Fu Man Dumpling House

tl;dr: my favorites are the hot and sour soup, special chow mein, bbq pork fried rice, and potstickers, but give the other menu items a try and let me know what else is good.

I’ve spent hours trying to think of the best way to extol the virtues of Fu Man. This restaurant deserves to be admired for their offerings, but hyperbolic pontification isn’t the way to do it. In the past, I have only expressed exaltations of restaurants, processing my disbelief at the experience I was having. To act this way about Fu Man feels disrespectful and disingenuous. Their food is excellent, but in an expected way. Fu Man, and other humble restaurants like them, aren’t exciting. Fu Man is just a place, trying to serve you some food at a fair price, and doing a consistently good job at it. A review of a place like this can’t be hyperbolic. Nothing about this place is hyperbolic. A review acting as though it is heightens expectations in a way that isn’t fair to the restaurant or the customer, and it completely misses the best parts of what they’re putting out there.

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Walking into Fu Man, you can expect a good meal at a low price, served by people who are proud of it. In essence, this is everything I love about a restaurant. There are no airs to put on in this humble strip mall. The waiting area consists of four square feet and a gumball machine. The chairs are from Office Depot, and the lighting fluorescent. The placemats will tell you all about your place on the Chinese zodiac, and the menu is made of bright orange paper stuffed into old menu jackets. Then, the pickled vegetables and garlic sauce appear. Your meal is about to begin. They’re here to take care of you.

At Fu Man, a small, free plate of pickles starts you off. Most of the time, there is daikon, carrot, cucumber, and bean sprouts. They taste the way true pickles do, mostly funky, a little salty, kind of sweet. These pickles aren’t changing the pickle game, but they hint at something bigger than a fermented vegetable, something more important than a free appetizer. The pickles placed on each table represent a quiet integrity that leads to consistently good food. Fu Man isn’t showy about this appetizer. It is plunked down without any fanfare, no self-praising “free, for you!”, no description of what you’ve just been offered. It is set on the table as if it’s supposed to be there, as if it is there simply because it is the right thing to do. Before we feed you, we feed you. No pretense, no excitement, just a bit of vegetables to get everything started. This isn’t something that a restaurant owner can be taught. This is a way of living transferred onto a plate. This is integrity and a willingness to serve others.

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These ideals also translate into Fu Man’s most popular item: garlic sauce. When you sit down, the garlic sauce is placed on your table, along with the aforementioned pickles and some sambal oelek (vinegary chili paste, also quite good). They place a fresh jar on the table with each meal because a lot of their patrons empty the jar all over their food. This is humility, plain and simple. To present plate after plate of well-seasoned food knowing that your care and hard work will be drowned out by extra sauce could make for a begrudging chef, but instead, Fu Man works with what their customers want. A long time ago, they started giving their customers more sauce, their own personal jar of sauce. They started bottling their sauce so you can dump it on all your other food at home too. When your to go boxes are packed, they ask how many containers of sauce you want with your leftovers. They know that even though you’re ordering a few different items off the menu, everything on the table is subject to a garlic sauce blanket.

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To ignore this restaurant and it’s place in the restaurant scene because I can’t make grand exclamations about their food is ignoring all of these ideals that make an everyday restaurant worth visiting. Sure, Fu Man is just straight up Chinese food, but they take it seriously. Their service wouldn’t win them awards for decorum and grace, but they’re well-humored and pleasant. Their chow mein, rice, and potstickers aren’t reinventions of old favorites, they’re just the old favorites. Old favorites done well by people who want you to enjoy them. Can’t ask for more than that.

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Good company

Food is always made greater by good company. There isn’t a single dish that benefits from being eaten alone. Since starting this blog, regular meals have become occasions, and I’ve experienced the great fortune of having friends get excited about this little thing I’m doing here. When you share what you’re excited about, people become excited to experience that thing with you. People want in on whatever intoxicating bit of life you’ve found. When that bit of life is food, you get the chance to experience some great meals with some excellent people.

