Beijing Part 3: Sichuan Restaurants

“I wish you hadn’t told me that” B said, after I informed him that this dish we had just eaten was Dan Dan Mien. We order a perfectly good dish which shares the same name from one of our favorite restaurants at home. It’s a great dish, thick chewy noodles and a sauce that seems to be made from pork and peanut butter. These were different. These were crafted dishes, delicate sauce made with layers of flavor. A hint of vinegar here, Sichuan peppercorn there. A totally unrelated dish. Now that we’d had the true version, that serviceable bowl of noodles back home didn’t seem as interesting.

We ate the noodles at each of the three Sichuan restaurants we went to–in fact, we got two repeat dishes. We developed a pattern, a taste for this beautiful noodle dish accompanied by the traditional boiled fish dish.

The noodles and the fish on the right side are both from a place called Ba Guo Bu Yi, where we went for lunch on one of our final days. I think we might have liked it a lot better had we not been to the other place the previous night.

Fei Teng Yu Xiang had a bit of a, well, Vegas-y exterior, to say the least. But in reality, it was the best meal of the trip. While we knew with two people we couldn’t order one of the giant vats of beer that were front in center at larger tables, we did our best to order an impressive amount of food for the two of us. So much, in fact, that the waiter gifted us a Fei Teng Yu Xiang calendar when we left. Now I have twelve beautiful months of Sichuanese food and gaudy Vegas facades to look forward to.

We had started our Sichuanese food journey with Chuan Ban, the Sichuanese Government Building restaurant but were surprisingly underwhelmed–the interwebs seem to think the world of the place. Every thing was quite good, but when compared with either of our other two Sichuan restaurant meals, this was not going to cut it.

The food at Fei Teng, on the other hand, blew us away. We started with a series of appetizers, beautiful cubes of pickled vegetable which sat at our table, cutting through the oil-heavy tradition of Sichuan food. Below that in the same photo, you’ll see our preserved eggs, a delicacy that was new to me as of this trip, but which I immediately fell in love with–I’ve got them in my cabinet at home now.  A wonderful surprise arrived with our spicy eggplant. It was beautifully presented in a mortar and pestle. It turned out to be one of our best choices, once we realized you had to mix the peppers on top into the eggplant to avoid a searing spice.

As we finished up our starters, our second course included the dan dan noodles shown above and the dumplings pictured below. These little pillows of meat were served with a bright orange spicy dipping sauce that is underneath and you can’t see, unfortunately. You’ll have to take my word on how good it was. The fish then came and we thought we might be done. But no, we would never have only ordered enough food to make us painfully full. No, we needed to have ordered enough food to make us look angrily at the final dish, to want to cry when faced with the prospect of attacking the gorgeous bowl filled to the brim with tender oxtail and savory taro, sprinkled with tiny, multi-colored peppers. Oh, hell, there we were, digging in again.

The final dish I leave you with was actually from Ba Guo, but since everything was just a little less good versions of what we had at Fei Teng, I’m not going to add more comparison pictures. That said, Ba Guo was delicious and had some really cool dishes that weren’t at Fei Teng. Like this awesome squid over hot rocks dish!

The Top Six Dishes I ate in Seattle this year

I’ll be honest, this started out as a top 5 list, but I had six dishes that truly stood out in my mind that I ate this year. I eat out a decent amount and I don’t always write about them–especially if the rest of the meal was distinctly underwhelming, as was the case in at least one of them. I like just picking a dish because I’m not judging the whole restaurant experience (another of these dishes was served with a side of horrifically bad service), nor am I needing to make extensive commentary. The only point of this is to give props to the creativity and skills of the chefs and restaurants around the city. They tend to lean towards newer restaurants, if for no other reason then that’s where I found innovative, taste-bud shocking (in the best way possible) flavors.

6. The pork belly I had at the wine dinner at Monsoon. This is the only one I have a picture of, but given that it stared out from my blog for altogether too long when it was first posted, I’m not going to add it over here as well. Scroll down to the bottom and read the description of my desire to swim in cabernet grape reduction to fully understand the lusciousness of this dish.

5. The Lamb’s Tongue Salad at Bastille. I noted this when I went as unbelievable. I clearly remembered it a month ago when I started this list. And still, as I try to jog my memory with other ingredients, what stands out is the surprisingly tender, beautiful meat, not generally what shines in a salad. This lamb tongue was delightful, great flavor, I could have eaten it as part of a much heavier main, yet the genius of the dish was that it was surrounded with a green, I believe dandelion, tiny chanterelle mushroom buttons and a few other lovely, light ingredients.

4. Springhill’s Smoked Oysters–okay, technically on the menu I believe the dish was under charcuterie and is titled “Sorpressata,” but while the sausage is lovely, it is not the star of the dish. No, the house-made sausage is clearly well made and delicious, but let’s talk about the true star of the show, the house alder smoked oysters. You know the smoked oysters that come in the can? I love those, but this is like comparing a Funyun to a beautifully crisp, freshly fried piece of shallot, like you’d get atop a fine French salad. The plate is rounded out with potato cracklins–which truly do conjure up the middle ground between fried pig skin and a potato chip. The red pepper sauce is the weakest individual component of the plate, but the whole dish works well together and each component matches the others so well. This dish, on its own, has brought me back to Springhill over and over.

3. Kimchi Quesadilla at Marination Mobile. After much deliberation, I chose the Kimchi Quesadilla as the dish I’d use form Marination. Really this Hawaiian taco truck has a few things I’d consider putting on this list, but the quesadilla was the first dish I had there and the one that blew my mind–after that first bite, I expected the unexpected and delicious. But the first time I saw the pinkish squiggles of sauce over my flour tortillas and bit in to the tangy bite of kimchi combined with tender soft pork, that was when I knew that this was something different. The Spam sliders might have changed my mind on a whole type of food, the spam musubi cemented that, but it was the kimchi quesadilla that floored me with possibilities.

2. Sometimes I think that hoping for new and innovative dim sum dishes in Seattle is a little like hoping for the Mariner’s to be in the World Series–Ain’t never gonna happen. So imagine my surprise when, in conversation with one of the men at Tea Garden, he mentioned that in addition to the pork stuffed taro balls, they also had ones with scallops inside. The first time we had this dish they were fresh out of the frier, and the scallop so perfectly cooked that it very nearly melted, spreading its sweet flavor throughout the crispy outside, the soft taro, one huge, delicious, if searingly hot bite. We returned and were able to order them a second time, but have since struck out twice and had them served less well prepared once. Was this moment of amazingness but a dim sum mirage? Here’s to hoping not!

1. Speaking of dishes that sometimes seem like a mirage, given the speed that B and I can demolish it, the not-on-the-menu (but nearly always available) Hamachi Collar with Bagna Cauda at Anchovies and Olives certainly qualifies. We were first offered this after two of the five dishes we asked for were sold out, but from then on we knew to ask for it by name every time. I get heartbroken when they’ve sold out of them for the evening. Collar is one of those cuts that Americans stay away from, most likely for its difficulty to eat. But when this chunk of fish lands on your table, you’ll abandon niceties and soon dig in with your fingers, if for no reason than after that flaky, tender fish is long gone, you can lick the anchovy and garlic spiked oil from your fingers and reminisce about the dish.

Beijing Part 2: Holes in the wall and Xinjiang restaurants

In which I describe the delights you can find only by adventurously ducking into the whatever steamed in window you see in a Beijing back alley (aka hutong) as well as delve into the first of the many regional Chinese cuisines we tried while there. At first glance this might seem like an odd combination, but really there was a lot of overlap. A feature of Xinjiang food is grilled things on sticks and flat, pizza-like flavored breads, both of which you may know, make excellent drinking foods, thus many double as great places to consume large amounts of weak Chinese beer or strong Chinese rice Whiskey, giving them more of a hole in the wall feel than a real restaurant feel. We had been out of the hotel just long enough to drop our body temperatures a few degrees on our first morning, when I spotted this. It emanated a feeling of warmth (without actually warming the outside): Windows heavily steamed, to the point that water rolls down inside, Tall stacks of bamboo steamers containing mystery deliciousness,  Tables crowded with people, silent and huddled over bowls, raising spoons to lips. When I saw this off the main street, I dragged B inside. I hadn’t been able to see what people were eating, but I came to know the telltale bamboo steamers for future reference: Bao zi, pronounced like Bowser, from Mario Kart, only without the ‘r’. Bow-za, if you will. There is something inherently comforting about these fluffy stuffed buns. Despite the fact that I’ve never had them before (not even sure I’ve seen them in Seattle), I instantly felt taken back to childhood with a bite. The universal joy of soft dough around savory meat is epitomized in the bao zi. That said, I would never list this amongst my favorite dishes in Beijing. It is to Beijing what the French fry is to America–everywhere, commonplace, and while there are good and bad, they rarely raise to new culinary heights nor do they fall below a certain level of mediocrity. In general we ordered these as an accompaniment to various soups that we ordered at small mom and pop joints.

