Given our perch on the Pacific Rim, profusion of globally reaching businesses, and a population prone to traveling—and eating—the culinary traditions of Japan and China, Korea and Southeast Asia are fused into Seattle’s very existence. (The Indian subcontinent? Another article unto itself.) By some measures, Thai food is more popular than pizza here. But lately, something is different. Gone are the days when Japanese food meant simply sushi and going for Chinese meant plates you’d never actually see in China. Some of these newcomers faithfully recreate traditions of their native countries, others take gleeful liberties. Each of these dishes—hand cut noodles, spicy soups, one gonzo burger—brings Asian food more squarely into Seattle’s mainstream.

Vietnamese

Thanh Son Tofu

Tofu and Che
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All the shiny finishes seem more Vegas than Viet deli, but everyone’s here for the soy milk and the incredible tofu, which is stocked buffet style so you can fill plastic sacks for a wholly reasonable $2.65 a pound. Cubes have the sort of chewy texture associated with really good noodles; it requires serious willpower to not eat the chili and lemongrass version straight out of the bag with your fingers on the drive home. A glass case contains a rainbow of components for che, or Vietnamese dessert: tapioca, sweet rice, fruit, jellies, and lots and lots of beans. Che regulars usually customize popular combos; novices can employ pointing and other forms of body language to procure a tall cup of coconut milk, palm sugar, longan, and tiny tapioca balls—sweet with a satisfying squish. There’s also hot food and banh mi assembled to order on house-baked bread. 1248 S King St, International District, 206-320-1316

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Bahn Mi and tofu (above) at Thanh Son Tofu.

Image: Nelle Clark 

Thai

Pop Pop Thai Street Food

Kao Mun Gai

The far corner of a strip mall parking lot harbors some of the most impressive Thai food in town. Pop Pop began as two guys—veterans of various Thai restaurants, prone to spending days off tinkering in the kitchen—translating their moms’ intuitively prepared dishes into proper recipes, like a tender leg of deeply spiced braised pork. Then there’s the khao mun gai, prime comfort food in Thailand, rare in Seattle, and elevated to cult status in Portland thanks to food truck-turned-restaurant Nong’s. It’s seemingly simple—slices of poached chicken, a mound of jasmine rice flavored with ginger, garlic, and chicken stock, tagalong slices of cucumber, warming broth to sip between bites. A less-than-flawless version might come off as boring; the balance hangs in the riotously flavorful sauce of chilis, garlic, ginger, pandanus leaf, vinegar, and multiple types of soy sauce. Still questioning the kitchen’s commitment to flavor? There’s always the papaya salad studded with pungent little salted crabs.  13242 Aurora Ave N, Northgate, 206-695-2858

Chinese

Qin

Biang Biang Noodles

Serious noodle geeks the region over make pilgrimage to this Edmonds strip-mall storefront with the faux brick wall. They’re here for the biang biang noodles, a relative rarity outside the northwest Chinese province of Shaanxi and its capital city Xi’an. The cooks make these by slapping skeins on the counter until the impact fissures them into wide, flat noodles with the perfect amount of resistance and a particular talent for soaking up the accompanying sauce, be it egg and tomato, a brilliantly simple chili oil, or zha jiang, a deep, dark combo of ground pork and fermented bean paste that’s earthy and comforting. With all these hearty accompaniments, the biang biang noodles (named for the slapping noise that engenders them) feel like spiritual kin to a great bowl of pappardelle and meaty ragu.  22315 Hwy 99, Edmonds, 425-776-7847

