FOR SOME OF YOU, the very best Asian restaurants are rigorously authentic—right down to gelatinous mysteries and scary meats. To the experienced palate of food writer Dave Lowry*, Seattle boasts the most outstanding Asian food in the country, period. Here he names the six most authentic Asian dining experiences this side of the Pacific Rim, places where even the most adventurous and well-traveled eaters will forget they’re in Seattle. —Editor
It’s the little things that make Joy Palace a standout—and we’re not talking just about the dozens of toddler-fist-size dim sum dishes offered at this roomy dining hall. Along with standards like crispy fried taro root, pepper-flecked short ribs, and fluffy, chewy char siu bao (barbecued pork buns) come treats like golden, pan-fried chive cakes, earthy steamed tripe, and “phoenix talons” (chicken feet). The steamed shrimp dumplings, dim sum’s gold standard for many connoisseurs, are perfect here, the skin translucent, the shrimp filling lusty with what tastes like just a hint of pork fat. The pork and shrimp combination of shumai bursts from the wrapper but has enough of the proper texture to stay in one piece. Note: Skip the oolong and ask for the Pu Li tea served here. Its mineral bite cools the tongue; the tea’s flavor constantly changes with each mouthful of dim sum. Prepare for a lively largely Asian crowd, especially on weekends, or go early or late when it’s quieter.
Joy Palace, 6030 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S, Columbia City, 206-723-4066
Ever gargle molten lava? If so, the fire-brew burbling in Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant ‘s notorious hot pot will taste familiar. There’s other Sichuan fare at this International District institution: Sauteed pork and preserved vegetables is a surprisingly light, delicate classic of the cuisine. “Eggplant with garlic sauce” is a clumsily rendered translation of yu hsiang—“fish flavored”—that’s bright with garlic, ginger, and hot soybean paste tossed with deep-fried eggplant, another delicious Sichuan specialty. The draw, though, is the communal table hot pots spiked with flaming chilies. Dip beef, pork, tripe, lamb, tofu, and vegetables in the simmering oily broth for a leisurely meal that’s just at the delectably spicy edge of pain for your palate. The other half of the pot’s filled with a well-seasoned broth splendid for cooking the savory dumplings that make dinner complete. Parking’s a challenge; the place is hidden among other food businesses. It’s worth the hunt.
Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant, 1048 S Jackson St, International District, 206-720-1690; sichuan.cwok.com
From bulgogi to kalbi ribs, Korean standards are plentiful around here, especially in the North End, where not finding a decent Korean eatery would be a story. For the panoply of other Seoul food, though, Ho Soon Yi Restaurant in Edmonds is a mandatory visit. Dak bulgogi with slivered, stir-fried chicken and vegetables sizzles in the bowl, fragrant with sesame oil. Fluffy pancakes studded with green onion and squid are a rainy-day Korean tradition. Sundubu jjigae is fast approaching cult status for many Seattle diners: A tureenful here, brimming with custardy tofu and hefty portions of seafood and kimchi in a salty, spicy broth is pungent, filling, and satisfying. The mackerel flank, fried crispy and sweet, is dangerously addictive. Banchan, side dishes, are generous. “Drinking snacks,” like cod intestines and pig’s feet, while exotic, are happily authentic. Communication—and service—is sometimes spotty. Your patience, however, is delectably rewarded.
Ho Soon Yi Restaurant, 23830 Highway 99, Ste 114, Edmonds, 425-775-8196
Japanese Ramen House
A clothes closet feels spacious by comparison, but Samurai Noodle ’s “ramen-ya” is a near-perfect rendition of the tiny noodle shops of Japan. At lunch, lines inevitably trail out onto the sidewalk. About 20 diners touch knees under tiny tables. The steamy aroma of cooking noodles and savory broth is tantalizing. Offbeat ramen presentations, like soups flavored with chili-hot chicken stock or miso, are fun, but the star is unquestionably the tonkotsu ramen. A massive ceramic bowl of creamy, buttery, soup sloowww-distilled from pork bones, swirls braids of thick al dente ramen, slices of pork, and nibbles of green onion and mushrooms. Diners lean over to inhale the heady perfume, then dig in, slurping in ecstatic joy. This is northern Japanese fare, transplanted gloriously. On a chilly, drizzly day, there is simply no better lunch in Seattle.
Samurai Noodle, 606 Fifth Ave S, International District, 206-624-9321 and 4138 University Way NE, University District, 206-547-1774
In excellent Thai food, spices all play their positions, each identifiable, all working as a team. Curries and noodle dishes at the pleasant, unassuming Noodle Boat Thai Cuisine, are delicious, big league examples. Little touches, like lime leaves torn rather than cut for more flavor in soups and a pungent, hand-mixed chili paste, make Noodle Boat a standout. Meang kum is essential, a thoroughly authentic roll-your-own appetizer: roasted coconut, crushed peanuts, lime wedges—leave the skin on—red onion, and Thai chilies are wrapped into emerald, nutty cha plu leaves hard to find outside Thailand. (Word has it the owners return there regularly to stock up on several ingredients.) It’s an explosion on your palate. Shrimp and chicken tumble with steamed banana blossoms, roasted coconut, lemongrass slivers, and cilantro in the Queen of Banana, a house specialty. Warning: They play serious with heat here. Venture beyond “medium” and you’re toying with fire.
Noodle Boat Thai Cuisine, 700 NW Gilman Blvd, Ste E104B, Issaquah, 425-391-8096; noodleboat.com
The history of a transplanted culture is still wonderfully fragrant in ID places like Kobo, the Panama Hotel, and hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop joints like Tsukushinbo. While sushi’s fine here—fish expertly sliced, rice perfectly seasoned, prices an unfailing bargain—other Japanese fare is unequalled. Chicken gizzard kushiyaki, rice vinegar–marinated smelt, whole grilled squid. Salty-sweet mozuku seaweed salad. Hearty bowls of curry rice. Crunchy fried pork cutlet with piquant sauce. Light, lacy golden fingers of tempura. And yes, the hand-lettered signboard is worth learning Japanese for. The interior hasn’t changed since Soichiro Honda invented the motorcycle. Beware the odd hours; don’t expect instant service. Relax and enjoy some home-style Japanese foods that are a palate-pleasing part of Seattle’s history.
Tsukushinbo, 515 S Main St, International District, 206-467-4004
*Dave Lowry, restaurant critic for St. Louis Magazine, is a frequent visitor to Seattle. He has written numerous articles about Asian food for magazines in the U.S. and Japan and is the author of The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi.