All posts by Jay Friedman

Food and Travel [email] Jay Friedman, gastronaut, is one of the most intriguing and innovative food writers in Seattle. You may know him from Seattle Weekly’s "Sexy Feast" column (Jay is a unique combination of food writer and professional sex educator) or City Arts’ “Dish-Off," in which he challenged chefs to create meals based on songs. (Jay is also a former disc jockey!) He is also a regular contributor to the national Serious Eats blog, and is the co-editor/author of the Fearless Critic Seattle restaurant guide. Jay travels extensively and shares his hedonistic adventures in occasional “Passport to Pleasure” pieces. When not eating out or writing about it, he is most likely in the kitchen making kimchi, xiao long bao, or anything with offal. You can find most of Jay’s writing at his personal blog, Gastrolust.

A Whirlwind of Noodles and More in Xi’an, China

The symbolic Bell Tower of Xi’an (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
The symbolic Bell Tower of Xi’an (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)

How much do I love biang-biang noodles? So much that beyond writing extensively about them here in the past, I found myself planning a trip to Tokyo and thinking, “I’ll be pretty close to Xi’an (home of the noodles), so I should go.” I learned that China now waives the visa requirement for stays up to 72 hours, which I figured would be the perfect amount of time to experience the food scene there. (Not surprisingly, turns out I would have appreciated more time.)

I’d have to maximize my brief time in Xi’an, so I ambitiously scheduled a 6:00pm food tour to follow my scheduled landing at 4:30pm, with the airport an hour from the city. I was the first off the plane and to passport control, but as I anticipated from my research, the visa waiver scenario (it’s a bit complicated) took about 20 minutes to reconcile.

Now on to airport transportation: I’d heard nightmares about hiring a taxi, with drivers taking foreigners for a ride at ridiculously high prices and dumping them on the highway (unverified reports) for lack of funds. Out of concern for my sanity and well-being, my hotel arranged for a private car to pick me up. Thank you, Hilton Xi’an, for both that and the media discount for my stay! (Hotel photos at the end of this post.)

With no more than a “ni hao,” the driver took me on a 10-minute walk to his car. Tracking progress on Google Maps (which I was able to use—along with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—on my phone, but not my laptop) while fearing for my life upon suddenly remembering driving habits in China, I realized I’d get to the hotel just two minutes past the tour start time. I WeChat-ted my tour guide, got to the hotel, threw my bags in the room, and then greeted my guide as she got to the lobby.

Lost Plate Tours’ tuk-tuk
Lost Plate Tours’ tuk-tuk

Lost Plate Tours would provide a perfect introduction to a mysterious new city. I’m generally skeptical of food tours, but not knowing Xi’an and not knowing the language, this was a great way to spend the first night, getting slightly acclimated and getting fully stuffed with food I would not likely have found on my own. Lost Plate founders Ruixi Hu and Brian Bergey invited me as a guest on both the Evening Tour and the following day’s Morning Tour, and then generously spent a little extra time with me for a few extra bites.

Ruixi runs the tours, having moved recently from Chengdu to Xi’an. A true food lover, she ate her way around the city to pick out the best places to show off the regional cuisine. The tours are unique in that tuk-tuks are the transportation (they’ll pick you up at your hotel if within the city wall), racing through the back alleys to reach places where the locals eat. (The tuk-tuks are an exhilarating part of the experience, though perhaps not ideal for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic, as the space can be tight). I was impressed not only with how well-organized the tours are, but also the communication process leading up to and throughout the tours. Ruixi speaks English well, providing information about the food and food establishments, and answering other questions about Xi’an. And both she and Brian are incredibly friendly.

Taken from one of the stops during the Lost Plate evening tour
Taken from one of the stops during the Lost Plate evening tour

My Evening Tour made stops to visit a shao bing shop (one of my favorite bites of the night), a skewer-griller, a dumpling restaurant, a place for porridges, and an eatery serving bowls of spinach noodles—all before final festivities at a local brewery.