Korean

Girin

Ssam Plate

“Definitely Koreans drink more than Chinese and Japanese,” says Steven Han. “Our food is purposefully flavorful because most of it is drinking food.” It’s a funny observation to make sitting in his Korean restaurant Girin, just beyond the indoor garden in one of the most arresting, elegant dining rooms in town. Girin presents a steak house take on Korea’s ssam—meats served with plates of leafy vegetables for your protein-wrapping pleasure. Dry-aged rib eye or crisped pork belly arrive with a limitless platter of equally upscale greens, like chrysanthemum and perilla leaves, two types of lettuce, and paper-thin discs of radish. Banchan is made painstakingly in house. It was quite the professional pivot for chef Brandon Kirksey, a veteran of several impressive Italian restaurants, but Han’s kids now torment their grandmother by saying they prefer Kirksey’s kimchi. Girin’s menu also has plenty of gochujang chicken wings, spicy kimchi jjigae stew, and other dishes catering to customers heading to the nearby stadiums, and anyone who prefers their drinking food without the triple-digit dinner tab. 501 Stadium Pl S, SoDo, 206-257-4249

Thai

Wann Yen

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Image: Nelle Clark

Lord Chong Bai Tauy

The owners of Thai Curry Simple have a student-friendly spot just off the Ave. Here, instead of panang or massamun, they serve Thailand’s take on shave ice. They start with a bowl of something sweet, usually some combination of jewel-like fruits and housemade herb jellies. For visual impact, though, you can’t beat Combo No. 3, the lord chong bai tauy. It’s made with bright green pandan noodles—mild in flavor, tender, and looking a bit like anime gummi worms. Next comes a fat scoop of snowy ice, then a final drizzle of coconut milk and toasted palm sugar. The staff is happy to help guide customers unfamiliar with the finer points of jackfruit and pandan noodles; their queries often start with “Do you like coconut?” If you do, you’re in the right place. 1313 NE 43rd St, U District, wannyen.com

Japanese

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

Tsukemen

The Japanese chain’s first freestanding U.S. location excels at two things: managing crowds and making ramen. Every variation here contains tonkotsu-style broth—a creamy confluence of pound after pound of pork bones and hour after hour boiling in pots the size of beer kegs. The tsukemen, a newer ramen offshoot, kicks this already absurdly rich broth into overdrive: Cold noodles and toppings arrive naked in the bowl. They’re meant for dipping into a sidecar of broth, reduced so it’s thicker and practically vibrating with salt and soy and perfectly emulsified spheres of porky fat. This arrangement prevents noodles from getting mushy, and that reduction clings to them tenaciously. To eat tsukemen is to engage in a brothy version of that old crane-claw arcade game; with any luck your chopsticks emerge with a chunk of tender pork or crunchy bamboo shoots caught among the noodles. 103 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, 425-462-0141; santouka-usa.com

Chinese

Dough Zone

Xiao Long Bao

Hunting the perfect xiao long bao has become a sport around here. These Shanghainese dumplings, a thimble of pork and a splash of savory stock suspended within the most delicate of dumpling wrappers, were in short supply before the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung arrived in 2010. Now a pair of restaurants in Bellevue (and a new outpost in Redmond) offer perhaps the only local challenge to Din Tai Fung’s soup dumpling dominance. As the name implies, Dough Zone specializes in all things noodle and dumpling; xiao long bao goes by the name “juicy pork dumplings” and have impressively thin wrappers, especially considering the volume of soup within. Debates rage over whose are superior, but everyone can agree—it’s nice to bypass DTF’s massive waits. Staff can advise on proper eating technique (one false move and soup escapes onto the table). 15920 NE Eighth St. 14625 NE 24th St, Bellevue. 7625 170th Ave NE, Redmond 

Japanese

Wataru

Omakase

Though most of Ravenna’s restaurant buzz centers on Salare, next door you’ll find a six-seat sushi counter where chef Kotaro Kumita applies centuries-old Edomae techniques to unions of fresh rice and pristine fish. His setup is decidedly minimalist—a basket of rice, lacquer bowl of nikiri soy glaze, a tiny torch, and two glass-topped wooden boxes containing a kaleidoscope of flounder, Spanish mackerel, white king salmon, and more. Without the barrier of a typical glass sushi counter, you can watch Kumita’s hands fly, breaking down a crab leg with a few flicks of his knife, topping glistening slivers of Hokkaido scallop with salt from Japan’s Miyako Islands and a squeeze of yuzu from his yard—it’s just you and the fish and this warm-countenanced man so detail oriented that lefties receive their nigiri angled the opposite way for easier chopstick manipulation. Order the omakase and Kumita, a former lieutenant of Shiro Kashiba, will ply you with bites until you cry full. Reserving at the sushi bar gets harder with each passing week—thank goodness for the 16-seat dining room. 2400 NE 65th St, Ravenna, 206-525-2073 

