Handmade pasta for under $10 from a big-name chef in the land of Amazon. An Eastside Korean favorite's new Seattle location. A total find in Renton. These new restaurants get a stamp of approval from Bethany Jean Clement and Tan Vinh.
G.H. Pasta Co.: great pasta, under $10
2305 Sixth Ave. (Denny Triangle area), Seattle; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; 206-402-6210; ghpastaseattle.com
By this point, is there any chef who hasn’t been seduced by the sirens of Amazon? James Beard award-winning chef Renee Erickson recently opened a cocktail bar and a restaurant inside the Spheres. Famed New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer anchored his Shake Shack along Westlake Avenue.
But none is more intriguing than the quiet experiment that chef Brian Clevenger is undertaking two blocks west of the Spheres at G.H. Pasta Co.
Clevenger wants to feed you, and well, for under $10.
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We’re not talking gummy Olive Garden noodles backstroking in marinara, but handmade bucatini and rigatoni precisely cooked until bouncy, with the perfect al dente finish you’d taste from Venezia to Torino, and served with guanciale, lamb Bolognese or seasonal ingredients.
No store bought-dry spaghetti here. The staff make seven different pastas every morning and again at 1:30 p.m.— 120 pounds’ worth daily.
Every pasta bowl is made to order. During the lunch rush, Clevenger moves like a man who has as many arms as an octopus — boiling pastas and sauteing over eight burners and plating and dusting lemon zests and breadcrumbs to finish. On a recent visit, I saw him pause only once to take two bites out of a Granny Smith apple.
In a lunch area oversaturated with food trucks and rice-bowl spots, maybe it’s a fool’s errand to chase the sub-$10 meal. But you gotta give Clevenger this: The man sweats for your nine bucks.
He’s the latest big-name chef to embrace a fast-casual model. Tom Douglas feeds the Amazon busy bees rice bowls at nearby Home Remedy; earlier this year, he opened Department Bento inside Nordstrom at Bellevue Square.
“This is the future of restaurants with the impact of the minimum-wage increase, and people refusing to pay 20 dollars for a bowl of pasta,” said Clevenger after an afternoon in which he cranked out 185 pasta bowls during lunch. “This is our future. Hopefully it does well.”
To make this concept work during the Amazon mad lunch rush, Clevenger expects each bowl to be made in seven minutes, from the time the 5-ounce batch of pasta gets dunked in boiling, starchy water to the plating when Parmesan is sprinkled over the bowl.
Customers may not know that their cheap pasta bowl is made by an experienced hand who runs three respected Italian restaurants in the city (Vendemmia, Le Messe and Raccolto, along with East Anchor Seafood). But they will notice the pasta, which is a step up from almost any quick lunch fare around.
Lamb Bolognese is layered with savory and tangy notes, and the spaghetti and sauce are bound with creamy mascarpone. Toothsome bucatini is brightened with Fresno chili and served with cooked clams that will make you forget those sad seafood pastas marred with shellfish as chewy as sneaker treads. And the tagliatelle with creme fraiche, fragrant with fresh mint and lemon, bursts with umami from wild mushrooms and 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The only miss on my visit was the rich tonnarelli pasta, which suffocated in truffle butter.
Clevenger vows to keep prices at $8-$9 as long as he can hit his sales target. He’s mum on what that magic number is, but said he has been pleasantly shocked to be selling 185 to 200 bowls a day, even on weekends.
To keep costs down, G.H. Pasta doesn’t have front-of-the-house labor. You order from the counter and bus your mess. The modest, bright, industrial space with tall ceilings is only big enough for 20 seats. The kitchen fan, unfortunately, wasn’t loud enough to drown out the Eagles soundtrack on the day I visited. — Tan Vinh
Stone Korean Restaurant: can’t keep this a secret
900 Dexter Ave. N. (South Lake Union/Westlake), Seattle; Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, closed Sunday (also 16857 Redmond Way, Redmond; 425-497-0515); 206-717-2864, stonekorean.com
The seafood pancake is incredibly good. The servers are extremely nice. The lights may be inordinately bright, but they’re illuminating all the super-tasty food crowded onto your tabletop, at an unbelievably good price. Stone Korean Restaurant has been a favorite in Redmond since 2011, and the branch that owners Diana and Kang Choi just opened on Dexter Avenue is going to be absurdly popular.
Don’t blame me: The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, with the streets eerily quiet all around, brand-new Stone Korean was almost full-up. This place can’t be kept secret — it’s an already known-and-loved quantity, with nearly hole-in-the-wall prices, in an almost-upscale space on the edge of Amazonland. Like everything else along this stretch of Dexter now, it’s in a freshly built, anonymous-looking building. If the street’s disconcertingly unrecognizable, the existence of Stone Korean will make you feel a whole lot better about changing Seattle. If you’re a newcomer, you’ll just be happy to be here.
In Redmond, Stone Korean became known for its fried chicken, in regular, hot-wing, chili- or sweet-garlic-marinated style. Our server said people love it with beer, for obvious reasons, and here you can get one of those ice-chilled plastic towers of Hite draft — an instant party for your table. We wanted the seafood pancake, which he said often gets paired with makgeolli — Korean rice wine — but that it isn’t necessarily to everybody’s taste. It turned out to be like carbonated nigori sake: milky-cloudy, lightly sweet, sparkly, a little grapefruity and completely delicious. As for Stone Korean’s seafood pancake, it’s exactly greasy enough for crispiness outside; huge and filling, but bouncy, not doughy; and loaded with fresh-tasting shrimp, octopus and squid, along with lots of bright scallion. It’s excellent.