Tofu skin pulled out of fiery broth for shao bing
Tofu skin pulled out of fiery broth for shao bing
Your shao bing can be filled with a full choice of ingredients, like peanuts, potatoes, seaweed, and jellyfish, for a variety of flavors and textures. There’s even a whole boiled egg inside! (It’s amazing to see how they bake the bread on the inside roof of the furnace.)
Your shao bing can be filled with a full choice of ingredients, like peanuts, potatoes, seaweed, and jellyfish, for a variety of flavors and textures. There’s even a whole boiled egg inside! (It’s amazing to see how they bake the bread on the inside roof of the furnace.)
Grilling beef skewers on a fairly quiet street in the Muslim Quarter
Grilling beef skewers on a fairly quiet street in the Muslim Quarter
Finished beef skewers eaten with bread (the small pieces of beef are tastier than the large ones found in the tourist area)
Finished beef skewers eaten with bread (the small pieces of beef are tastier than the large ones found in the tourist area)
Xi’an-style soup dumplings (zheng jiao) filled with beef, spring onions, and onions
Xi’an-style soup dumplings (zheng jiao) filled with beef, spring onions, and onions
Spinach noodles topped with meat, chili, tomato-egg, cabbage, and sliced potatoes
Spinach noodles topped with meat, chili, tomato-egg, cabbage, and sliced potatoes
Garlic is often on the table, as they like to nibble it raw in Xi’an while eating noodles
Garlic is often on the table, as they like to nibble it raw in Xi’an while eating noodles

The next day’s Morning Tour was less formal than usual, as there was just one other guest—a colleague of Brian. We enjoyed a walk through the fascinating Xi Chang Market (also known as the Bird and Flower Market, held Thursdays and Sundays), where one can buy all kinds of food, along with birds, turtles, crickets and cricket “houses,” household products, possibly illegal teeth, “illegal” sexual products, and much more.

Market scene: fruit
Market scene: fruit
Meditating over watermelons?
Meditating over watermelons?
Men with their birds
Men with their birds
Listening intently, to purchase the right cricket
Listening intently, to purchase the right cricket
Or maybe you want a dog?
Or maybe you want a dog?
A colorful frog?
A colorful frog?
A turtle?
A turtle?
Ruixi helps tour guest Ellen with a duckling
Ruixi helps tour guest Ellen with a duckling
This (including taro) looks better than…
This (including taro) looks better than…
…this
…this
You can find just about anything at the market
You can find just about anything at the market

Breakfast-turned-lunch would be fried beef pancakes, spicy and numbing soup, sour soup dumplings and (finally) my beloved biang-biang noodles (though not the hot oil-seared version that I like best)—including a little “hands-on” lesson in making them. Ruixi, Brian, and I would then go on to try a couple of “hardcore” dishes (they have a nice write-up of these and others at the Lost Plate Tours website): goat blood with silk noodles, along with bang-bang meat.

Check out how they make the pancakes:

Fried beef pancake production
Fried beef pancake production
Finished product: fried beef pancake
Finished product: fried beef pancake
People line up (some with large “canteens” for to-go orders) to get ma la (numbing spicy) soup
People line up (some with large “canteens” for to-go orders) to get ma la (numbing spicy) soup
Ma la soup, after cilantro and chili oil added
Ma la soup, after cilantro and chili oil added
Ruixi, Brian, and Ellen breaking “flat bread” for bowls of ma la soup (yes, that’s the comfortable outdoor seating!)
Ruixi, Brian, and Ellen breaking “flat bread” for bowls of ma la soup (yes, that’s the comfortable outdoor seating!)
Older man with ma la soup walking past kids in the alley
Older man with ma la soup walking past kids in the alley
Making dumplings
Making dumplings
Sour soup dumplings
Sour soup dumplings
Making biang-biang noodles
Making biang-biang noodles
Cooking up the noodles
Cooking up the noodles
Slightly soupy version of biang-biang noodles
Slightly soupy version of biang-biang noodles
Goat blood with silk noodles soup (the noodles are apparently made from bean powder)
Goat blood with silk noodles soup (the noodles are apparently made from bean powder)
Basically all the parts of the animal are in this selection of “bang bang meat” (wood and tea leaf-smoked pork)
Basically all the parts of the animal are in this selection of “bang bang meat” (wood and tea leaf-smoked pork)
Plate of bang bang meat (tail, intestines, stomach, and more)
Plate of bang bang meat (tail, intestines, stomach, and more)

Absolutely stuffed, I’d have little time to recover before venturing out for the evening. On my own, I had to do what everyone does when visiting Xi’an: stroll the Muslim Quarter. It’s colorful and festive and full of amazing sights, smells, and sounds. Cooking fires flare, the scent of cumin pervades the air, cleavers meet meat on well-worn cutting boards, stuff on sticks make you ask “What is it?,” and young men (predominantly) perform acrobatic acts in stretching sugar and then pounding it into candy. And all that’s just your first minute into the market street.