Malaysian

Kedai Makan

Chili Pan Mee

When the popular Malaysian takeout window moved around the corner and became a clattering sit-down restaurant in the old La Bête space, owner Kevin Burzell could finally cook noodles. With sufficient horsepower to boil mass quantities of water, he prepares oversize bowls of chili pan mee—flat noodles in a rich, savory commingling of ground pork, dried anchovies, sambal, and the yolk of a poached egg. It’s a dish that very much reflects Malaysia’s interconnected history with China and Indonesia (not to mention Thailand). Though when actual Malaysians come to see whether this white guy has chops, they’re most excited about the nasi lemak. The unofficial national dish was occasional in the walkup days, since it has so many components: a fried egg atop a mound of rice cooked in coconut milk and encircled by toasted peanuts, slivers of cooling cucumber, and sambal. 1802 Bellevue Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-556-2560; kedaimakansea.com


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Country Dough's flatbread, in the making.

Image: Sarah Flotard

Chinese

Country Dough

No. 1 Szechuan Flatbread

Chef Chengbiao Yang attended culinary school in China’s Sichuan province; after arriving in Seattle in 1998, each of his successive restaurants burnished his reputation as a hand-shaved noodle savant. In recent years he started experimenting with the flatbreads known as guo kui, but something so labor intensive requires a high volume of customers to make it work—enter a tidy counter in Pike Place Market. Yang’s usually there by 8am rolling dough, though that’s not even the labor-intensive part. As lunchtime crowds press in, the chef crisps each flatbread on a griddle, then lifts that hot surface to plunge it into the bowl-shaped oven, rather like a tandoor, beneath. Flatbreads emerge crisp on one side, soft within, and is still hot when split and filled with pork, beef, or chicken in chili and sesame sauces with cilantro and pickled cucumbers. Lines can be long, but you have the masses to thank for something this good being just $5. 1916 Pike Pl, Pike Place Market, 206-728-2598; countrydough.com

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The split flatbread stuffed with meat and crunchy vegetables at Country Dough.

Image: Sarah Flotard

Vietnamese

Dong Thap Noodles

Hu Tieu

There’s a sort of joke among Vietnam’s food industry—the two worst businesses to get into are restaurants (long hours) and noodle manufacturing (tons of labor). When Nick Bui rings up customers, he laments with a smile, “We do both!” His noodles, however, are no joke. Bui and wife, Khanhvan Tran, began making fresh rice noodles—a four-day ordeal of soaking, grinding, waiting, and extruding—for nearby markets like Viet Wah and Lam’s. The lemony-walled dining room out front was almost an afterthought; now the crowds that throng for vermicelli bowls and noodle soups like the fragrant, seafood-rich hu tieu don’t leave much for wholesale. Dong Thap’s pure-tasting broths are too light for some, perhaps; there’s always hoisin and sriracha. But oh man. Those fresh noodles. The difference is apparent almost down to a molecular level; they don’t clump, keep a good slip to them, and offer perhaps the chewiest form of elegance this side of a geoduck. Noodles are also sold by the pound to take home. 303 12th Ave S, International District, 206-325-1122

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Dong Thap’s vermicelli bowl—beef, egg rolls, and a host of vegetables obscure some incredible housemade noodles.

