Chyashu Seiro Soba at Miyabi 45th (Seattle, WA)


Amid the current craze to start ramen restaurants, it’s refreshing to find a restaurant that serves only soba. Sobaya (restaurants that specialize in soba) are not common in the States, though many Japanese restaurants have it on the menu among their other offerings. Seattle has a sobaya (and izakaya) in the form of Wallingford’s Miyabi 45th, which began business in early 2013. Diners expecting to find ramen will be disappointed, but the word is that Miyabi will sponsor a pop-up (Onibaba Ramen, not surprisingly operated by Miyabi’s own Chef Mutsuko Soma) that will serve different styles of ramen for lunch on Wednesdays as early as next week. I went to Miyabi with my daughter for lunch.

Perhaps the most popular way to eat soba noodles is cold on a plate, unembellished with seasonings. Dipping broth is served on the side either cold (zaru) or hot (seiro). The broth (like tsukemen for ramen) is made more concentrated to flavor the briefly dipped noodles. Dip and slurp. Buckwheat noodles retain their integrity longer, thus avoiding the gumminess and stickiness that all-wheat pasta develops. Nanban is the third soba style, prepared like ramen, noodles in hot broth.

The interior is a little odd for a Japanese restaurant because of Victorian/European decorations, most notably lamp shades that hover over the bar and service area worthy of a bordello. This kind of Euro-Japanese interior design seems popular in certain parts of Japan.

Chef Soma makes her own soba from Washington state buckwheat and wheat. And while her soba is deeply rooted in tradition (she trained in Japan), her apprenticeship at fine local area restaurants (including Harvest Vine) inspires her experimentation with non-traditional ingredients and inventive menu items. Karaage is not reserved for chicken but cauliflower. Hamachi collar is smoked over mesquite, served with daikon oroshi (grated radish). “Tofu” made with foie gras is unmistakably for carnivores, goose fat somehow shaped into its soybean surrogate, but pooling in dashi broth and garnished with honey-roasted grapes. How about an eggplant dengaku where instead of slathered with miso paste, the eggplant is scooped out and filled with shiso duck, shishito peppers and Tillamook cheese? And so it goes.

Lucky for my daughter and me that we were faced only with the lunch menu, a short list of soba dishes, small donburi and some sides.

Opting for nanban for the first time is a cop-out if you want to find out what soba dipping is all about. For my family, it’s a tradition to have soba on New Year’s Eve, lines being drawn between “dippers” and “soakers.” Our selections: chyashu seiro (me) and truffle seiro (daughter). We also wanted to try a couple appetizers: cauliflower karaage and uni shot.

The cauliflower dish was tasty enough (☆☆½), but not so much that it would supplant the real McCoy, namely, chicken thighs. The label karaage is used to convey a resemblance to the chicken dish.

Cauliflower karaage

Cauliflower karaage

To Western sensibilities, eating the gonads of sea urchins might be off-putting, but uni is highly prized in sushi circles. I’d never had uni before, and the thought of it did mess with my mind at first. Combine it with a raw quail egg, garnish with a touch of wasabi and yuzu (juice of a type of citrus fruit), and you have the uni shot, served in a ceramic spoon-like dish. Just pop the whole thing in your mouth. smoosh it around, savor and swallow. My daughter didn’t want any part of it. My verdict? It was surprisingly good (☆☆☆), custardy in a congealed bone marrow gelatin kind of way, briny, sweet and at $7, pricey.

Uni shot

Uni shot

The soba portion size is not large, no more than a cup and a half of noodles. Although Miyabi’s soba is 80 percent buckwheat, it has none of the gritty texture I remember from my childhood. Smooth, firm, chewy and slippery, they were a challenge to keep clamped between chopsticks while being dipped.