South entry to the main market street of the Muslim Quarter (note the pail full of skewers!)
South entry to the main market street of the Muslim Quarter (note the pail full of skewers!)

Stomach full, I sampled judiciously, my favorite bite being some spicy fried potatoes. I negotiated a half-portion from the vendor while a young woman watched to see my reaction. “Tasty?” I smiled my answer, offering her a sample, and in exchange she gave me some of her spicy tofu. A reminder that food brings cultures and people together.

Here’s a short video clip showing how to make the potatoes:

Spicy potatoes
Spicy potatoes
Meat and more on skewers
Meat and more on skewers
Making roujiamo, or what some call a Xi’an burger, filled with beef or lamb (no pork in the Muslim Quarter, though I’m frankly confused about mutton, lamb, and goat, as they often use “mutton” for goat)
Making roujiamo, or what some call a Xi’an burger, filled with beef or lamb (no pork in the Muslim Quarter, though I’m frankly confused about mutton, lamb, and goat, as they often use “mutton” for goat)
Tofu vendor
Tofu vendor
Lots of things on sticks (and are those “rotatoes”?)
Lots of things on sticks (and are those “rotatoes”?)
Sheep hooves
Sheep hooves
All kinds of interesting breads, many naan-like
All kinds of interesting breads, many naan-like
Rice cake (everything’s better on a skewer!) topped with sweetened dates
Rice cake (everything’s better on a skewer!) topped with sweetened dates
Ongoing clean-up in the streets
Ongoing clean-up in the streets

I thought about the co-mingling of cultures in Xi’an—China’s former capital and the eastern end of the Silk Road—as I strolled the side streets and back alleys of the Muslim Quarter. This is where I found the true charm of the district and the city as a whole. Away from the hustle and bustle, people walked a little slower and smiled a bit more upon eye contact. Until, of course, a bunch of bicycles, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, and buses suddenly screamed by.

I eventually made my way back to the shadow of the Drum Tower, and to a place I’d eyed at the start of the evening: the biang-biang noodle shop. Here, at last, I could have a bowl of hot oil-seared noodles. But not before voyeuristically watching preparation of bowl-after-bowl, taking notes on the noodle-stretching and thwacking, as well as the rest of the process. Finally, I placed an order and voraciously attacked my noodles. A delicious way to end the day!

Now you can be a voyeur and check out the short clip of the noodle-making:

My bowl of hot oil-seared biang-biang noodles
My bowl of hot oil-seared biang-biang noodles
So many choices of noodles…if you understand
So many choices of noodles…if you understand
…and some completely mysterious menu items
…and some completely mysterious menu items

My final day would start early with an expedition to see the Terracotta Army (aka Terracotta Warriors and Horses). It’s the obligatory thing to do when visiting Xi’an, but I eschewed the many organized trips, instead enjoying the adventure of being the only non-Chinese person on the #5 (306) bus. Many students take this cheap (about $1) bus to a university stop, but I took it to the end (about an hour) to the museum site.

Spectacular, right?
Spectacular, right?
Interesting pit views
Interesting pit views

The story about the discovery of the terracotta army (farmers were drilling a well) and the sight itself are both impressive, though as others have commented, in some ways magazine photos are more spectacular than the live view. As I anticipated, while I tried to appreciate the museum, my mind wandered to what bowl of noodles I would eat next. (And given the $25 entry fee, would it have instead been more satisfying to sample about 10 bowls of noodles?)

With a commitment back in town, I didn’t stay long, but still managed to sample a couple of bowls of noodles near the museum entrance. Perhaps defying some Chinese custom about hot and cold, I alternated between spicy slurps of goat blood with silk noodle soup and cooling bites of liangpi.

