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.

Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series Visits Sweden

Lena Moén, soprano
Lena Moén, soprano

I had no idea Swedish art song existed, but of course it does. At the Nordic Heritage Museum Sunday afternoon, Mostly Nordic treated the audience to a concert of such songs, largely from the 20th century but dipping back to the 19th, in the third of its annual performances highlighting the music of a specific Nordic country. (There are two more concerts in the Mostly Nordic series this spring, featuring music from Norway, May 2, and Iceland, May 31.)

Swedish soprano Lena Moén  with her frequent collaborator, pianist Lena Johnson, gave us songs by composers Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Bo Linde, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Mogens Schrader, and Gustaf Nordqvist, and included a few from out of the country by Schubert, Grieg, and Richard Strauss. The audience was provided with all the words, a thoughtful gesture which made the songs even more enjoyable.

Moén began with a startling cow call, such as was given by girls calling their family’s cows home. Sounding like a cross between a Swiss yodel and an American cowboy’s “Eee-yoww!”, she explained after that every girl had her own individual call and the cows knew which call to come to.

It was guaranteed to gather everyone’s immediate attention, and Moén continued with a charming selection of songs, mostly about love or spring or both, in a voice unlike anything we usually hear here.

Robust and sturdy, pure but not silvery, with vibrato used artfully or not at all, her voice was ideal for these songs. She reached the highest notes effortlessly, no strain and hitting them squarely except in one song where she had a slight problem with them.

The beautiful songs themselves belong fully in the art song category, not folk, and have accompaniments which are a full component of each piece, performed by Johnson and Moén as a seamless pair.

Lena Johnson, pianist
Lena Johnson, pianist

Johnson also played a few solos, one group by Peterson-Berger, one a Fantasy in B minor by Stenhammar. We are so used to hearing the cream of the cream of world pianists here, that it can be hard to judge others fairly, but while Johnson easily had the technique for all the notes, she tended to be a bit slapdash with nuance and approach.

The more familiar Grieg song “I Love You” came off well, though the Strauss songs, “All Souls Day” and “Devotion” were a little less suited to Moén’s voice. The surprise came with Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,’ which emphatically did not suit Moen, or perhaps she didn’t suit it. With Seattle’s Sean Osborn providing a clarinet role to die for in its beauty, Moen’s strong voice did not provide the classical sound required. It needed more refinement, to be less “out” there, gentler, more nuanced for this song. On the other hand, the song is difficult in that the notes go fast all over the range with wide jumps and Moén encompassed all of them with rippling ease. Only her topmost notes in the last part of the song failed quite to reach their goal.

Moén and Johnson gave one encore: an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” which she sang softly, and well.

Curious Georges in a conversation with Seattle