The chyashu seiro (top image) broth was a highly concentrated, umami-rich reduction of dashi, soy sauce and mirin, with pleasant nuttiness from toasted sesame seeds. Drinking it straight was potent and salty. Its job is to coat the noodles to overcome their blandness. I’ve never had more tender pork slices, their fat releasing porky flavor and unctuousness. I could have eaten a whole plate of these things. The half soft-boiled egg was perfect, the whites firm and the yolk slightly congealed but still runny. For a crowning touch, the waitress brought us a teapot-like vessel of hot pasta cooking water. It’s used to dilute the dipping broth which can be drunk at meal’s end. And what a difference it made. I gulped down all the delicious broth. I give this soba my highest rating (☆☆☆☆).

My daughter’s truffle broth (☆☆☆) was also quite good, though it didn’t have the impact of the chyashu’s. Aside from its truffle-ness and a bright tang, reconstituted dried shiitake were meaty and lent the broth their smoky essence.

Truffle seiro soba

Truffle seiro soba

Returning to Miyabi 45th at dinnertime would present decision challenges, but no doubt pleasant ones.

Update: As of February 13, 2016, Chef Soma no longer heads the kitchen. She is enjoying motherhood. A new chef has taken over. What this will mean for soba dining is unclear.

Miyabi 45th
2208 N 45th St
Seattle, WA 98103
206.632.4545

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Jianbing at Sustainable Ballard


Today, Sustainable Ballard, in its tenth year of operation, is an all-day (11am-6pm) festival in the Ballard Commons Park extolling the virtues of living sustainably and responsibly in a world ever more consumptive and wasteful. As you can imagine, the booths (canopies, actually) promote everything from energy efficiency, solar power, alternative medicine, local farming, sustainable agriculture, water conservation and alternative forms of transportation. Entertainment is being provided throughout the day. Even Mayor McGinn made an appearance to wish the festival a happy birthday.

And, of course, there are the food booths. And beer, which may be a form of sustainable energy or alternative form of transportation (pardon the cheekiness).

One food cart here was Bing of Fire which specializes in making a northern Chinese breakfast street food, jianbing. Its popularity derives from being intriguingly sweet, salty, spicy, savory and crispy. BOF’s version (☆☆½) is a giant crepe, topped with a raw egg then smeared, chile sauce, savory brown sauce and green onions, then folded over a rectangle of fried crispy cracker (baocui) and a frankfurter. The last item, of course, is a stand-in for a Chinese sausage that is not readily available here. I couldn’t quite separate its ball-park flavor from the otherwise Chinese ones, but for a sausage that might’ve been better grilled, it was a good and different food item. The crèpe was quite large, hard to hold and eat at the same time, which is the reason it was served in a paper sandwich bag.

Bing of Fire food cart is currently at Westlake Park on Mondays and Wednesdays.

bing of fire

Jianbing on the griddle

Jianbing

Jianbing

Kimchi House (Seattle, WA)


For all the restaurants that Ballard boasts having, none has been Korean. Until now, that is. What used to be a sushi restaurant on 24th Avenue only a few weeks ago is now Kimchi House. There was no change in ownership, just a change in the chef and menu. After the father retired, the rest of the family decided it was time to introduce the neighborhood to Korean food.

The interior is very small, like the menu, displayed on what looks like two LCD monitors suspended above the counter. You order what you want and take a seat. The food will be served to you. Though the menu will expand in the coming weeks, what’s offered now is confined to bulgogi, kalbi, bibimbop, pretty much standard Korean fare. But then, there is the house sandwich with your choice of pork belly, beef or tofu; kimchi fries, made with kimchi, cheddar, sour cream and house sauce; and kimchi fried rice. I’m assuming that, like today, there will be specials posted on a whiteboard on the counter.

Another difference from standard Korean restaurants is that banchan (☆☆☆½) is served on a plate with your order, side dishes American-style. Today’s consisted of red potatoes simmered in a sweet sauce (gamja jorim), shredded radish kimchi and what the restaurant calls white kimchi, pickled napa cabbage, similar to what Japanese call hakusai no shiozuke. This was so good, gingery and sour that I had to purchase a tub of it, which with other condiments, is available for purchase in a refrigerator up front. The potatoes were excellent.