Another bowl of goat blood with silk noodles soup
Another bowl of goat blood with silk noodles soup
Liangpi, which can be made with rice flour or wheat flour
Liangpi, which can be made with rice flour or wheat flour

Then it was back to the hotel. As part of my stay, the Hilton offered a tasting of dishes at its China Club restaurant, as well as a hands-on lesson in making biang-biang noodles. I’m not normally a fan of hotel restaurants, but in eating a lot of street food, this would provide a contrasting (and, yes, a more comfortable) experience. Besides, China Club is not a typical hotel restaurant, as it has an extensive menu meant to appeal not only to hotel guests, but to locals who want to eat upscale versions of the local fare.

After quick introductions to the restaurant’s chefs (via translation), I was told to suit up for my biang-biang noodle lesson. Things moved quickly in the kitchen, and some details were lost in translation, but it seems like the dough recipe I’ve been using at home is spot-on, with the rest of the cooking process and preparation pretty much the same. What I’m not sure about is the flour for the dough. All I could learn is that they use a high-gluten flour (as do I), but their dough is far more stretchy than mine. It’s easier to work with, and creates silkier noodles.

Yours truly, reporting for duty at the Hilton Xi’an kitchen
Yours truly, reporting for duty at the Hilton Xi’an kitchen

Retiring to the dining room, I ate two different bowls of biang-biang noodles, as well as a sampling of other dishes (including more liangpi)—all fantastic. Again stuffed, they invited me back that evening to sample their version of Xi’an’s famous yang rou pao mo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew). But not before a final evening walk through the city, including a stop at a department store to buy the one souvenir of my stay in Xi’an: a dowel-like rolling pin that I learned is a key to making better biang-biang noodles.

Here’s how the Hilton Xi’an makes biang-biang noodles:

The bowl of biang-biang noodles I helped to make, with various toppings (meat, tomatoes, Chinese chives)
The bowl of biang-biang noodles I helped to make, with various toppings (meat, tomatoes, Chinese chives)
Stirring and then eating my noodles
Stirring and then eating my noodles
A bowl similar to the hot oil-seared biang-biang noodles I ate, though this one also has sea cucumber (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
A bowl similar to the hot oil-seared biang-biang noodles I ate, though this one also has sea cucumber (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Jin xian you ta, a traditional Xi’an snack of noodles and dipping sauce (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Jin xian you ta, a traditional Xi’an snack of noodles and dipping sauce (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Liangpi, pre-sauce pour
Liangpi, pre-sauce pour
Liangpi, ready to eat
Liangpi, ready to eat
Mai fan, made with finely cut garland chrysanthemum
Mai fan, made with finely cut garland chrysanthemum
Dining room at the China Club restaurant in the Hilton Xi’an (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Dining room at the China Club restaurant in the Hilton Xi’an (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Wall mural in the restaurant dining room (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Wall mural in the restaurant dining room (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Guest room (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Guest room (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Exterior of the hotel (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Exterior of the hotel (photo courtesy of Hilton Xi’an)
Inside the Hilton guest room, all the supplies one needs: noodles, wine, potato chips, and condoms
Inside the Hilton guest room, all the supplies one needs: noodles, wine, potato chips, and condoms
A pleasant street to stroll, close to the Hilton Xi’an
A pleasant street to stroll, close to the Hilton Xi’an
Gaming on the street
Gaming on the street

The Mein Man: Summer Ramen Alternative on the Eastside

Santouka mazemen 1727Dish: Mazemen

Place: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Bellevue

Price: $12.50 (for a 7 ounce portion, with a 4.5 ounce portion available for $11.50)

In the bowl: Broth-less ramen in a soy sauce-based sauce, with chunks of chashu (braised pork belly), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), and ribbons of green onions.

Noodling around: Ramen fans who don’t feel like slurping soup noodles in the summer will find joy in mazemen, Santouka’s seasonal offering. This is ramen without the soup, making it a “dry” dish that’s still full of the regular ramen components. No pork fatty “tonkotsu” broth, but the chunks of chashu will satisfy your porcine cravings. Menma and kikurage are mixed in, and the whole thing is sauced with notes of soy sauce and “negi abura” (green onion-infused oil) sneaking through. A generous portion of green onions top the noodles; the curly ribbons are fun but a little too large in terms of flavor balance.

If you want more: It’s nice to see takoyaki on the menu, but these “octopus balls” are frozen and deep-fried rather than made fresh. A better option is the small appetizer portion of tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet, $6.00) that comes with a lemon wedge, karashi (spicy Japanese mustard), arugula, and tonkatsu sauce. Besides, this opens the door to the potential playful order of tonkatsu/tonkotsu.