A friend I’d lost touch with reached out with a couple restaurant recommendations after reading my posts, and we decided to use one of her ideas as an reason to get together. At Some Random Bar in Belltown, glasses of limoncello cider and plates of nachos (both crab and brisket) were enjoyed on one of those perfect Seattle summer nights. The nachos were expertly crafted, piled high after being baked in a single layer for maximum chip coverage. The tortilla chips were either made in house or sourced from somewhere that does them well. Thick, but not too crunchy, able to hold a mound of crab and cheese without incident. The crab was the star of these nachos, but the supporting players all did their part to help it shine even brighter. A drizzle of cilantro pesto, a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, and a giant pile of guacamole would all have been great without the crab, but with it, the nachos became greater than the sum of their parts.

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After an 85 degree day, the evening had cooled just enough, leaving a pleasantly warm breeze even after dark. The deck outside Some Random Bar sits on the street, and cars occasionally whip by fast enough to halt conversation for a second. We lingered over our meal, covering everything we’d missed over the last year and a half of losing touch.  We sat back with our glasses of (showstopping, not too sweet, slightly tart) limoncello cider. We made jokes with the next table while they had a bit of trouble taming their adorably mischievous puppy. We made a promise to keep in touch this time, to actually schedule that next meal, to use this blog to give us reasons to keep catching up. To cash in on this great city and enjoy the ridiculous meals it has to offer way more often.At Sisters and Brothers in Georgetown, my sister and I recovered from a (not really) near death experience at good old Wild Waves. Sitting in the sun at a picnic table, we chased away the roller coaster anxiety with a Rainier buzz, followed by Nashville hot chicken and waffles. A couple cold cans settled my nerves, and the meal revived them.

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Normally, I require my chicken to have skin, but Sisters and Brothers doesn’t fry real chicken until dinner, so strips it was. A damn good rendition, especially considering my disdain for skinless fried chicken. It was everything a strip should be: crispy, juicy, and easy to eat. The decision to only serve strips at brunch made more sense once I realize how convenient the execution was. Each bite had a perfect combo of crust, meat, waffle, butter, and syrup. The ease of eating this dish was only beaten by the easy flow of conversation.
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When you’ve been not only siblings, but also best friends for 26 years, sentences are rarely finished. The meaning behind each phrase is completely understood before all of the words can exit your mouth, and the next topic is already broached. The conversations I have with my sister are wildly efficient, and frankly, slightly annoying to anyone listening, but to me they feel easy and refreshing. To enjoy a meal alongside one of these conversations is one of my favorite things in life.A couple weeks later, I met a friend at Sisters and Brothers to buy some boots from her and shoot the shit. Like a pro, she offered to order something different than me and to split whatever we ordered so I could learn more about the menu. She ordered the braised pork sandwich with a side of fried green tomatoes, and finally I got skin-on fried chicken with a side of mac and cheese. The Genesee cream ale we ordered showed up in hilariously big 24 ounce cans and totally hit the spot. Armed with a buzz, we dissected the food in a methodical manner, taking bites and discussing what was in front of us.

The braised pork was the underdog winner, with a surprising amount of mustard seeds strewn throughout, giving each bite a crunchy pop. The meat was tender and well-seasoned, pairing well with the zucchini sauerkraut on the sandwich. Fried green tomatoes were addictive. Sour, crunchy, and the only thing we thought about ordering more of. The chicken and mac and cheese were exactly what they should be, the former having an intensely crunchy crust, the latter having a fantastically creamy sauce. The meal was well done, a good way to spend a Tuesday night, but the conversation was what made that trip to Georgetown worth it.

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My friend took it upon herself to meet me at my level. She was excited about the experience of having a meal for the sake of the blog, which fed my already heightened excitement about food. Our conversation twisted and turned around food, starting with what we ordered that evening and quickly turning into a recap of our respective food histories. I learned about what it was like to grow up in the South and what food meant to her family specifically. I learned about manners and traditions in the South, and about Beach Road fried chicken. This meal gave us the opportunity to share where we came from and why we are who we are, which is one of my favorite things about sharing a meal with a friend.

I talk about the taste and experience of actually eating food more than anything else, and for good reason. Eating food is one of the great experiences we are afforded in this life. But man, there is nothing better than sitting down to a meal and having a great time with the person across from you. The greatest thing about food is that it brings us together. It gives us a reason to meet, a reason to sit down for an hour or two and just enjoy life. It punctuates our day with tiny vacations, glimpses into the good things that make the slog worthwhile. I get excited about food for the act of eating it, but these meals have reminded me about getting excited for the experience surrounding it.