Served in very hot stone pots, Stone Korean’s bibimbap (spelled bi-bim-bob here) sizzles with greatness, crisping up bits of rice all across the bottom and up the sides. The kalbi beef short ribs, nicely charred and rich with melty fat, tastes both caramelized and smoky. The japchae (or jab-chae) goes above and beyond, bearing tons of clearly fresh vegetables and even shiitake mushrooms (and not too much soy sauce).
Steamed egg — also a popular bar food, or, alternately, good for breakfast, our server said — is a simple delight of jiggly-hot, better-than-any-omelet texture with a light but umami-bomb broth. I can’t wait to try Stone’s mul-naeng-myun — a noodle soup served chilled — and I bet their hot soft tofu soups improve a rainy day immensely. Many menu items come with banchan, the multidish spread of extra little salads and snacks, tasting extra-fresh here — and if you eat them all up, your server will even offer to refill them. This, in a world where sometimes banchan costs extra!
The Seattle area has some great places for traditional Korean barbecue, like Old Village on Aurora, or Palace BBQ in Bellevue and Federal Way. Rachel Yang’s Trove on Capitol Hill makes more upscale barbecue, while Girin in Pioneer Square offers a fancier take on a full Korean menu — and both are really good, too. But we could use more places in the city like Stone Korean, where the prices tell you everything else you need to know to want to go. A combo special of bulgogi and bibimbap, with (yes!) banchan, costs $24 — add another dish, and you’ve got a feast for two. An all-appetizer extravaganza is not at all a bad way to go, especially when japchae ($15) and rice cake in chili sauce ($11) are in that category; add steamed egg ($8) and a big seafood (or kimchi) pancake ($16 or $13), and get enough for three people for a grand pre-tax-and-tip total of $50. But you’ll want lots of leftovers to take home … might as well order more. — Bethany Jean Clement
Zhen Kee: a real find in Renton
151 Sunset Blvd. N., Renton; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily; 425-277-1886, zhenkee.com
Zhen Kee Chinese Restaurant is a little difficult to get to, lodged on a busy multilane street alongside the 405 in Renton — we ended up circling a long block to reach the parking lot. Inside, the atmosphere felt like a strange, dim dream: upholstered booths, conference-room-style chairs, a vaulted wood ceiling, sunlight trying to get in around draperies, a radio station playing continuous Christmas music — sort of 1980s time-warp banquet room by way of Twin Peaks. (Let me just say, I mean that as a compliment.) It was pretty empty, but then again, it was the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
When my colleague Tan Vinh and I got our menus, we thought we were in the wrong place. Elizabeth Kong, the marketing director at Seattle Chinese Times, had recommended Zhen Kee and, specifically, the whole fish. (This past February, Kong kindly tipped me off to Jiaozi! — an excellent dumpling spot that’s since closed. Good news on that front: Owner Elaine Song says it’ll reopen in Bellevue next year. But I digress.) But there was no whole fish on this menu: It looked like it was from the same era as the building, with glossy photos of Americanized favorites like orange chicken. Nothing wrong with that, but … Tan went to the entryway to re-examine the specials board and returned with an entirely different menu he found on the counter — no pictures, and much longer, including stuff like “Fried Pork Miscellany.”
The server seemed fine with our subterfuge, and he was delighted when I chose spicy cucumber salad ($6.99), which he jubilantly called a house specialty. It proved to be fantastic: pieces of crunchy, smaller-size cucumbers in a surfeit of oily, herby, garlicky, spicy sauce (more than enough to put over some rice). He also approved our selection of Zhen Kee’s “Chef Special Lamb in the Stick” ($14.99), which he said was deep-fried and then stir-fried. A huge pile of bits of quality meat impaled on individual toothpicks, it tasted smoky, chewy, terrific.
The “Boiling Fish in Hot Chili Oil” stole the show, though. It costs $12.99 for a fillet, but we ordered a whole tilapia at $12.99 a pound for a three-and-a-half pounder, served in an immense, boiling-hot bowl with a million chilies. The fish’s flesh was melty-soft, pulled out of the broth with a slotted spoon; the taste started mellow, even earthy, with an herby-floral note before the tongue-tingling set in. Salty and spicy, yet nuanced, the flavor got more pronounced as it sat — it’s something to be eaten pretty fast, not that you can help it. With rice and a side or two, it’d be more than enough fish for three (or one regular person and Tan Vinh). You don’t eat the broth, but our server packed it up to take away, to cook more fish or vegetables in at home.
The only thing we tried that we wouldn’t order again was a bowlful of overcooked Chongquing Style Noodle ($6.99) — it looked pretty, though, and we ate the bright-green, still-crunchy bok choy off the top of it.
I wish I were at Zhen Kee right now. — B.J.C.
More? More! Find Bethany and Tan’s recommendations for 17 more excellent Seattle-area cheap eats!