Santouka tonkatsu Be aware/beware: I continue to believe that the signature tonkotsu shio ramen is the best choice at Santouka (and likely the highest quality ramen available on a daily basis in the Seattle area), but it’s nice to see new choices on the menu. Another option: toroniku goma miso ramen, with the tonkotsu broth having a nice balance of sesame and miso flavors.

The Mein Man: Hand-Shaven Noodles (and More) at La Bu La

   

Chow mein with hand-shaven noodles
Chow mein with hand-shaven noodles

 Dish: Chow Mein

Place: La Bu La, Bellevue

Price: $10.95

On the plate: Hand-shaven noodles with chicken, green onions, carrot, cabbage, and bean sprouts.

Supporting cast/What to do: Just eat and enjoy.

Noodling around: You can order this dish with hand-shaven noodles or egg noodles, and a choice of chicken, pork, beef, seafood, or vegetables. You definitely want the hand-shaven noodles. In the kitchen, the chef holds a block of dough on his arm, and with a free hand, uses a knife to expertly flick strips of dough into boiling water.

Making hand-shaven noodles
Making hand-shaven noodles

Boiling is where the noodle-cooking ends if you order the Cheng Du Hand-Shaven Noodle dish. But for the chow mein, the boiled noodles are brought over to a wok station to be stir-fried with the rest of the ingredients, along with garlic, regular and dark soy sauce, and some oyster sauce. The result: slightly chewy noodles with just a bit of smokiness from the wok.

If you want more: As the Chow Mein is a very mild dish, you’re almost obligated to balance that with something spicy at this Sichuanese restaurant. I strongly suggest you “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” by selecting something from the more interesting “Wild Side” menu. Items like Young Bamboo Shoots in Chili Oil ($8.95) or Fiery Cucumber Pieces ($7.95) will give you something fresh and fiery, but if you’ve got the appetite, try a platter of Chong Qing Hot Chicken ($14.95) for some addictively numbing and spicy (and a little sweet) deep-fried chicken morsels, plated with a scattering of blistered green beans.

Chong Qinq Chicken
Chong Qinq Chicken
Tender Fish Morsels in Fiery Broth of Two Kinds of Chili Peppers (I enjoy all of these fiery fish dishes)
Tender Fish Morsels in Fiery Broth of Two Kinds of Chili Peppers (I enjoy all of these fiery fish dishes)
My favorite dish at La Bu La: The Other Parts of a Pig (with pork blood, intestines, etc.)
My favorite dish at La Bu La: The Other Parts of a Pig (with pork blood, intestines, etc.)

Be aware/beware: Here’s the backstory of La Bu La, as I recently reported for Eater Seattle:

Bamboo Garden, the beloved Chinese restaurant previously located next to an adult toy store in a Bellevue strip mall, quietly reemerged as La Bu La on April 25. Just feet from its former site, La Bu La is in the new Soma Towers development, where it trades the darkness of its previous cave-like locale for a light-filled dining experience, thanks to floor-to-window ceilings. The ambience is contemporary but with classic Chinese touches, such as the antique chests scattered throughout the dining area, as well as the soldier statues towering above the bar.

The new bar (photo courtesy of La Bu La)
The new bar (photo courtesy of La Bu La)

Translating to “spicy not spicy” (as in, “How do you want your food?”), La Bu La opened with a new sit-down bar replete with expanded beer, wine, and cocktail options, and the same trust food offerings from Bamboo Garden. While part of the menu deliberately appeals to diners who don’t want to dabble in the typical heat of Sichuan cooking, true fans will want to turn to the popular “Walk on the Wild Side” menu, which basically takes the typically inaccessible Chinese language menu and makes it available—and appealing—to non-Chinese clientele. Favorites include “Fire Swimming Fish,” “The Other Parts of a Pig,” and the restaurant’s most popular dish: “Chong Qing Hot Chicken” that’s both numbing and spicy (ma la, in Chinese).