Yes, literally, there they are. Mom dishes out what, at this place was a thin broth with some type of scrambled egg afloat, while Pop crafted bao zi behind her. We pointed at the dishes the guy across from us had in front of him and were promptly served. We repeated this many times over the course of the next few days, especially as I got sick and began to crave the light, beautiful stocks enhanced with floating pillows of flavor–be they wontons, eggs, noodles or meat.

While I’m chatting here, I’ll just express my frustration at the difficulty of taking pictures of steaming hot soups inside small rooms with steamed in windows on gloomily smoggy days in Beijing. However, I think, picture quality aside, that you can see these are amazing, healing soups.

What, you might ask was I working on healing? How about the damage done after a night at a Xinjiang hole in the wall with my friend Nick, two former co-workers from a Chinese newspaper and a friend who spoke no English and a random kindly Australian news correspondent.Before we even get to the beer bottles, most of which are not pictured, just note the bottles of Chinese rice whiskey. While we felt that we could drink the Chinese beer for days with out feeling drunk, after about two sips of this stuff, you knew you’d live to regret it. We had been at a bar on the lovely Nanluoguxiang bar street, and needed some food. At the North end of the street, Nick guided us to the right and the first or second door was this place. While torturing us by ordering ridiculous amounts of beverages, he also treated us to an array of Xinjiang food, a first for us.We started with this cucumber, bell pepper and cilantro salad, which was light and refreshing, with a vinegar-y dressing. It reminded me more of Mexican or Peruvian food in terms of flavors than anything Chinese I’d had before. In reality, Xinjiang is Chinese on a technicality–this is the Northwestern territory, which is populated by a Turkic peoples and the cuisine floats between Afghan, Persian and Chinese styles.

The ever popular specialty of most of these hole-in-the-wall/halfway to a dive bar type Xinjiang restaurants is meat on sticks. I love meat on sticks, so this was a bit of heaven for me. Above, you see what we later got defined as ‘lamb knee’. Whatever this consists of, it had that soft crunch of a perfectly prepared pig ear. If that idea grosses you out, lamb knee is probably not for you. If it makes your heart beat faster, then you’re in for a treat. Each skewer was liberally sprinkled with a vibrant spice mixture that included a heavy hand with the cumin. I did not get many photos, but the meat variety was terrific, there were chicken hearts, chicken wings and the ‘regular’ lamb. Later in the trip I was reading Fuschia Dunlop’s wonderfully written memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Peppercorns” and got an explanation of what made the lamb so good. I had noticed a fatty bit between two pieces of mutton on the skewers, but hadn’t understood why or where it came from. Dunlop explains that the meat comes from the fat-tailed sheep of NW China, so a piece of the tail fat is threaded onto each skewer. Drool. I’d like to thread tail fat on to most everything I eat.

A few days later, we headed to Crescent Moon Xinjiang restaurant, not far from the Dong Si subway stop, where we experienced a greater variety of the regional cuisine, this time feeling a little of the Russian influence from the north. We drank milk teas and pomegranate juice as we lingered over thick noodles under chicken stew, bigger, meatier versions of the skewers, flatbreads with the soft top/crispy bottom combo that you crave in a good slice of pizza, and an amazing creamy yogurt.