Image: Sarah Flotard


Chinese

Foo Lam

Dim Sum

It may be surrounded by Vietnamese businesses, but weekends at Foo Lam are all about dim sum. Multiple generations fill the round tables, spinning lazy susans and gesturing to the passing pushcarts for another plate of spareribs, egg custard tarts, or juicy siu mai, flowerlike dumplings of pork and shrimp topped with a scattering of crab roe. Those carts will eventually parade most of the classics of Hong Kong–style dim sum past your table, generally prepared with care and avoiding common pitfalls like sad dumplings that sit too long in the steam cart or an overreliance on the deep fryer. Carts also bear more carnivorous platters of tripe or chicken feet. Popular dim sum spots in the ID can come with an hour-long wait at prime time; here tables and parking are plentiful. 7101 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S, Rainier Valley, 206-453-3498; foolamchinese.com

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Sunday-morning dim sum at Foo Lam.

Image: Sarah Flotard 


Japanese

Suika

Makuno-Uchi

Seattle has a few good izakayas; Vancouver has a whole creativity-fostering ecosystem of these roistering Japanese snack pubs. At last, one of them has expanded to Pike/Pine, where its sake bottle chandelier and energetic hum feel right at home. Some staples, like crispy chicken karaage and pressed sushi, came along. But chef-owner Makoto Kimoto, a veteran of Vancouver’s Suika and its sibling Kingyo, makes plenty of dishes just for Seattle diners, who, he’s learning, like their food spicy. For looks, taste, and sheer efficiency, you can’t beat the square black tray bearing pretty much the entire starter menu in the form of small bites in eight individual porcelain cups: tomatoes marinated in a house kimchi paste, fried corn with soy butter and dried seaweed, stir-fried lotus root, even a shooter of sea urchin and caviar over a tiny bit of rice with a quail egg. Wash it down with anything involving the housemade ginger ale. 611 E Pine St, Capitol Hill, 206-747-9595; suikaseattle.com

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Suika’s sake-bottle chandelier is a nod to the original location in Vancouver, but much of the menu is specific to Seattle.

Image: Sarah Flotard


Thai/Laotian

Thai Savon

Khao Nam Tod

A dozen Laotian dishes hide on the menu’s back page at this seemingly nondescript Rainier Valley spot, behind familiar Thai fare. Owner Faye George, who came here from Laos at age 14, cautions customers that her native dishes are labor intensive, taking a bit longer to prepare. But the wait-induced hangry vanishes when she sets down a platter of jasmine rice, fried golden and crunchy, then tossed with egg, peanuts, shredded coconut, chopped Kaffir lime leaves and green and red onion confettied throughout. This crispy rice salad is texture and flavor for days; so’s the Lao-style khao soy, tomato revving up a light chicken broth with pork and soft, wide rice noodles. Laotian food shares much history with neighboring Thailand; in Seattle it often shares real estate with a Thai menu. George walks customers through both sets of dishes with the same good-natured warning for anyone expecting super-Americanized food: “I think sweet is for dessert.” 6711 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S, Rainier Valley, 206-556-2949; thaisavon.com

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Thai Savon’s khao nam tod dwells on the back page of the menu with other Laotian dishes.

Image: Sarah Flotard 


Japanese

U:Don

Ontama Udon

Forget the Amerasian tendency to crowd 25 different types of food onto one menu. This duo of fast-casual noodle shops is all about Japan’s udon, specifically the fatter Sanuki version from the Shikoku region. At U:Don they come as warming soups or just lightly sauced, with simple, mostly classic toppings like a thick slab of fried tofu or onsen tamago—an egg traditionally cooked in a Japanese hot spring, hot tub–like temperatures slowly poaching it inside its own shell (U:Don uses a plain old stove top and thermometer). This simple combo shows off the subtle house dashi broth and the marvelous chew of noodles made every morning after the dough proofs overnight. Order your noodles, then choose from a bevy of tempura for topping and dipping. The U District location is students galore; the new one in Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue Arts building has a calmer vibe. 4515 University Way NE, University District, 206-453-3788. 1640 12th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-466-1471; freshudon.com 