Gorgeous new digs (photo courtesy of La Bu La)
Gorgeous new digs (photo courtesy of La Bu La)

Bamboo Garden was featured as part of Eater Seattle’s Chinese map back in September—a high honor since Sichuanese is the Chinese cuisine which Seattle does best. With improved atmosphere and service (as well as private dining options) added to its previously popular menu, La Bu La is even more of a destination-worthy drive from Seattle for Chinese food. And that’s not even mentioning the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) coming to the menu in the weeks ahead…

Delicatus Delivers Diverse Sandwiches and More in Pioneer Square

Best sandwich of the visit was The Rebel: hot pastrami with white cheddar, jalapeno-lime aioli, picked red onions, jalapenos, and cilantro on a 10″ Italian roll (half sandwich shown), served here with potato salad and pickles
Best sandwich of the visit was The Rebel: hot pastrami with white cheddar, jalapeno-lime aioli, picked red onions, jalapenos, and cilantro on a 10″ Italian roll (half sandwich shown), served here with potato salad and pickles

In addition to its German association with delicatessen, the word “delicatus” has Latin meaning of alluring and charming and “that which gives pleasure.” It also means voluptuous. Hang out at Delicatus in Seattle’s Pioneer Square enjoying the sensual sandwiches, and you too may become more curvaceous alluring.

While some sandwich shops specialize in, say, just three sandwiches, Delicatus greets you with three towering chalkboards chock-full of sandwich choices. The left and right boards are loaded with the “traditionalists” and “progressives,” while the middle goes even further with a handful of “extremists.” Ordering might take time as you contemplate the interesting ingredient combinations, Wooden Table meats, and thoughtful bread choices. Note the variety of aiolis and the number of peppers that spice up many of the sandwiches.

Lots of sandwiches
Lots of sandwiches
Inside Delicatus
Inside Delicatus
A closer look at that important quote above the counter
A closer look at that important quote above the counter

The friendly staff will help you with your sandwich selection, which come with chips by default, though I recommend an upgrade to the German-style potato salad (delightfully spiked with mustard seeds) for less than a dollar. Save room for a corn flake cookie. This thin guy is easy to overlook, but has a captivatingly crispy texture and just the right levels of chocolate and salt.

Delicatus gives you a large number of sandwich choices, as well as a large number of seating options. You can sit out on the sidewalk, in the sun-filled window, at the counter, in the back dining room, or upstairs in the mezzanine.

The Seattle Cure: cured albacore tuna bresaola, salmon lox, lemon-caper aioli, shaved red onions, sweet peppers, and field greens on a toasted ciabatta roll (the lox flavor prevails), served with pasta salad with asparagus
The Seattle Cure: cured albacore tuna bresaola, salmon lox, lemon-caper aioli, shaved red onions, sweet peppers, and field greens on a toasted ciabatta roll (the lox flavor prevails), served with pasta salad with asparagus
Pavo Diablo: hickory-smoked turkey, sliced avocado, spinach, havarti, roasted poblano peppers, spicy chipotle aioli, and cilantro on sourdough bread (a “soft and comforting” half sandwich that wasn’t really spicy), served with a nice house salad
Pavo Diablo: hickory-smoked turkey, sliced avocado, spinach, havarti, roasted poblano peppers, spicy chipotle aioli, and cilantro on sourdough bread (a “soft and comforting” half sandwich that wasn’t really spicy), served with a nice house salad
Fists of Fury: tender pulled pork, sliced jalapenos, carrots, cucumbers, shaved cabbage, tobiko caviar (!), wasabi aioli, and cilantro on a toasted Italian roll (half sandwich pictured, like a banh mi), served with potato chips
Fists of Fury: tender pulled pork, sliced jalapenos, carrots, cucumbers, shaved cabbage, tobiko caviar (!), wasabi aioli, and cilantro on a toasted Italian roll (half sandwich pictured, like a banh mi), served with potato chips
Cheesecake with the corn flake cookie in the background
Cheesecake with the corn flake cookie in the background

But it’s not just sandwiches. Non-sandwich eaters will find a few brunch options on the weekends. (I saw some terrific-looking challah French toast paired with bacon—or is that a sort of deconstructed sandwich?). Plus, dinner is served weekdays with focus on a few classic preparations. (The shepherd’s pie looks especially intriguing.) There’s also a little bar, which is the perfect place to enjoy happy hour, perhaps with a sausage plate. Or take home the makings of a charcuterie plate (some meats are made in-house, while others are sourced from fine local to international artisans) along with a bottle of wine.

