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.

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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

Noodle Soups at Pestle Rock (Seattle, WA)

Guay tiow lao

Guay tiow lao

I’ve eaten at Pestle Rock twice before, having come away impressed both times. The occasion of having lunch with my daughter marked my third visit.

What caught my eye was a noodle soup dish called Guay Tiow Lao, which I presumed from its name was Laotian in style. How it’s Laotian in influence I have no idea, let alone if my assumption was correct in the first place. Regardless, the broth was extremely briny from shrimp paste, a stinky seasoning whose ammoniated odor can overpower a kitchen. The shrimpy flavor got tamer as I ate more. The soup contained thin rice noodles that were silky and had good texture, small slices of pork spareribs with tender meat that you have to free up between pieces of bone, tomatoes, and garnished with sliced mustard greens and fried shallots. Overall a good enough soup but one that I wasn’t overly fond of because of the shrimp paste’s strong flavor.

My daughter ordered the khao soi noodle soup that was as good as I remembered from a previous visit.

Khao soi noodle coup

Khao soi noodle soup

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107

The Bomb at Ton-Chan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

Before the crush of food preparation for osechi ryori, five of us headed over to Ton-Chan for lunch. A previous review of it is here. Instead of the usual Sapporo miso tonkotsu ramen that others ordered, I went for one appropriately called The Bomb, basically a miso tonkotsu ramen with spicy ground pork. As noted before, the addition of chile paste, optional with all three kinds of tonkotsu ramen (shio, shoyu and miso), is a modern introduction to appease the public’s growing appetite for spicy dishes. The Bomb is another departure, a synthesis of Japanese and Chinese styles. Even without adding the chiles, the ramen is lustily hot, though not anything approaching Ton-Chan‘s six-chile noodles. The same rich tonkotsu broth is here, along with slices of baby bok choy, slivered green onions and half of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg (firm whites, runny yolks) that Ton-Chan does so well. In short, this is a tasty alternative to the standard soup noodles.

The Bomb

The Bomb

Ton-chan (**NOW CLOSED**)
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Lunch at U:Don (Seattle, WA)

Niku-udon-oroshi udon with a side of tempura shrimp

When foodies talk about Japanese soup noodles, they usually think of ramen, arguably the most popular kind found all over Japan. Not as well known outside Japan is a different type of soup noodle, also of Chinese origin, that is widely popular, called udon. The wheat noodle is thick-cut and the very best freshly-made versions have an unmistakably chewy texture that fans seek when judging the noodle’s quality. My wife and I were mightily impressed with the udon served by Jimbo in Honolulu, not only for its superior noodle but its rich, smoky broth of Hokkaido origin.

U:Don opened in the University District not too long ago, part of a trend toward make-your-own noodle soups that is making an appearance both in Japan and here. Its name is almost an ideograph since the colon and capitalized D are supposed to represent a happy face. For happy customers?
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Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)

Honolulu has several excellent Japanese noodle shops. Ramen and saimin garner the lion’s share of devotion. But udon deserves as much attention, especially those served at Jimbo. Made in the Hokkaido style (according to the waiter), the broth is rich, luscious, slightly smoky from specially imported katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). We were told that one chef makes the broth and another, the udon; one in the evening, the other in the morning. The noodles have a soft, velvety exterior over a firmer, chewier middle. Though there are other Japanese entrées on the menu, the udon is likely the star of the restaurant.

The nabeyaki udon ($14.70), served in a traditional nabe, comes piping hot. I burnt the palate of my mouth. The tempura consisted of a single prawn and a Japanese eggplant, both wonderfully flavorful. The batters retain their crispiness unless you let them sit in the dashi too long. Thoughtfully, an empty bowl is provided if you decide to rescue the tempura. Rounding out the ingredients is a single piece of kamaboko, sliced baby bok choy and negi, snow peas, spinach, napa, dried shiitake, raw egg and fuki. As good as these additions are, you could argue that they almost take your attention away from noodles and broth.



The ume wakame udon ($11.40) is an impressive combination. The ume flesh, which the restaurant bothers to scrape from whole umeboshi and mince, lends an interesting tartness to the dashi and provides a nice contrast to the rich broth. A few slices of negi onion are sprinkled on top.

Ume wakame udon

Ume wakame udon

For an extra charge, you can order different sizes of udon, large or skinny. Also for extra, you can substitute soba. The skinny noodles in my wife’s order were very good, though they didn’t have quite the same texture as the regular. All these variations are handmade at the restaurant.  On hot summer days, you can also order many of the udon dishes cold.

A popular dish for slime fans is natto bukkake udon. It comes in a dark broth with the ultimate combination of natto, okra, daikon oroshi and nori. I’m surprised grated satoimo wasn’t included. The waiter said that the natto is particularly odoriferous, a big asset for natto lovers. Hmm, maybe on another visit.

Jimbo is another restaurant that is dedicated to offering an unparalleled experience by making everything from scratch and using the best ingredients. The waiter also indicated that most of the ingredients are flown in directly from Japan. The udon prices are definitely higher than you’d normally pay elsewhere, but with udon this good, you don’t really care.

1936 S King St # 103