At Oliver's Twist, family recipes now guide the food.
At Oliver's Twist, a New Cambodian Plotline
When Karuna Long was growing up, his dad played guitar in a hair band. And yet, his mom is undoubtedly the cooler parent: She made sure to raise three sons who knew how to prepare the traditional Cambodian dishes she put on their table at night. If Long and his brothers craved slab moan baok, chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and a crunchy medley of peanuts and vegetables, they had to debone those wings themselves.
Long grew up, got into bartending, and purchased Oliver’s Twist, a Phinney Ridge cocktail landmark, in 2017. As Covid shut the city’s bars and restaurants this spring, he texted a group of employees and regulars to hatch a plan over drinks—the last time they would gather here for the foreseeable future. Takeout cocktails weren’t yet legal, and Long knew the bar’s food menu, a beloved time capsule of bacon-stuffed dates and garlic-truffle popcorn, wasn’t going to see him through.
By the time Long locked the doors that night, he had a plan. He embraced his Khmer culture and redefined a 14-year-old legacy craft cocktail bar as a makeshift headquarters for some of the city’s most compelling takeout.
Long and his brother, Routhana, hunkered down with their mom in Lynnwood to decipher her cook-by-memory dishes into proper recipes. Khmer food’s defining charms often hail from its signature spice paste, kroeung—pronounced kroo-ung, it translates, literally, to “ingredients.” It stars lemongrass, shallots, galangal, and lime leaves, among maybe a dozen total spices. Long’s mother’s version imbues much of Oliver’s Twist’s new menu, from short rib rice bowls to kroeung-marinated chicken atop vermicelli. The tiny kitchen lacks an all-important open flame; the brothers wield a culinary torch on those meats to pretty impressive effect.
Eventually the Longs branched into bigger flavors, like twa-ko, a bright and savory fermented sausage that’s damn near unmissable, and the traditional sour beef soup, somlaw machu kroeung. (Recently the sisters behind Phnom Penh Noodle House, Seattle’s lone and legendary Cambodian restaurant, ordered takeout and deemed the flavor spot on.) But best of all might be those wings mastered as teens, imposing pieces of chicken stuffed with pork and crunch and threads of glass noodles. Most restaurants would consider this assembly an act of labor-intensive madness, even in a much larger kitchen.
When Long has a moment to consider the future, which isn’t often, he imagines opening a proper “Khmer outpost” next door, a place where a guy who built his career engaging with customers might actually have a dialogue about the menu, rather than grinding it out, unseen, in the kitchen of his own cocktail bar. Oliver's Twist, Phinney Ridge
At Mangosteen, Deep Roots Meet Twice-Fried Wings
Thai Ha spent the past seven years running a food cart that fed festivals, farmers markets, and big outdoor concerts. Which is to say, the statewide shutdown left him looking for a lifeboat. His came in the form of an actual boat, or at least the home of the original Pho Bac, the ship-like structure across the parking lot from its big new location.
Passing through Little Saigon one day, Ha noticed the culinary landmark was boarded up. He asked co-owner Yenvy Pham and her siblings, could he rent it for a while?
Mangosteen, the fish sauce wings and boba takeout mini-empire Ha now runs from his borrowed boat, isn’t a popup, exactly. It’s more a staging ground, a union of craveable food inherently designed for takeout, and Boba Bar, the tea drink business he’d planned to launch this year.
Pick up a 10-piece box of Thai Ha’s fish sauce wings and they’ll still be impossibly crisp after you cart them home across town. It’s no accident; Ha says he fries them twice in a batter made of five different types of flour. “It took me two and a half years to develop that ratio to lock in that crispness.”
Ha also retrieved his portable smoker from the seasonal catering gigs he once worked in Texas and set it up here. His brisket, rubbed with coriander, is more Little Saigon than deep South, swiped with Thai basil aioli and topped with miso honey coleslaw. The smoker also inspired his cross-pollination with the Phams, a smoked brisket pho you can order across the parking lot at Pho Bac Sup Shop. Sure, the collab is fun, says Ha, but it’s also helped a generational business and a fledgling one stay solvent. “Everyone has to pull each other up, or else we’re all going to struggle.” Mangosteen, Chinatown–International District
At Lil Red's, a Butter Burger's New Chapter
The burger at Lil Red's Takeout and Catering is built by, and for, people serious about meat: a half pound of chuck, rib eye, and brisket, ground in house and smeared with butter before it hits the grill. You might not notice, specifically, the smoky onions, or the special sauce that tastes like pickles wrapped in velvet, but under the cover of a great squishy bun all the elements work together with the agility of a Hollywood bank heist.
Chef Trammell Woods named this John Walter butter burger for her grandfather and served it back at her original restaurant, the Quarters, in a converted house in Auburn. The vibe there was nothing like Lil Red's on Rainier, a former meat market where the interior aesthetic is more video games and Bob Marley posters than craftsman wainscoting. Still, when Woods returned to Seattle this spring, prepared to rebuild her career at age 49, it offered a familiar sense of home.
Not long after Woods (most people call her Chef T) realized her restaurant dreams in that Auburn kitchen, her wife and business partner Jade was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her battle ended in summer 2019; by last December, Woods had closed the restaurant and retreated to her hometown of Milwaukee to regroup and, unexpectedly, weather coronavirus shutdowns.
When she returned to Washington, she set up shop in Lil Red’s kitchen. Erasto Jackson, the guy behind its genius Jamaican, barbecue, and soul food triad, wanted to start a breakfast program; he and Woods had long admired one another’s food. The attention Jackson puts into his menu, says Woods, “equates to what I did and how I feel.”
The forces that put Jackson and Woods in the same kitchen each day aren’t happy ones, but they’ve found a rare synergy in their two menus. On weekday mornings, she makes her own biscuits and serves scrambles, her dynamite shrimp and grits, and Jackson’s fried jerk chicken atop a plantain waffle. A popup of the Quarters rolls into lunchtime with wings and po’boys, and yes, that burger. Jackson makes the breakfast sausage and bacon for her in house (you can also buy it by the pound) and seriously elevated the patty game on a burger that was already special. Lil Red's Takeout and Catering, Columbia City