Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley

Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

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

Phở Bở at Monsoon East

My lunch excursion started out as a drive to I Love Sushi for a bowl of their terrific nabeyaki udon, but alas the restaurant (and every other place in the lot) was gone—demolished because of new construction, presumably another high-rise project, having met the same fate as other strip malls in the valuable downtown Bellevue real estate market. (I later learned that I Love Sushi relocated to Lake Bellevue, only a short distance away.) Then, I went over to Ginza Japanese Restaurant in Old Bellevue, but the door hours indicated that lunch is not served on Saturdays. It didn’t take too much longer to decide on Monsoon East, on the next block over, where my wife and I have had many outstanding meals.

Not having Vietnamese beef stew (bở kho) for lunch, I settled on their beef noodle soup (phở bở) which the menu describes as being made with an oxtail broth. At $10, it qualifies as the most expensive bowl of phở I’ve ever paid for, but the provenance of the beef is the Painted Hills consortium of Oregon, which supplies high-quality meat to the Northwest’s finer restaurants. Would I be able to tell the difference? Indeed, I could. Thin slices of both rare and well-done beef were extraordinarily tender, literally melting in the mouth. This possibly might be the first time I’ve ever had rare beef so delicate, not surprising since it comes from a Wagyu breed. In other restaurants, these rare slices become chewy as the hot broth toughens them. My usual choice for beef slices in phở is well-done brisket; it is always more tender and flavorful because of higher fat content. Monsoon’s was among the best. Though both cuts were generously sized, teeth or chopsticks easily cut them to smaller size. Because of adhesion, it also took a bit of work to separate individual slices. I dipped each piece in a little dish of chile sauce and a stellar hoisin sauce that very well could be house-made.  The rice vermicelli was a combination of thin and thicker noodles, perfectly cooked, and not coiled in a sticky ball that many restaurants cook ahead of time for convenience. There was a generous amount of bean sprouts and Thai basil as condiments, with sliced jalapeños and a wedge of lime.

And what about the broth? It was very dark, concentrated in flavor, intensely tasting of beef, with a slight tang, and boldly revealing warm spices of star anise and cinnamon stick. It might be the finest phở broth ever to cross my lips. It’s no wonder since it’s made with ox-tails, simmered in the stock over three days, releasing their flavor and gelatin, and Painted Hills beef and aromatics. The broth was replete with green onions, cut small and in larger pieces. There were also slices of red onion. Is the phở worth $10? Yep. This is a breathtaking soup (☆☆☆☆).


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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

Eating Solo in Ballard on Pooch Duty

While my daughter has gone out-of-town to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday, I volunteered to do the dog-sitting at her (and the dog’s) home. Though I like to cook, I don’t always do it for myself, less so when I’m away from home. As I’ve written before, my daughter lives in Ballard (a neighborhood of Seattle), a dining mecca where one doesn’t see a single franchise fast-food restaurant in the main commercial district roughly centered on Market St and Ballard Ave. My meals have been restricted to places within walking distance (except once). A lot less hassle.

I decided to consolidate my reviews into this one post because really I’ve ordered just single items from every menu. If I had thought of it earlier, I could have included Wednesday’s lunch at Pestle Rock here, too.

I’ll start off with dinner at Señor Moose on Wednesday night (Oct 30). Inspired by my wife’s order of pescado veracruzana at Black Cat Cantina in Portland recently, I ordered the same at this Ballard favorite, a Mexican restaurant that had apparently been serving molé even before La Carta de Oaxaca did, only a few blocks away. Señor Moose’s rockfish had previously been frozen, so it was not as moist and flaky as I would’ve liked. Still, it wasn’t bad. The sauce was made with the usual tomatoes, capers and green olives, but also a plethora of minced onions that diminished the sauce. Add to this that the tomatoes themselves were lackluster. I was not overly impressed (☆☆½).

For lunch on Thursday (Oct 31), I stopped at La Isla, supposedly the first Puerto Rican restaurant in Seattle. The lunch menu included one of their specialties, Puerto Rican pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder. A standard recipe calls for marinating the shoulder for a long time (La Isla does this over a period of days) in lots of garlic (sometimes a whole head), olive oil, black pepper, oregano (fresh or dried) and vinegar, though the server said the chef also uses a secret ingredient or two. To render it fork-tender, shoulder benefits from a slow roast over several hours, all the better if some fat is left on to baste the meat. La Isla surely must because their’s was unctuous. In the pernil bowl for lunch, it was shredded (like ropa vieja, which La Isla also serves) and piled on top of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), stained orange from achiote and tomato sauce, overall a fine entrée (☆☆☆½). The tostones (☆☆) that came as a side was starchy and firm from green plantains. I’ve had better in Puerto Rico, but the mojito sauce (☆☆☆½) for the tostones was a killer, a mayonnaise of garlic, onion and citric acid (lemon, lime, orange or a combination), a garlic lover’s dream. I saved half the lunch for dinner later on.

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Instead of a smoothie that I made for myself on Thursday morning, I picked up a couple of pastries from Café Besalu right after it opened on Friday (Nov 1). The magnificent plum danish (which I reviewed before) I saved for later, but for breakfast, I savored onion and Gruyère pastry (☆☆☆½) which was up to their usual high standards. It crackled and let loose shards of puff pastry in my mouth, gluten-y in the center and tasted of savory Gruyère cheese, gently sweetened by the roasted onions.