On our final night, we finished out the trip much like we had started it, drinking in a Xinjiang restaurant where the food seemed to be a thinly veiled excuse for excessive drinking. The floor was so filthy and littered I was scared to put my bag down and what passed for a napkin stuck to the table when I put it down. A man who clearly didn’t feel the need to excuse his drinking came up to us and cheers-ed us, then returned to his table. The polite thing to do, Nick told us, was to go over to his table and do the same. And down the rabbit hole we went, til the man was sitting at the table, babbling away in Chinese, oblivious to the fact that we didn’t understand a word, having a grand old time. We knew it was time to make our escape when Nick ceased to be able to translate because the man’s speech was interrupted by an unabashed belch every other syllable.

B and his new buddy

Beijing part 1: Street Food Favorites

The people of Beijing are hardy stock–everyone perfectly dressed and coifed despite the frigid temperatures, a street life, food vendors included, that is not hampered by the dry cold that froze me immediately. Needless to say, one of the best cures for a half-frostbitten fingers is to hold something warm, something comforting, something delicious, between my hands. To heat my belly with the fire of spicy, delicious food fresh from the nearest bundled up cook on the sidewalk.

The man above is making the snack on the left, a thin, crispy egg wrapper filled with two kinds of sauce, one of the optional and spicy, lettuce and a giant crispy fried cracker-like thing. The version on the left is a softer, doughier example, with all the same fillings plus the addition of cilantro, chives and black sesame seeds. I remember only eggs being use to make the first one, while a batter was used in the second, though B insists the only difference was that the stone on which they cooked was spinning at the stand we bought the first one. Either way, after extensive research into this snack, my favorite of the street foods, I chose the one on the right as my favorite. And by extensive research I mean I ate a shit-ton of these. It’s a difficult task I take upon myself. You’ll notice that in neither of these examples did the camera beat my mouth to crepe.

I joked to B that all the street food seemed to be some combination of bread, meat and egg. Sometimes all three were included.

The photo to the left shows pretty much exactly that typical food. This is a flat bread, which is fried on a griddle with an egg, smeared with hot sauce and stuffed with lettuce and your choice of meat: options often included what we later found out was donkey and something that appeared to be the Chinese version of a Slim Jim. I’d show pictures, butwe opted out of the Slim Jim. Below, however you can see our Donkey McMuffin. We didn’t know that this was what we were eating at the time, it came up later in a conversation with my friend N. “Have you had donkey before? They sell it on the street, sort of a reddish sauce, they put it in bread with an egg….” Yup, Yup, we have.

Each day, as we set out to stroll the streets, we grabbed just about anything that caught our eye to eat. Even if we happened to be two blocks away from lunch. Or dinner. Which we were when I decided I might just need each of these.
We were on the way to dinner when I first picked up one of the fruit skewers on the right. I don’t know why I waited so long before trying one of these ubiquitous Beijing treats. Various fruits–this one has kiwis sandwiched inside a sort of small apple are surrounded by a crunchy candy coating. Each bite is a satisfying crackle as you break through the coating, followed by a refreshing feeling of cool, softened and sweetened fruit rushing into your mouth. Totally crave-able. In fact, I’d have to admit that writing this is making me crave one right now. Once I discovered these I bought them about every time I saw them, with various different types of fruit. The textural transformation from regular fruit is really exciting. Texture was also my reason for loving the bread pictures above on the right. This snack looks like a giant pizza when you see it being pulled off the griddle on its cart, but then they slice it all up and pass it over in a brown paper bag. Topped with a tasty sauce that does double duty, supplying a subtle flavor and also keeping the chives from flying off, the bread itself has that magical texture that manages to be both crunchy and chewy at the same time. It’s hard to describe it with out comparing it to the texture of cartilage or tendon, the slight crunch that gives way to perfect chew, and I know that doing so is a little gross, but keep in mind, the flavor was distinctly that of a type of bread–though no bread I have had before. B had to confiscate the bag when I was about three slices in, as we were on our way to a hefty lunch. I pouted.