As for that wine, it comes from just two blocks south at The Kitchen by Delicatus. Consider this the creative space of the Delicatus team. Here you’ll find Sous Sol Winery and a 1,500 square foot private event space, which at times plays host to guest chef/pop-up dinners. It’s also the site of a regular dinner series by Delicatus’ own staff. Much like the sandwiches, these are casual and playful affairs, with slightly elevated but not stuffy presentations and service.

Operating owner Derek Shankland told me that Kitchen evolved “as a creative and experimental center that seeks to celebrate our industry while bringing our community together for many diverse and unique food and beverage experiences.” A sneak peek at the menu for the May 16 Slovenian dinner shows Triglav mushroom soup, lamb loin with cherry knedle, and flancati filled with rhubarb and topped with fresh cream cheese. On May 30, Delicatus’ chef Aaron Willis teams with Lost Angeles’ Barolo Joe team for a Northwest Heritage dinner featuring courses that range from smoked venison agnolotti with Shaanxi-style shaved noodles (two noodles in one dish?) to Korean bbq to deconstructed tiramisu. Diverse and unique indeed.

I was invited to attend the recent “Cold Water Excursion” dinner, which featured the following four seafood courses (plus dessert):

Char-grilled octopus salad with baby arugula, Calabrian peppers, Cerignola olive relish, rosemary cracker, Alhema de Queiles organic arbequina oil, and aged sherry vinegar
Char-grilled octopus salad with baby arugula, Calabrian peppers, Cerignola olive relish, rosemary cracker, Alhema de Queiles organic arbequina oil, and aged sherry vinegar
White shrimp bisque with chili oil-poached shrimp, served with basil pistou (and bread)
White shrimp bisque with chili oil-poached shrimp, served with basil pistou (and bread)
Semolina-dusted New England scallops with Gothberg Farms chevre gnudi, micro greens, and salmon roe (favorite dish of the night), served with creamy morel buttered English peas with thyme
Semolina-dusted New England scallops with Gothberg Farms chevre gnudi, micro greens, and salmon roe (favorite dish of the night), served with creamy morel buttered English peas with thyme
Seared Alaskan king salmon with asparagus and tomato salad, pancetta lardons, fried rosemary, Bormane Rivera Italian evoo, and 25-year Oro di Reggio Emilia balsamic vinegar, served with pecorino polenta
Seared Alaskan king salmon with asparagus and tomato salad, pancetta lardons, fried rosemary, Bormane Rivera Italian evoo, and 25-year Oro di Reggio Emilia balsamic vinegar, served with pecorino polenta
Inside The Kitchen by Delicatus (this photo courtesy of Derek Shankland)
Inside The Kitchen by Delicatus (this photo courtesy of Derek Shankland)

The Mein Man: Pad Thai (and Pleasant Peculiarities) at Song Phang Kong

Sweet and spicy pad thai
Sweet and spicy pad thai

Dish: Pad Thai

Place: Song Phang Kong, International District (Seattle)

Price: $7.00 (inclusive of tax)

On the plate: Rice noodles with choice of protein (shrimp is great), crushed peanuts, shredded carrot, bean sprouts, egg, and green onions.

Supporting cast/What to do: The dish comes with a lime wedge. Usually. Another time, there was both lemon and lime. Squirt if you want a hit of acidity. Eat and enjoy.

Noodling around: This is a generous portion for $7. What strikes me about the pad thai here is the initial sweetness, countered by spicy heat—even though there’s no inquiry about desired spice level. Excellent balance. The noodles are perfectly cooked: soft and yet slightly chewy.

There’s pad see ew on the “menu” (see below), but we asked for pad kee mao, and our “host” (see below) was happy to oblige. (I believe she’s willing to make anything she can, if she has time and ingredients on hand or close by—see below.) The wide noodle dish was fine, but not remarkably different than other preparations in town. Pad thai is the preferred choice, as it’s much better than you’ll find at most local restaurants.

Pad kee mao, with its wide noodles
Pad kee mao, with its wide noodles

If you want more: It depends what else is available, which leads us to…

Be aware/beware: Song Phang Kong is a magical place that’s a bit mysterious, making for a unique dining experience. In a sliver of a space that was once a banh mi shop (across from Viet Wah supermarket), the restaurant has but four tables. Despite the small size, expect to wait for your food as it’s all made from scratch.