Metropolitan Market, Queen Anne

tl;dr: I’ve been told there are other things worth ordering at the Met Market deli, but I’m not willing to risk the disappointment of missing out on the prime rib sandwich, extra cut.

I am pretty against the horseradish family. I don’t really understand why people would want to put a spicy, overwhelming condiment on an expensive piece of fish or steak. I’m down to let people make terrible food choices if that’s what they like, but if I’m shelling out the cash for sushi or a steakhouse, I’m going to taste every last bit of whatever I ordered and completely ignore the free side of sinus drainer.

But when the steak you’re ordering is on a sandwich in the deli of a grocery store, and quite a few people you trust tell you that the sandwich is a work of art, you leave the horseradish on.

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This is the first time I’ve ever liked the application of horseradish. It always feels a bit like when people like IPAs or really strong coffee. It’s like they’re trying to prove that their tastebuds could beat up your tastebuds in a fight. However, this horseradish is a caress, not a punch. The sauce is judiciously applied to what is in the running for best French dip in Seattle.

Walking up to the deli in the Metropolitan Market is a bit overwhelming. It looks like there are mountains of options in the hot and cold cases, but all of those things are only distractions from what you’re really there for. I made the mistake of getting some items from the salad and olive bars, only to have them completely ignored once we sat down to eat. It turns out, getting anything to go with the prime rib sandwich, extra cut is a moot point. This sandwich has been orchestrated perfectly and needs no accompaniment.

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Like all good sandwiches, it starts with bread that is warmed in the oven. Normally, I prefer toasting or grilling, but in a sandwich that requires a relatively crusty bread, warming is key. The crust is already enough to bite through, so maintaining the softness of the inner bread is important. The bread is then treated to the jus where the prime rib is resting, and the horseradish is added on top of that. Just enough of both to keep things interesting, but not enough of either to absolutely soak the bread or overpower the meat. Then, the meat. The outside, brown to black, the inside, a light pink. The fat is left fully intact, which lends itself to some spectacularly silky bites. The regular sandwich probably has enough meat to justify the $9.99 price tag, but if you offer me a whole extra slice of prime rib for $3, you better believe I’m jumping all over that value. The sandwich is then wrapped up and presented to you. No cheese, no side of jus, no caramelized onions. I ordered a side of jus with mine, which was fully unnecessary. Once you bite into this sandwich, you learn that this is an exercise in restraint. Nothing improves this experience. It’s been pared down to the four things that need to be there, and the result is ingredient harmony.

King’s

tl;dr: Order any of the burgers with fries. The wings and nachos are good too, but Hattie’s Hat is next door if you want the best wings/nachos in Seattle.

If you own a bar like King’s, you could easily forget about making good food. You’re within one of the best food neighborhoods of Seattle (right next door to one of our other vaulted fat locations, Hattie’s Hat), you’ve got bartenders that can throw down some delicious drinks, and your covered patio is the best place to hang on a beautiful Friday night. You’re all set. You could serve up some halfhearted french fries and ranch and call it a day.

But if you own a bar like King’s, you’re not the kind of person who forgets about food. You’re Linda Derschang, and you give a fuck about everything in that bar. Nothing is a mistake. Everything is important, but it can’t seem like anything is important.

Everything in King’s gives you the impression that this all just kind of happened. Nothing is forced, no one is bending over backwards, and it just sorta seems like good luck that this bar is exactly what everyone in Ballard is looking for. Then, you get a burger and you realize that this isn’t just a fluke. This was planned, and planned well.

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The King’s burger is easily in my top three favorite burgers in Seattle.* It has four of my ideal burger components.

Shredded iceberg. Oh come on, Erika. Lettuce? The lettuce is your first reason this burger is great? Frankly, fuck yes. Lettuce is an essential burger ingredient, and shredded iceberg is the best possible choice. The lettuce on a burger serves as a mid-bite palate cleanser. It lends a refreshing subtext to all the meat, cheese, and hopefully bacon coming at you. A solitary leaf of lettuce only serves to get hot and wilty, and doesn’t lend any texture. Shredded iceberg, however, gives you another layer to sink your teeth through. It has this distinctly junk food taste to it, reminiscent of dollar menus and drive thrus. As little structural bonuses, shredded iceberg also does a really great job of soaking up any grease or sauce that burger might be trying to give up, and it also provides a bit of traction so the other ingredients don’t slide around. So hell yeah, the lettuce is my first reason.