Luckily you’re never far from your next delicious street food in Beijing, and I’m easily placated, especially when we run into this fried, meat stuffed bread, my very favorite. We ran into our first example of this when a window on the side of the street opened and a young cook shouted to us “Beef Bread” and then repeated it as we squinted at this odd sight. But then we bought “beef bread” (maybe it was beef bun? I’m doubting my memory now). These are made in similar fashion to the scallion pancake you get at most any Chinese restaurant, by rolling beef into a round, flat dough, then making it into a spiral and rolling it flat again, followed by a quick, shallow bath of hot oil. The dough is thin, crispy, flaky and extremely savory (I’m guessing a well honed hand in a combination of salt and msg), the meat is somehow perfectly spread between the various coils, each bite as flaky and meaty as the last.

And much like when I finished eating from a street vendor, as I reach the end of this post, I’ve completely forgotten the numbing cold and warmed myself from the inside out with thoughts of amazing, quick and dirt cheap food.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on hole-in-the-wall semi-restaurants and various regional foods found around Beijing!

What have I been up to?

Life gets busy sometimes, and shocked as you are by it, I’m sure, posting on my blog is one of the things that has a tendency to fall by the wayside. Not to worry, though, as I’ve been having a good time. First I want to share with you what I will be up to in the next few days, weeks, whenever.

2009 KBA Poster

Without delving into the irony of a Taste of Kirkland being held in Woodinville, I will point out that the salient fact here is that I am crossing the lake for an event (pausing for applause). No, am not going solely because Pat Cashman, formerly of Almost Live! is hosting, though I’ll admit it is a draw. No, I’m going because Kirkland being our neighbors to the Northeast that I almost never make it to have seized the opportunity to strut their stuff and I’m going to open my mouth and stuff down that strut. I love an event with competitive cooking (there is voting and awards) and also ones sponsored by wineries. It’ll be Friday the 25th and you can get more information here.

I’ve also been taking Cheese Making classes at the Cellar Homebrew Store, which is great both because I’m learning about cheese and how to make it and also because it is next door to Fu Man Dumpling House, home of delicious dumplings of all kinds. Next up, I’ll be starting a Mushroom class, through the Puget Sound Mycological Society.

Where have I been? Well, I had a somewhat famous lunch date last week, as you can read about here. Want a hint? It was with a former NYT Restaurant writer at the temple of all things meaty in this town. And the owners were so generous as to give me a bag from the American Lamb Society that says things like “I love EWE” and “This Lamb is my lamb, this lamb is your lamb”. Sigh. I was a happy girl.

And there was this delicious meal, with a crew of my favorite eaters in the whole world.

Lastly, I made another attempt at the foodie icon of xiao long bao. While my pleating skills are coming along, and having a small wooden dowel for a rolling pin helped, I have to admit I still need more practice before I can open that soup dumpling stand of my dreams. In the meantime, I’ve just got to keep eating the ones I make for practice. Oh, darn.

Am I Fooling Myself about New World Seafood?

I’m hesitant to post my feelings about New World Seafood, the new dim sum place I have found next to Seven Stars Pepper in the ID. Sometimes I wonder if I project my high hopes for a new dim sum restaurant onto the place and that is why I like it. I loved the food at Tea Garden at first, and that panned out okay, but not quite where I wanted it. Though I did know right away that Duk Li was bad news. Yet, while I thought the food was excellent at New World, I’m worried that as the shiny newness fades, I’ll realize that it is just another decent dim sum place, nothing special. I could hold my tongue, but I’m still rolling on a bit of a delicious dim sum high so I’m going to tell you about it in the hopes that New World can keep on serving great dim sum.

I arrived before the other members of my group and thus was the only customer in the cavernous room for about ten minutes while my parents and their guests looked for parking. The staff was very friendly without being overbearing, offering ice water and tea and food and letting me know to let them know if I needed anything else. I waited for the rest of the group to eat, a knot of fear in my stomach, wondering how long the food might have been sitting if we were the only customers. The room was pleasantly decorated, like your average large dim sum dining room, with a screen at one end, keeping me company with Vietnamese music videos.