Song Phang Kong is a true mom-and-pop operation; she’s Lao and he’s Thai, though he wasn’t there last visit, which meant slightly slower service and some inconsistency in terms of food preparation. After all, this left “mom” (more like “grandma”) to do it all (cooking, serving, cleaning), and as in a previous visit, this included leaving the restaurant mid-service to go to a nearby store to buy food. This after my group found a locked door at 11:30 (the restaurant is scheduled to open daily at 10am); just as we were ready to give up, mom came to the door bleary-eyed, beckoning us in after struggling to get the door open.

There’s just one menu for all the tables, upright and encased in plastic, plus a pile of laminated pages with photos, with most of those pages repeats. And you never know what menu items will be available (the sausage has been unavailable for reasons I can’t quite understand due to mom’s limited English), or what adjustments mom will make after you’ve placed your order (“I hope pork is okay in your curry instead of chicken”).

It’s hard to stay upset, though, when she brings each person a bottle of water and a Pepsi (randomly regular or diet) and says, “these are free.” And then brings mismatched plates, laughing while she says “oh, I forgot” when you have to help yourself to napkins and chopsticks from a nearby tray.

Green papaya salad, which will wake up your senses
Green papaya salad, which will wake up your senses

All is forgiven when you hear the pounding of the pestle in mortar as she starts preparing your green papaya salad. (For now, I even forgive the picture of Jesus above the mortar and pestle, as it was gone by the next visit. I prefer my restaurants religion-free.) As she prepares that salad, you should prepare for pretty high spice level. She’s not shy with the chile peppers. Fortunately, that salad comes with raw vegetables and an enormous bag of sticky rice for each person to absorb the heat.

A big bowl of non-sticky rice will come if you order curry or beef jerky or any other dish, I suppose. Try to explain that it’s too much rice, and mom will laugh and tell you she can bring more. It’s all part of the quirkiness that makes Song Phang Wong fun. And a delicious bargain, if you’re willing to embrace the experience.

Green curry with pork
Green curry with pork
Beef jerky
Beef jerky

The Mein Man Eats: Spicy Noodles at Little Ting’s Dumplings

Handmade noodles in spicy sauce
Handmade noodles in spicy sauce

Dish: Handmade Noodles in Spicy Sauce

Place: Little Ting’s Dumplings, Greenwood (Seattle)

Price: $7.50

On the plate: Hand-stretched noodles with thin-sliced cucumber, green onions, chile flakes, sugar, salt, five-spice powder, garlic, white vinegar, and cucumber juice.

Supporting cast/What to do: Mix well to ensure that all the noodles are soaked in sauce, then eat.

Noodling around: I’m a big fan of biang-biang noodles, so I was excited to learn that Little Ting’s has the hand-stretched wide noodles I constantly crave. Owners Ting (hence the restaurant name) and Jason have connection to Heibei province, so it’s not surprising that the noodles are done a little differently than the Shaanxi-style preparation I make at home. But not much, as both are “you po mian,” or hot oil-seared (or more literally “sprinkled”) noodles.

The noodles at Little Ting’s are served cool (Ting told me that plunging the cooked noodles in ice water for a few seconds makes them more silky and chewy) compared to the ones I like at Qin (formerly Biang!) in Edmonds. When I asked about the acidic, slightly sour taste, she explained that it comes from the vinegar (I use black vinegar for my biang-biang noodles) and perhaps the cucumber juice. I recommend a generous splash of soy sauce for additional flavor in this dish.

These wide, chewy noodles are a delight to try in all types of preparations—though ultimately I like them dry instead of soupy. Still, the other option of Handmade Noodles in Ribs and Seaweed Soup (also $7.50) is interesting to try. Have this before you set your mouth on fire with the hot oil-seared noodles, as the seaweed refers to basically a dashi broth that’s fairly delicate in flavor.

Handmade Noodles in Ribs and Seaweed Soup
Handmade Noodles in Ribs and Seaweed Soup

If you want more: Little Ting’s is primarily a dumpling shop (you can buy some for your freezer), so it only makes sense to get dumplings on the side. The chive and scallop dumplings are tempting, but the pork and chive is a good standard for starters. The pan-fried version ($8.89 for 15) is perfectly executed to exquisite crispiness—nice and juicy.

Pork and chive dumplings
Pork and chive dumplings

Be aware/beware: The adorable dumpling art on the wall? It’s by Jason.