Thousand island. I am a mayo girl through and through. I love it on every single sandwich, but thousand island belongs on a burger because it can stand up to everything else going on. Mayo can sink into the bun, ketchup and mustard are too distracting. Thousand island is the best of both. The flavor isn’t going to disappear into the bun, but it’s also never going to outshine the beef, bacon, and cheese.

Bacon. I can’t have a flabby strip slipping out and slapping me in the face, but I also don’t want bacon croutons on my burger. The key to great bacon is to have bacon that isn’t fried too hard, so that when you bite into it, the bacon still gives up a little grease. On the bacon spectrum, from Chewy to Crunchy, King’s is smack dab in the middle of Crispy territory, which is the perfect type of bacon for burgers. It’s the Goldilocks of bacon texture.

Bun. I believe that a burger lives and dies by its bun. Cold bun? Get the fuck out of here. Ciabatta? Who the hell can bite through that tough bullshit? Low-quality, disintegrating Wonder bread? Great, my burger is a magic act and the bun is its disappearing assistant. I gotta have a burger bun that is easy to bite through, but still has some substance and flavor. It should be toasted enough that the crunch of the edges is detectable in the first bite. If that bun is toasted in actual butter? Well, that’s just the cherry on top. King’s bun is a perfect example of an excellent bun. Well toasted, squishy but not soggy, able to stand up to whatever this burger throws at it.

As a huge bonus, King’s fries are incredible. Ordering tots here is a mistake. The fries are what would happen if Dick’s fries were twice fried. Some squishy, some super crunchy, a bunch of those crispy ends, all super dark brown. Ketchup is just a distraction.

You could walk into King’s, act like a cool kid, and just get a drink. That’s what King’s is expecting you to do. But if you’re a true fat (and if you read my thesis about lettuce and kept going, you’re a true fat), you walk in and you order a burger. A burger this good shouldn’t be hidden behind a veil of hipsters and dark wood, but it is. And that’s fine, because true fats will always find good burgers.

 

http://www.kingsballard.com/

 

*Red Mill bacon deluxe with cheese and Dick’s Deluxe are the other two spots in my top three.

Lil Jon

tl;dr: Lil Jon does the standard diner classics very well. Eggs Benedict, the best indicator of a restaurant’s abilities, is consistently solid here.

Sometimes you want to sit down, order something you’ve eaten a million times before, and sit back in the booth knowing you’re going to get exactly what you expect. Sometimes you don’t mind that the hollandaise came from a packet. Sometimes, you just want a full coffee cup and an efficient waitress.

The eggs Benedict is the perfect example of why Lil Jon is the pinnacle of the standard diner experience. Most people think that a Benedict should be judged by their hollandaise. However, scratch hollandaise only shows up every once in a great while.* Though it is always a welcome and appreciated gesture, powdered hollandaise is the standard for every hangover crushing diner in the city, so this is not where the front runners separate from the pack.. The greats stand out by consistently plating up runny-yolked poached eggs.

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Lil Jon is the only place I’ve ever been that can consistently poach an egg during busy weekend brunch hours. I don’t know how they do it. Do they have one guy that just poaches eggs? Do they employ the one person in the greater Seattle area that can focus on poaching eggs while doing other things? Do they use the “poach them before service, then merely heat them up right before plating” trick (a solid trick if you ever decide to torture yourself and cook eggs Benedict at home)? Do they toss out the overcooked poached eggs instead of plating them because they aren’t fucking monsters? I don’t know. All I know, is the six times I’ve been at a table where a benny was ordered, the yolks were runny. The rest of the plate is something to be admired as well, but in a “this is exactly what I expected” sort of way. The hashbrowns are hashbrowns, the English muffin is toasted, the ham is thick and griddled, and the hollandaise is good.

Other than the solid, unassuming food at Lil Jon, the service is something to be appreciated. There’s a teamwork at play that isn’t entirely obvious unless you’re paying attention. It’s seamless and admirable, and makes for a calm environment in a super busy restaurant. No one seems rushed, but everyone seems to move with purpose. When a job needs to be done, someone picks it up and does it expeditiously, without visible attitude. It is just being done because it’s the right thing to do.