Pork belly is Kimchi House’s specialty, which meant I was going to go for it. There were nice grill marks on the marinated belly pieces. Tasted by itself, it was good (☆☆☆), equally so when dipped in the sweet kochujang sauce available in a squeeze bottle at every table.

Pork belly

Pork belly

My wife’s mushroom soon dubu (☆☆☆), a special of the day, was also good. Though the tofu pieces were rather small, the broth was better than most with mushroom and shrimp shell flavors. Slices of shiitake, onions, green onions and shrimp rounded out the ingredients.

Mushroom soon dubu

Mushroom soon dubu

With food this well prepared, Kimchi House should have no problems getting locals to make Korean food a part of their regular restaurant rotation.

Kimchi House
5809 24th Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107
206.784.5322

Café Besalu (Seattle)


There seems to be general agreement that Café Besalu in the Ballard neighborhood is the best croissant bakery in town. James Miller consistently has been a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef. There have also been some claims that Besalu ranks right up there with France’s finest. I’m not in a position to take sides on that last opinion. If you don’t get there early (7am-3pm, W-Su only), lines frequently form pretty quickly, often out the door. Later in the day, croissants can run out though in the morning the kitchen does churn out popular ones as fast as it can make them. My daughter swoons over the almond croissant. With over 400 reviews on Yelp, the average score is astonishingly high.

I was here at 8:20am, more than an hour after Besalu opens. Fortunately, there were only three customers ahead of me. As I’ve said before, I prefer savory over sweet breakfasts, so my choice this morning was the ham and cheese croissant (☆☆☆). I’ll say this, the croissant itself is perfect—buttery, flaky, light and chewy in the middle. As for the filling itself, it is definitely savory but falls a little short of being top-notch, or enough of a distraction to consider driving over here over the one I can get at Belle Pastry in Bellevue.

Ham and cheese croissant

Ham and cheese croissant

As for the other pastries, maybe tomorrow would be a good opportunity—or later today? Nah.

9-28-13: It was a day later than when I thought I’d return, but return I did. Blustery and wet weather may have had something to do with the usual line of customers, but I was able to walk right up and order a couple of pastries. The cardamom pretzel (☆☆☆½) was more of a twisted croissant, denser but still flaky with a nice chew and a hint of cardamom on the finish. The plum danish (☆☆☆☆), actually a frangipane, was a masterpiece. Sweet-and-tart plum was beautifully complemented by an almond-flavored crème filling.

Plum danish

Plum danish

Cardamom pretzel

Cardamom pretzel

Café Besalu
5909 24th Avenue Northwest
Seattle, Washington 98107
206.789.1463

Walking Seattle’s International District


This week’s excursion was to the International District in Seattle, a residential and commercial area of Asian Americans which is roughly bounded by 5th Avenue to the west, Yesler to the north, 8th Avenue to the east and Dearborn to the south. And, like many other Seattle neighborhoods, my wife and I had never taken the time to explore the area on foot. Prior to WWII, the Asian minorities about whom the most has been written were the Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos. While the demographics today are different, the ID, as it’s called for short, is still seen as an Asian enclave in Seattle. It is also called Chinatown, which refers to a smaller section of the ID where most of the Chinese businesses operate.

Weather-wise, today was predicted not to be as nice as the previous few (actually, many) weeks before: overcast with chance of rain in the morning, partially clearing in the afternoon. My wife and I decided to give it a go and hoped for the best. As it turned out, it didn’t rain at all, but it was blustery and cloudy for most of the day. Once again, it was a simple matter of hopping onto an express bus all the way from Bellevue to the ID. 