Sweet onion and gruyère croissant

Onion and gruyère pastry

It was lunch at Kimchi House on Friday. The kalbi plate includes a big scoop of rice, salad and banchan. The salad of romaine lettuce and shredded carrots was dressed with a soy sauce vinaigrette, spiced up with just a little kochujang and dried chile peppers to add a distinctly Korean touch. Kalbi has an inherent problem. While unmistakably beefy in flavor (it is unapologetically fatty), pumped up by the garlicky teriyaki marinade, it can be resiliently chewy, which is one reason it is sliced thinly. Even so, without a knife (and the restaurant does not have any in the utensil tray or at the table), you have to eat them with chopsticks, which is what Koreans do. Some cooks have figured out a way to tenderize kalbi, but Kimchi House hasn’t or doesn’t bother. I had to ask for a knife. It was sure tasty though (☆☆½).

Kalbi plate

Kalbi plate

Across the street from the Ballard Locks on NW 54th St is Red Mill Totem House, the third Red Mill Burger restaurant to (re)open locally. This was the only time I got into my car. One of the old-time burger diners in Seattle, it was a destination for lunch on Saturday (Nov 2). Why is it called Red Mill Totem House and not Red Mill Burgers? A popular fish-and-chips restaurant called Totem House used to occupy this building until it closed in 2010 after a 65-year run. Red Mill thoughtfully was mindful of the past, incorporated the name, with a restored totem out front, and kept the fish-and-chips menu.

The Deluxe Cheeseburger is a quarter-pounder with American cheese, tomato, pickles and Mill sauce, sandwiched between a sesame bun, with a slice of red onion if requested (I did). This was a messy sandwich. Without the foiled wrapper folded over one half, the cheese and sauce would act as lubricants to send the fillings shooting out with the first bite. My ideal burger does not include any sort of sweet dressing (Mill Sauce is kind of like Thousand Island) because it literally masks the beef’s flavor. It’s even debatable if I really need lettuce, tomato and pickles, though it depends on their quality. The best burger, which Red Mill gets voted for annually by Seattle Weekly, should not equate to being the most adorned. All this said, the burger was pretty good (☆☆☆), the sesame bun being supportively soft and slightly doughy, though not sturdy. Rather than fries, I had Babe’s Onion Rings (☆☆½), about a half dozen thickly cut rings. The batter, cornmeal-based, was so super-crunchy and loud that I had to remove by hearing aids. Kidding aside, it was more to lessen the aural assault by loud piped-in music that really sends this message to customers: hurry up and eat and get out. I would gladly have sat outside on one of the picnic tables if it weren’t so windy and threatening to rain.

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe's onion rings

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe’s onion rings

The lunch repast stayed with me longer than I wanted, so for dinner it was just a bowl of tai nam pho (eye-of-round steak and well-done flank) at Than Brothers (a previous review here), though for the first time ever, the noodles were too soft.

Tai nam pho

Tai nam pho

With the resetting of the clock back to standard time, my eyes opened on Sunday (Nov 3) morning an hour earlier. Other than Starbucks, the only other place I could find open for breakfast before 8am was Café Besalu. So, back I went for the second time in three days. My daughter raves about their almond croissant. I understand why. Made only on Sundays, the croissant is studded on the outside with sliced almonds. Inside is a generous filling of divine marzipan, intensely flavored and not too sweet. And, of course, there is the legendary croissant itself. This is a pastry worth going some distance for (☆☆☆☆).

I couldn’t resist getting the ham and Swiss cheese pastry (☆☆☆½) again, with the intention of eating it later. Yes, well, the road to personal hell is paved with good intentions. I swiftly polished it off with a double tall order of Besalu’s wonderful Americano (☆☆☆), which is a sight better than its drip coffee.

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Ballard hosts one of the very few farmers markets in the Seattle area that are open year-round. Even as the summer produce has all but disappeared, at least the late fall and winter vegetables will still be around, not to mention the bakeries, dairies, meat and seafood stands, and food vendors. Among the latter is Los Chilangos that not only offers food at a number of farmers markets (including Issaquah, the closest one to me) but also operates a food truck in Bellevue. With their catering business, they are easily the most ambitious mobile Mexican food operation in the area. For a food stand, there is a good-sized menu, including three soft tacos that I decided to have for lunch. You can mix and match among four fillings: al pastor, chupa cabras, carnitas and carne asada, the first three of which I tried. Each taco is wrapped in the traditional two soft corn tortillas, with chopped onion and cilantro and choice of mild or spicy salsa with each filling. No, chupa cabras (chupacabras) is the not the flesh of the mythical goat-sucking cryptid of Latin and southern American legend, but rather a combination of chorizo and carne asada. The house-made chorizo (☆☆☆) is good, while the asada was gristly (☆☆½). Ditto for the al pastor (☆☆½), whose origin has an interesting historical origin (involving Lebanon), described on Los Chilangos’ website. The carnitas taco (☆☆☆) was my favorite, succulent shreds of tender pork.

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

My brief stay in Ballard ended with having dinner with my daughter, whom I picked up from Sea-Tac, at Cafe Munir—speaking of Lebanese connections—which I will review in a future post.

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