Lil Jon understands that there has to be a place where you can drag yourself to the table when the light of day is still too harsh. You have to be able to grunt your regular order and slump over your mug. You have to be able to rely on the humble work ethic of those who went to bed at a reasonable hour, and you have to be able to cut into an egg yolk, see the golden trickle down the side of your English muffin, and know you’re gonna come out the other side just fine.

http://www.liljonrestaurant.com/

*For those on the hunt for hollandaise nirvana, Glo’s is the tops. A full writeup will come eventually. Lola also makes their hollandaise from scratch, but there’s dill in it, which felt like a little bit of a hipster overreach to me. For the record, both Lola and Glo’s have served overcooked yolks when a Benedict was ordered at my table.

Aladdin Gyro-cery

tl;dr: This gyro is the dopest gyro in Seattle. Hands down, no contest. I love it.

As a general rule, I don’t really dig when restaurants riff on classics. If I’m asking for a caesar salad, I don’t want tomatoes on it. When I order eggs benny, I’m expecting a lemony hollandaise (I’m looking at you, Lola, with your stupid dill flavored mess). When a cheeseburger is set down in front of me, I’m a cheddar or American cheese girl. I’m of the opinion that classics are classics because they’re as good as they can possibly be. They no longer need tinkering, just topnotch execution.

Aladdin Gyro-cery’s lamb and beef gyro is the asterisk on that rule. They’ve found the one tweak that elevates the classic gyro to a level that is unfathomable before you experience it. Aladdin’s gyro is the standard by which I judge all other gyros, and not a single other has come close.

In most gyros, the meat is sliced thinly, but Aladdin cuts theirs off the spit in thick slabs. These slabs allow for an adjective that doesn’t normally describe gyro meat: juicy. And because that isn’t enough to solidify their status as gyro king, they then take the meat and fry it with onions in some sort of mystical curry-flavored grease. Whatever mix of oil and spices they use is seriously magical. It seeps into the pita, blends with the tahini, dresses the lettuce, and gives every bite this spectacular completeness that is the true indicator of a classic dish.

Aladdin also just covers the essentials so well. Their lettuce and tomatoes are cold, their pitas are expertly grilled, tahini is an inspired sauce choice to mix with the gyro grease, and they sprinkle a bit of sumac on top of the whole thing. And for what it’s worth, they’re one of the only restaurants that has never forgotten to leave the raw onions off of my order. Even if they hadn’t tapped into a well of beautiful gyro grease, they would still be putting out one of the best gyros in Seattle because of their attention to detail, which is exactly the type of place I love to give my money to.

http://www.yelp.com/biz/aladdin-gyro-cery-seattle

Mecca Cafe

tl;dr: Get anything that comes with your choice of side, and go for mashed potatoes. Three types of gravy, and all of them are great. Breakfast is good, but why would you get anything that doesn’t come with mashed potatoes?

I’ve always thought that mashed potatoes were one of my least favorite sides. I’ve never really understood people who say that mashed potatoes are their favorite part of Thanksgiving, because HELLO stuffing. To me, mashed potatoes are simply a side dish. My parents made them relatively often, and though my dad makes fantastic gravy and they sometimes spiced them up with feta stirred in (so good, try it!), they always seemed to be the most boring of the starches.

I have no idea where I got this idea, but it was smashed to pieces when I realized how happy I was that Mecca Cafe offers mashed potatoes as a side dish. Mashed potatoes! With a reuben! What luxury! Not only are there mashed potatoes available along with potato salad, coleslaw, or fries, but the soda comes in tiny pitchers, the kitchen is open 24 hours a day, and the place feels like you’ve been transported back to old grungey, pre-Amazon Seattle for a little while.

And in case you thought I was only going to talk about side dishes again, fear not. The reuben is one of the best specimens in Seattle, messy, with the perfect ratio of ingredients on crunchy grilled rye. It’s exactly what you hope for every time the word “reuben” comes out of your mouth onto the server’s writing pad.

Though you could get breakfast any hour of the day, I don’t know why you would pass up the chance to experience mashed potatoes alongside the diner sandwich of your choice. It’s something you never knew you really needed until it was possible.

mecca-cafe.com