Panama Hotel

We started off the day with breakfast at the Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee shop, which above ground has no pass-through to the hotel’s rooms, though originally the cafe area served as the lobby. To get to the hotel units, you have to enter the stairwell from a separate street entrance and climb to the second level of the building. Although we weren’t hotel guests, the manager allowed us to look around. The Panama Hotel (605½ S Main St) served as a residence for mostly Japanese residents and businesses until 1950. When it was built in 1910 by a Japanese American architect, the lower floors housed businesses while people lived in the upper floors of the five-story building. There was even a sento (bathhouse) in the basement. Though the bathhouse is still intact, it is no longer used. The hotel was part of a large, thriving Japantown. When Pearl Harbor happened, Americans of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast, including residents of the hotel, were ordered to leave their homes, businesses and belongings and put in concentration (euphemistically called “relocation”) camps. The belongings of many families evacuated from the hotel have been kept in the basement by the current owner for future claim by descendants. A portion of these items can be seen through a plexiglas viewing window in the café floor. The hotel is now a National Historic Landmark and has resumed renting out rooms, which have been completely renovated.

Panama Hotel entrance

Panama Hotel entrance

Second floor hallway, Panama Hotel

Second floor hallway, Panama Hotel

Historic photos on café shop wall

Historic photos on café shop wall

Danny Woo Community Gardens

Across the street, we noticed a forested setting rising steeply on the hillside. A torii gate serves as the official entrance to the Danny Woo Community Gardens though we entered it along the west side over a series of cascading stairways. This was the largest P-patch we had ever seen, spread out over 1.5 acres and picturesquely designed over terraces and sloped areas, where community gardeners had planted all manner of flowers, herbs and vegetables, many of them Asian. There was even a chicken coop where owners can harvest eggs.

Danny Woo Gardens

Danny Woo Community Gardens

Kobe Terrace Park

The gardens butt up against the Kobe Terrace Park to the northeast. A 200-year-old stone lantern gifted by Kobe, Seattle’s sister city in Japan, anchors a park that contains many mature cherry trees. The lantern was presented to Seattle on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial. This is not a quiet respite because I-5 borders the east edge of the park.

Stone lantern gifted by Kobe, Japan (Kobe Terrace Park)

Stone lantern gifted by Kobe, Japan (Kobe Terrace Park)

Nippon Kan Theatre

We exited the park at S Washington St where we immediately came upon the old Nippon Kan Theatre (628 S Washington St), built in 1909 and center for the Japanese performing arts, cinema, martial arts and community activities back in the day. Like many other buildings in Japantown, it was boarded up when the war came. It is no longer a theater, but now houses a legal services firm. Still, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The name of the theater appears on two sides of the building. The Wing Luke Museum displays the original stage curtain (see below).

Nippon Kan Theatre

Nippon Kan Theatre

Union Station

Though not seen as part of the historic International District, Union Station (4th Ave S and S Jackson St) has been in existence side-by-side throughout its history. It was constructed in 1911 by Union Pacific to compete with King Street Station that served Great Northern and Northern Pacific and now serves as the headquarters of Sound Transit, a transportation consortium funded by three adjacent Washington counties. Laying idle for many years after the railroad industry’s decline, Union Station became the focus for restoration efforts and re-opened in 1999. Walking into the central room, I was impressed by the massive vaulted ceiling, tiled floor, pilasters and tiled wainscoting that lined the walls and support posts. The sand-colored interior accentuates the soaring space, heightened by natural illumination through a large semi-circular window on the south wall and skylights along the top of the ceiling. Though we’ve seen the transit tunnel in the past, we went down for another look. Several stairways accessible through entry points between Union Station and 5th Avenue lead down to the tunnel platforms.

Union Station

Union Station

Tile floor, Union Station

Tile floor, Union Station

Stairway to tunnel platform

Stairway to tunnel platform, Union Station

Chinatown Gate

We continued south on 5th Avenue, then west on S King St. The first of a planned pair of Chinatown gates straddles King St. It was constructed with private, business and city government donations but has been the center of some controversy. The Chinese community considers it a source of pride and tribute to the old Chinatown while other Asian groups insist that the area has always been a Pan-Asian community. There is some doubt that the second gate of the pair will ever be raised because of this divisive issue. The gate is 45ft tall, painted in red (for luck), and lined with tiles imported from China.