Japanese

Kizuki Ramen

Shio Ramen

America’s ramen obsession generally centers on the blow-it-out porky tonkotsu style. But when three locals sought a Japanese ramen chain they could franchise in Puget Sound, they wanted one equally fluent in the charms of clear, chicken broth ramen styles like shio (salt) or shoyu (soy). It’s surely not accurate to describe these as light, but relative to tonkotsu they do bring the bowl’s other components—firm greens, a slice of smoky grilled pork, springy noodles, and ye gods that silky-yolked egg—into focus. Kukai makes a variety of ramen styles: renditions of garlic or yuzu or extra spicy, even vegetarian, all executed with big flavor and attention to detail. Its arrival in 2012 touched off what’s turned out to be a regional ramen boom—Jinya, Yoshi, Santouka, to name some biggies—but apparently demand isn’t quenched yet. Kukai now has three locations around town, all of them reliably crowded, and a West Seattle outpost on the way. 14845 Main St, Bellevue. 319 NE Thornton Pl, Northgate. 320 E Pine St, Capitol Hill, 844-585-2487; kukai-ramen.com

Thai

Soi

Kor Moo Yahng

Thailand’s northeast region of Isan is a pungent, growing presence on America’s Thai food landscape, long a monolith of pick-your-protein noodles and sweeter curries. Finding Isan menus in Seattle used to be a matter of scouring Chowhound—then came Pestle Rock in Ballard, Mai Thaiku in Phinney, and now Soi on Capitol Hill, which thrusts these big flavors into our scene-iest dining scene, amidst 14-foot ceilings and custom rustic-industrial decor. Chef-owner Yuie Wiborg is originally from the Isan province of Kalasin (and owns Banyan Tree in Kent); she’s particularly adept with the menu’s piquant grilled meats, like the sliced kor moo yang pork collar, which evinces the deep flavors of its three-day coriander root, pepper, and garlic marinade; a soy sauce and palm sugar rubdown helps the grill impart a good char. Meals involve wielding hunks of sticky rice like a dipping utensil, and the jerky is funky in the best possible way. 1400 10th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-556-4853; soicapitolhill.com

Japanese

Naka

Kaiseki

Seattle’s only kaiseki establishment sidesteps many formalities associated with Japan’s centuries-old tradition of fine dining. Chef Shota Nakajima retains three major tenets: seasonality, a succession of small plates so stunning they might as well be art, and intensely personal service. Nakajima and his cooks literally watch diners’ faces for cues—unsated hunger, a desire for more salt, curiosity about all the gorgeous pickled vegetables. What sounds creepy in the abstract comes off as warmly attentive. Naka’s highly composed courses might include silky chawanmushi, vivid slivers of sashimi, or buttery black cod smoked on cedar. Speaking of things smoked on cedar, the ice cream definitely lives up to the hype. Naka does three kaiseki menus, from a $75 introduction to a custom 15-course extravaganza; if a three-hour dinner isn’t in the cards, the bar has a rocking a la carte menu and even better cocktails. 1449 E Pine St, Capitol Hill, 206-294-5230; nakaseattle.com

Chinese

La Bu La

Swimming Fire Fish

This tureen of fiery carmine soup often appears on menus under perhaps the world’s least come-hither name: Sichuan boiled fish. In La Bu La’s glass-clad second-floor dining room, it’s known by a more direct translation of its Chinese name, befitting the vivid crimson color, the heat of Sichuan’s signature peppers and floral peppercorns, and plentiful filets of sole. The swimming fire fish dwarfs everything else on the table—the heaping plate of crispy-fried Chong Qing chicken, kidneys from the menu’s ample offal selection, certainly the bowl of dan dan noodles in a comforting, if slightly sweet, gravy. It’s been a menu mainstay since the restaurant was located across the street and known as Bamboo Garden. The new more sophisticated digs in the Soma Towers reflect our region’s growing familiarity (obsession?) with food from China’s Sichuan province and its signature combo of spicy and numbing. 288 106th Ave NE, Bellevue, 425-688-7991; labula-dining.com

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La Bu La’s colorful, textural (and respectably spicy) Swimming Fire Fish.

Image: Sarah Flotard

 

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