When the other guests arrived the food carts came by. One of the first things that impressed both myself and another guest immediately was the English of the staff. Not only were they able to tell us what dishes were, but even the cart ladies were able to talk to us about what was in the various dishes. We started with a barbecue pork humbao. I could see the heat of the plate as the lady sat it down, my mom unfortunately missed that, as she burned herself on the plate. The fluffy baked buns tasted like they were fresh out of the oven! It was amazing. I was already feeling better about the food. We did a pretty full survey of the typical dim sum foods and I found some stuff pretty average, some great and some not so hot. The siu mai I found sub par, to taste a bit like mushrooms and chicken, as oppose to pork. My father detected a bit of an iodine taste in a har gow. The shrimp with cilantro dumplings, however, I found to be delicious. It was a pretty big jumble like that, some things spectacular (the tofu topped with shrimp) and some disappointing (the sparse-on-the-shrimp chow fun)

I wasn’t going to order chicken feet because I can’t eat a whole portion myself, and while I can count on my mom to try most anything, I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to order. Then the cart lady lifted the lid to the chicken feet and I couldn’t resist what lay inside. With an almost orange-y hue to them in place of the usual dark brown sauce, they were topped with a beautiful garnish of jalapeno. What? They’ve cooked my chicken feet with jalapeno peppers? Fabulous! Bring it on! And they were delicious. It was definitely a different preparation than I’d had at other dim sum restaurants, but in a very good way. One of the guests even commented “I don’t normally like this kind of thing, but these are great.” I liked to hear that. It gave me faith for my next order.

I always try to order something I haven’t had before when doing dim sum. Just one new item, if possible, each time. I had just recently had beef tendon in my noodle soup at Szechuan Noodle Bowl and found it delicious. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and call it the next pork belly–look for it on menus everywhere soon. So when the dim sum lady said that she had beef tendon, I couldn’t resist. I pulled it onto the table and I’m glad I did. With rich, beefy flavor, it is vaguely reminiscent of bone marrow, but with a bit of bite, so it can hold its own. This made a most unctuous and meltingly textured piece of meat, with a light soy sauce magnified by the flavors of the meat. I smiled. It was worth taking that bit of risk.

Overall, though, the meal was quite good and I had no complaints about it. Do I want to declare this the next great dim sum of Seattle? Well, I’m not there yet. Do I think it has potential? I knew that it did the moment I tested its stellar hot sauce.

New World Seafood on Superpages.com

On the Hot Path of Hot Pot at Szechuan Chef

Something happened recently that turned our little hot pot world upside down. In fact, it turned my whole theory of eating vs. driving distance around. I liked a restaurant in Bellevue. This is big. A true Seattlite, I try to never allow my West-side of the water snobbiness to be overruled by my search for good food, but I’m afraid it has happened. There is a restaurant that I feel fully justifies driving across Lake Washington for. And yes, I realize it is further to most parts of Seattle from my house than to Bellevue, but it is the principal of the thing.

Szechuan hot pot is a favorite food for B and I, increasingly so as the winter months set in and we crave the double burn of the heat of the sauce and that of the peppers. For the last year or so we’ve been perfectly happy with our usual spot, Seven Star Pepper, at 12th and Jackson. It’s nearby, it’s tasty and it is pretty dependable. We hadn’t veered from it in over a year, since the hot pot addiction completely. Then we went across the street to Sichuanese Cuisine at the request of friends. I will agree that Sichuanese has some incredible chow mein and a few very recommendable dishes, but the hot pot was a severe disappointment. The broth was thin, the peanut sauce flavorless and the meat sliced to thick for proper hot pot dipping. It left us craving more. Much more.

So I listened to the voices of the internet, those voices of anonymous strangers who know of the good stuff. They sent me to Szechuan Chef in Bellevue for a better hot pot. I made the journey, friends, and I return a changed woman. This was incredible.

The broth was thick and flavorful, the peanut sauce deeply flavored. The meat was perfectly thinly sliced and the clincher, the thing that threw us over the edge was the seafood. While Sichuanese Cuisine did not offer a seafood option on the hot pot, it is our standard order for Seven Star Pepper. But at Szechuan Chef, they cut the squid so perfectly that it curled around the chopstick and cooked almost immediately. The fish balls, which we often find near inedible were moist and soft, with just the right amount of fishy flavor. The whole spread was beautifully arranged and the staff was courteous and friendly.

“We have a problem” B said to me as we left Szechuan Chef. “Hm?” I asked. He looked at me gravely. “Now we’re going to have to go to Bellevue every time we want good hot pot instead of just down the street!”

Szechuan Chef on Superpages.com