Chinatown gate, International District

Chinatown gate, International District

Hing Hay Park

Further east along King St, at the corner of Maynard Avenue, is Hing Hay Park (423 Maynard Ave S), dedicated in 1975 and venue for a variety of community events. It isn’t unusual to see tai chi classes in session or a lion dance being performed during Chinese New Year. The public space is dominated by a pavilion donated by Taipei (in Taiwan).

Hink Hay Park pavilion

Hing Hay Park pavilion

International District Walking Tour

We’ve rarely regretted taking an organized tour, even of places with which we are familiar. So, we took one (“Touch of Chinatown”) sponsored by The Wing Luke Museum. The tour began in the Tateuchi Story Theatre where Don, our wonderful and knowledgeable guide, set the historical stage for the tour to follow. He pointed out the 15x30ft scrim that hung from the stage, the long-lost curtain from the Nippon Kan Theatre that only had a brief life (1909-1915) as a fire barrier between the backstage and customers. The scrim was unashamedly an advertisement medium of a grid of 48 squares (6 down, 8 across) on which a merchant could pay for advertising space. If the merchant was in arrears, his advertisement was rubbed out. In position #3 is a plug for Maneki, a restaurant that amazingly still operates today and considered the best Japanese restaurant in the ID.

Old Nippon Kan Theatre curtain, Wing Luke Museum

Old Nippon Kan Theatre curtain, Wing Luke Museum

In the lobby of the museum, Don reviewed the life story of Wing Luke, a remarkable saga of a boy of 5 years who immigrated to the U. S. with his parents from Canton, China, and eventually became the Assistant Attorney General of Washington state (1957-1962) and Seattle city councilman (1957-death), despite confronting racial discrimination throughout his life. He was a staunch defender of civil rights.

The first stop on the tour was the retail shop of Tsue Chong Company, manufacturers of a range of Asian noodle products that are sold widely. But, it is more popular for its fortune cookies so ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants. Also available are its fortune cookie seconds, affectionately known as “unfortune” cookies, which can be purchased in large bags here. The Unfortunes have become so popular, in fact, that the company now makes them deliberately in this way to sell. The noodle factory is behind the shop and takes up almost an entire city block.

Unfortune cookies, Tsue Chong Company

Unfortune cookies, Tsue Chong Company

Dry noodles, Tsue Chong Company

Dry noodles, Tsue Chong Company

In front of Eng Suey Sun Plaza on S Weller St are statues of two lions flanking the entry stairway. Such statues were historically found in front of the homes of the Chinese elite, though this is no longer the case. Don explained their symbolism. The male lion, on the right (as you’re facing a building) with his right paw on an embroidered ball, protects the building, while the female lion rests her left paw on a lion cub, representing nurture.

Our next stop was Canton Alley, unique because of storefronts that used to face into an alley. The Kong Yick buildings that line the east and west sides also had single room occupancy (SRO) units on the upper levels to rent to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino laborers. The east building houses Wing Luke Museum. In the 1950s, these storefronts were converted to apartments and remained occupied until 2005. The museum eventually purchased both buildings and restored apartment #6 to its former condition and is now an historic exhibit, which in general is accessible on organized tours. The storefronts are now painted in Cinque Terre-like pastel colors.

Storefront along Canton Alley

Storefronts along Canton Alley

Living quarters behind stores

Apartment #6

No tour of the ID would be complete without a stop at one of the many Chinese bakeries. Don took us directly into Mon Hei, the oldest bakery. My enthusiastic review of its cocktail bun is here.

Cocktail buns at Mon Hei Chinese Bakery

Cocktail buns at Mon Hei Chinese Bakery

We stopped briefly at the northern end of Maynard Alley. Perhaps to avoid its gruesome details, the Wah Mee Massacre was not mentioned, though one of the tour members asked about it. The only place Don mentioned was an aquarium shop that is accessible from the alley.

