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It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I had somehow managed to restrain myself during the previous evening’s festivities. It was a rare vacation day, overcast and lazy, a perfect morning for dim sum. Another post-pescetarian discovery, I’ve spent the past year exploring the International District in search of the perfect barbecue pork bun (and I found it, along with the best dim sum in town over at Monsoon on Capitol Hill – although Eric Banh’s dim sum is more of the platonic ideal, and less of the actual experience). And the experience was what I was craving this morning, so off we went to Jade Garden.
Not unlike heated discussions about this or that “best” pizza in town, nothing quite gets opinions flowing like who has the “best” dim sum. House of Hong is a perennial contender. So is O’Asian. But I am firmly in the Jade Garden camp, and will leave it at that. I’m not the only one either, since the place is always, inevitably, insanely crowded. Hour-long waits on the weekends are not out of the question. And on this particular holiday, people were crammed into the foyer and spilling out onto Seventh Avenue. It was standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, a crush of people waiting to get their pork shui mai on.
The restaurant itself is deceptively large, with several rooms and all sizes of table. It’s got that charming dingy feeling that you get in many of the joints in the ID, cluttered and a little dirty, with huge tanks of lobsters and creepy unidentifiable fish up front. Above the fish tanks, there is an improvised little shrine with three flickering LED incense burners. For no apparent reason, the ceiling is lined with white lattice and fake plastic ivy. The wall behind the register is covered with autographed glossy headshots of Chinese actors and actresses. The hostess and the runners will scream at each other in Cantonese over the roar of the crowd until they finally call your name (after you’ve reminded them that you’re actually still waiting).
Once seated, it will thankfully only be a matter of seconds before the first cart shows up and you’re devouring baskets of perfectly steamed shrimp and scallion dumplings or pan-fried daikon cakes. Those cakes are particularly good, with little pieces of pork sausage cooked into the otherwise silky, gelatinous mashed turnip. I’m also a huge fan of the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, cooked with a hearty ground pork and chicken mixture. Based on your luck of the draw, there will probably be something new to try as well (I usually just go with whatever the lady pushing the cart says is good, but you have to be careful, since she’ll just keep piling the baskets on the table until you’re completely overwhelmed with food). This visit found me sampling a crispy, breaded and baked pork ball with scallions. The lady with the cart took a gigantic pair of scissors and chopped it in half before serving.
You’ll probably be full by this point, but do not pass up the char siu bau – a fluffy, sweet white bun with a deep red tangy barbequed pork filling. Ladle on some hot pepper paste from the little jar on the table. Drink some tea or a Tsingtao. Conversation with your dining companions may be difficult, as the decibel level ranges somewhere between airplane liftoff and a My Bloody Valentine concert. The final bill will not be expensive. You may have leftovers. They will be delicious.
Last weekend I realized that my blood mercury levels were getting dangerously low and I was in dire need of raw fish. Tucked away on a steep hillside just off of Jackson on Sixth Avenue South in the International District you will find Maneki, the oldest sushi bar in Seattle. The place is a venerable institution, and you can sense the age when you enter the narrow front hallway cluttered with kitchsy japanese décor and an endless parade of framed magazine covers representing decades worth of write-ups. You will probably have plenty of time to contemplate those magazines since Maneki is wildly popular and nearly always packed. Don’t even bother on a Friday night if you don’t have a reservation. We’re talking hours of waiting, and even with a reservation, you’re still going to wait. You can also expect a dubious glance from owner Jean Nakayama, as she measures your worthiness and finds you wanting. Entrance into Maneki is a privilege and don’t you forget it.
You’re best bet is probably going to be getting a crew together and reserving a tatami room. It’s more fun that way anyhow. So kick off your shoes and slide onto the ancient pillows in your own private screened room and order up some sake (I’ll have ice-cold Kurosawa, please). I usually like to start with a bowl of edamame, which is particularly good at Maneki – the bright green baby soybeans are never oversteamed or oversalted. The miso soup is exactly what you would expect, executed in a very traditional fashion (ultra-tiny cubes of tofu, lots of scallions and a couple errant pieces of wakame kelp). I’m also fond of the gyoza – the homemade, thinly wrapped potstickers filled with shrimp and pork are delicate and buttery and served with a side of lemon.
While Maneki has a huge menu that runs the gamut of japanese cuisine from tenzaru soba to avocado ponzu, I almost always go for the sushi. As you would expect from a restaurant that is over 100 years old, this is hardly glamor sushi. I think the most exotic thing on offer is a spider roll. Definitely not the place to indulge in omakase. Despite the minimalist approach (or maybe because of it), the preparation is always flawless, the uramaki is rolled perfectly and the sushi rice is textbook. Everything is pretty classic, almost archetypal, with the exception of the spicy tuna roll which I’m pretty sure is unique to Maneki. First of all, it’s really spicy. Secondly, the tuna is minced beyond recognition and mixed with togarashi chili powder so you wind up with this bright red blast of fiery fish paste. Mayonnaise is completely eschewed, which is just fine with me. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Also unique to Maneki: scallions, scallions everywhere. I hope you like green onions, because they are chopped on top of everything.
The cuts of fish served on nigiri are very long and thin, almost twice the length of the pressed sushi rice they are draped over. The special rotates seasonally, and on this particular visit they had spanish mackerel on the board so I ordered it up. I enjoy the intensely fishy and oily texture of the saba, but it’s not for everyone. On the other hand, I thought a piece of yellowtail was too fishy, and tasted off (which is unfortunate, because hamachi is my very favorite sushi fish). Also not so good: the smoked salmon nigiri. We did a side-by-side comparison between the fresh salmon and the smoked salmon, and while the fresh fish tasted clean and velvety, the smoked version was rubbery and almost tasted like it had been injected with liquid smoke. I won’t be getting that again.
But despite the occasional hiccup, I’m really happy Maneki has survived for as long as it has. It has that timeless, neighborhood feeling. And in fact, earlier this year Maneki was honored with an America’s Classics Award by the James Beard Foundation. It’s not hard to understand why. I loves me some lucky cat.