spoonful was sprinkled on top of the soup when served. Though they tasted best when still dry, even as they eventually soaked up broth, they were still magical nuggets of flavor. With crushed roasted peanuts sprinkled on top for extra crunch, this was a stellar soup (☆☆☆½).

I didn’t have my camera to take a snapshot, but here is one from Yelp.

Guay tiow tom yum (posted by Homan L on Yelp)

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107

Pho at Than Brothers

For quick and inexpensive pho, I generally go to Than Brothers. At $5.45 for a small bowl, enough to fill me up, I usually get a pho bo tai nam (rare eye of round and well-done flank). Available for $6.25 is a medium bowl, all the way up to extra large for a mere $7.25. This kind of value is the reason Than Brothers has now expanded to multiple locations throughout the Puget Sound area, with two more on the way. Their pho is not the best you can get around here, but it’s good enough when I don’t feel like spending a lot for a quick and satisfying meal.

Their model is simple and straightforward. As soon as you get seated, a wait person brings to your table a plate of vegetable condiments (Thai basil, bean sprouts and sliced jalapeños) for your soup, complimentary banh choux a la cream (custard puff) and water. After a few minutes, your order is taken. Within ten minutes, often less, a steaming bowl of pho is placed before you. When you’re done, you pay at the cash register. The service is fast and efficient, no friendly chit-chatting with customers. The surroundings are utilitarian, clean. That’s it. No fuss, no bother.

What about the eating experience? The pho (☆☆½) is solid. The broth has good beefy flavor, with hints of star anise and cinnamon and a little tartness from lime, perked up with slices of brown and green onions. You can also add hoisin sauce, spicy chile oil or Rooster sauce (sriracha), all available at your table, along with napkin dispenser, container of chopsticks, and neatly stacked Chinese soup spoons and little dishes, service ware that doesn’t need to be brought to you. The ball of rice noodles is clumped at the bottom of the bowl, obviously having been made in advance and topped with hot broth to heat up. A little jiggling with chopsticks will loosen them straightaway. The cream puff (☆☆) has never impressed me much.

Good value for your money indeed.

14 locations

Ox-tail Ramen at Ramen Nakamura (Honolulu, HI)

We were really eager for lunch after the forgettable breakfast on our flight from Auckland. Only a few blocks from our friend’s condo where we were staying, we headed straight for Ramen Nakamura on Kalakaua for their specialty, ox-tail ramen. While my usual choice for ramen broth is miso, Nakamura offering it (as well as shoyu) for an extra 50¢, my wife and I both chose the customary shio broth. The ramen arrived in a big bowl with two colossal sections of ox tail, meaty, bony and generously ribboned with fat. Prying the meat from the cartilage and bony flanges proved to be challenging, but there’s no denying they provided plenty of flavor and gelatin. The slightly thicker than usual ramen noodles were flawless. Adding to the experience were generous slices of baby bok choy, negi (Japanese green onion), slices of seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), roasted peanuts, and thinly julienned strands of ginger. For dipping the meat, a small bowl of grated ginger also arrived, into which the server recommended we pour a shoyu-ponzu sauce. Outstanding! Honolulu’s great ramen shops likely started up to cater to the legions of Japanese tourists who visit Hawaii, but the locals and other visitors have benefitted greatly from their presence.

Ox-tail shio ramen

Ox-tail shio ramen

Ramen Nakamura
2141 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI

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Dinner at Din Tai Fung (Bellevue, WA)

All the times before that we’ve dined at Din Tai Fung, we were never able to get seated at a table right away. Always there was a wait. It is that popular. Tonight was an exception. We waltzed right in after seeing Amour at Lincoln Square Cinemas (a remarkable, unsettling, superbly acted movie, by the way). Our taste buds were still remembering the excellent noodle soups we had here recently, so we could easily have ordered them again. But, in the interest of trying something different, we settled on Vegetable and Pork Wonton with Spicy Sauce and Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup.

For an appetizer, we started with the tersely-labeled Cucumber, Kirbys sliced about 3/4″ thick, dressed with vinegar, sugar and sesame and chili oils. Refreshing and crunchy, they cleansed our palates for what followed.

pickled cucumbers

Pickled cucumbers

The shrimp and pork wontons were served in the same delicious, pure chicken broth that graced the Noodle Soup with Pickled Mustard Green & Shredded Pork last time, with no additional ingredients like vegetables, making for a spartan soup. The dumplings themselves were very flavorful.

Eight spicy wontons were served in a shallow dish over a pool of dark sauce made from chicken broth, black soy sauce, chili oil and minced green onions. What gave the sauce extra dimension was the flavor of five spice powder with notes of licorice and warm spices, which along with a dipping sauce of black vinegar and finely shredded ginger, given to everyone, made for two tasty ways to garnish the dumplings in the Chinese soup spoon. Difficult to detect without our waitress’ help were the vegetables in the wonton—Chinese cabbage (napa) and bok choi—tasty companions of the ground pork. This, as it turns out, is DTF’s most popular wonton dish, and deservedly so.

Dining at Din Tai Fung can become a pricey affair, especially if you add cocktails like we did. The lychee mojito is a killer drink. But, everything is freshly made and the dedication to quality is definitely apparent. By the time we were done with dinner, there was the typical flock of people waiting to be seated. The rumor is that the Taiwanese chain is looking to open a Seattle location, perhaps in the University Village, which can only ease the crowds here.

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Din Tai Fung
700 Bellevue Way Northeast #280
Bellevue, WA 98004