Tai Tung (655 S King), the ID’s oldest Chinese restaurant (since 1935), doesn’t get the attention that others in the area get but, as Don pointed out, it’s been serving generations of families. It’s become an institution of sorts, including long-time waiters.

Don took us to the Panama Hotel where we had already visited by ourselves.

The tour was a very good one with lots of history and anecdotes about the ID. One glaring omission was the Filipino connection. This may have to do with the fact that the everyday lives of laborers, which Filipinos primarily were in the ID, including labor organizer Carlos Bulosan, got short shrift at the expense of historic buildings and institutions that were prominent throughout the ID’s history. Also generally not well known is that the influx of African Americans to the ID during the war years led to Jackson Street becoming Seattle’s center of jazz, swing and R&B.

Wing Luke Museum

After lunch, we returned to the museum to look at the exhibits. The Wing Luke Museum is the only one in the country that is devoted to all Asian and Pacific Island Americans. Inside are snippets of their histories, photos, art, personal stories and oral histories, and artifacts. Photography of the exhibits is not permitted.

"Letter Cloud," letters written by immigrants to their families

“Letter Cloud,” letters written by immigrants to their families

"Sweet Hello," chandelier of wind chimes, ornaments and masks

“Sweet Hello,” chandelier of wind chimes, ornaments and masks

Cocktail Bun at Your Peril: Mon Hei Bakery — CLOSED


Mon Hei Chinese Bakery is the oldest in the International District, having started business in 1979, the same year that I moved to the Seattle area from Southern California. We had never been customers here until we came with friends only a few years ago. I have to admit that I don’t remember much from that visit. That was then. Our tour guide today brought us to the bakery where the proprietress, Annie Chan, greeted us and mentioned that the cocktail bun was the bakery’s signature dessert and that it always sells quickly. I didn’t purchase anything at the time, but made a mental note to return later in the day. After lunch at Bún, we arrived at Mon Hei, but to our disappointment, the tray that had earlier been filled with cocktail buns was nowhere to be seen, a sign that it had sold out already. Not to worry, for within a minute, a fresh batch arrived from their kitchen in the basement.

I’ll say it right off the bat, the cocktail bun (☆☆☆☆) is to die for. More like a sweet bread, it is not quite fully baked, resulting in a dense, slightly doughy shell (which I love) surrounding an exquisite coconut paste and sprinkled with white sesame seeds. On top of that, it is barely sweet. Warm fresh out of the oven, its delirium-inducing goodness is the equal of Leonard’s malasadas. At only $1.25 a piece, eat these at your peril. You may not be able to stop at just one. If the bakery were in my neighborhood, I would be in serious trouble.

Cocktail bun

Cocktail bun

Update: Last Christmas Eve, fire destroyed the building that housed many businesses, Mon Hei among them. There have been no announced plans to rebuild the bakery, to the despair of its many customers.

Mon Hei Chinese Bakery (** closed **)

669 S King St

Seattle, WA 98104

206.624.4156

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Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee


Not many realize that the Panama Hotel in the International District has a tea and coffee shop. Though it was set up to serve its clientele, it is open to the public. The space is not very large but is nicely decorated with old historic black-and-white photos on the walls and memorabilia of the Japanese community that used to live in the area before WWII. A good selection of pastries is available for breakfast as well as paninis and salads, teas from around the world and first-rate espresso and coffee. We spent a good 45 minutes enjoying our beverages and rolls, looking at the pictures and strolling through the hotel guest lounge area, accessible through a stairway at the rear as well as from the street.

Storefront

Storefront

Drip coffee, chai latté and sweet rolls

Drip coffee, chai latté and sweet rolls

This is a nice alternative to dim sum breakfasts in the International District, complete with wireless capability and relaxed, quiet comfort.

Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee
607 S Main St
Seattle, WA 98104
206.515.4000