4508 University Way N.E. (University District), Seattle; no phone/website; Sunday-Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Saturday
When talking recently about his revamp of Seattle’s classic Dynasty Room, I-Miun Liu mentioned that his mom makes the best dumplings. Sure, sure — everybody’s mom makes the best version of their favorite food. But then he said his parents used to run restaurants in Edmonds. And then he mentioned they’d just opened a place on the Ave … serving dumplings. It’s called Little Kitchen.
I-Miun’s menu at the Dynasty Room is pretty damn good, and he says it’s based on the stuff he ate growing up — homestyle comfort food, reflecting his Chinese-but-came-here-from-Korea background. But he’s not bothering with dumplings; why would he, when his mom makes the best? And this isn’t just a son’s love talking: Little Kitchen’s dumplings are excellent.
The scene: Little Kitchen is on University right off 45th, a tiny, electric-blue storefront with a paper sign in the window. Just inside the narrow space is the open kitchen where Tian Liu (that’s I-Miun’s mom) and Hui Yu Liu (that’s his dad) fix all the food themselves. You order at the counter; the menu’s blackboard-style. The place is a little more formal in the front, then has a funny little low-ceilinged table-zone in the rear, plus a balcony up top (probably not open). The decor might best be described as charming hodgepodge: some artificial foliage, a framed drawing of a husky with two puppies, a likewise poster of John Lennon with the lyrics to “Imagine,” a couple ladder-back chairs affixed to a wall.
Say hi! Tian and Hui are so nice, you’ll want to move in. If you ask Tian if you can eat out of a big cabbage-shaped bowl sitting up on a high shelf, she’ll laugh and offer to rent it to you. If you fail to grab chopsticks, she might bring them to you, along with another Dixie cup full of water. She’ll offer to stir up your noodles (for “More flavor!”). She likes to joke around, and if she’s not busy, she’ll help box up your leftovers. It feels like home.
The dumplings: Little Kitchen’s pork wontons in chili sauce are amazing — way better than Din Tai Fung’s. They’ve got super-fresh-tasting, delicate-wiggly wrappers, and their garlicky-spicy sauce will cause you to go get a spoon. A customer recently wanted to buy just the sauce for her mom, Tian said when we admired its greatness; she doesn’t sell it separately, so the customer bought two orders, ate all the wontons and took the leftover sauce to go. We poured ours over some leftover rice. You don’t want to leave it behind.
The Shan Dong boiled dumplings — typical of the Lius original home in northern China, eaten at New Year’s for good luck — are also incredible, with soft, tender wrappers with floppy edges, savory and filling but somehow also delicate.
Potstickers are listed as steamed, but Tian offered us a choice of pan-fried: yes, please. They had unusual not-too-thick but not-super-thin wrappers, deep-golden-crisped on the bottom, and like the others tasted uncommonly fresh. When you bit into one end, juiciness leaked out the other.
Mom made you some noodles: I-Miun stole his mom’s recipe for cold noodles with peanut butter sauce for the Dynasty Room’s bar menu, and you can see why: It’s ideal, soothing comfort food, perfect for booze-cushioning. The sauce is creamy and garlic-accented, not at all sweet; the rice noodles get a happy jumble of bits of omelet, julienned carrot and cucumber, and Spam cut into matchsticks (if you think you don’t like Spam, this format might change your mind). If you came home late and found these noodles in the fridge, you’d be so happy. Thanks, Mom!
What else to try (and maybe not try): Both the Shan Dong roasted chicken (big, soft, juicy pieces of bird with garlic sauce, cucumber and cilantro) and the Mandarin fried chicken (glossy-sauced, coated in airy-crisp breading that makes General Tso’s look bad) are lovely. Green onion pancake gets the chewy-crispy-greasy balance just right, with a layered lightness that many versions lack. A pan-fried chive dumpling comes in a larger, flat, pleated-edged format — interesting, but a little bland. The zha jiang mian, a Northern-style noodle with soybean sauce, also tasted very mild.
And: Little Kitchen’s homemade food and mom-and-pop kindness are wonderful, and the prices are also extremely nice. Dumplings are just $4.99 an order; noodles and plates are $5.99 to $8.99. If you run up a $40 bill (tax and tip included) for two people, Tian will tease you, “It’s a lot of food!” She’ll be right, and you’ll have leftovers for later happiness.
— Bethany Jean Clement
Koku Café + Market
1417 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; 206-285-1352, kokucafemarket.com; Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.; closed Monday. (Look for expanded dinner hours soon.)
One of the best rice bowls in the city sits atop Upper Queen Anne. But you have to go out of your way to find it. The facade hints nothing of its specialty. The counter staff does a lousy job of promoting it. Located in a former coffeehouse, Koku has altered little of the interior to alert any passer-by that much has changed.
But of course everything has changed: Asian pastries are served now. Its loose-leaf tea selection is the best since Teacup left this neighborhood. Its simple but well-curated food menu relies on nothing more than a couple of rice cookers, convection ovens, induction burners and a panini press. Koku also doubles as a retail shop, with double-brew soy sauce and other gourmet and rare Asian condiments on the shelves. That’s when we knew we were onto something. Anyone who cares that much about soy sauce won’t settle for a pedestrian bowl.
The menu: A short lineup of rice bowls ($10 each), panini ($8-$10) and pastries ($2-$4) is offered throughout the day. There are the usual coffee offerings along with two dozen different Asian teas and South African rooibos drinks.
What to get: The pork rice bowl, a tangy, spicy and sweet flavor bomb, with pork shoulder so smoky, you would swear the meat was barbecue. Its secret: The pork gets marinated overnight in Lapsang Souchong tea for a profoundly piney, smoky bite. It’s served with various fermented veggies and garlicky kraut over some nutty brown rice. In a city littered with rice bowls, Koku’s stands out, may be the best rice bowl you can get in Seattle for $10.
The chicken bowl comes with dark meat marinated in sweet sake and served with different mushrooms and other umami flavors. Better is its sandwich version, mirin-marinated chicken with bacon, pickled shishito peppers, Thai basil and scallions, the better BLT. The Kokumi Melt is its signature smoky-tea flavor pork with a melted medley of Gruyere and a two-year-aged cheddar, a decadent panini.
The bill: Two rice bowls ($9.99 each) and a Kokumi Melt pork sandwich ($9.99) and bacon chicken sandwich ($10) totaled $39.97.
— Tan Vinh
508 Main St., Edmonds; 425-967-5329, marketfreshfish.com; Sunday-Friday 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.
Here is your weekend tip of the week: Head north to downtown Edmonds — on a Saturday if you want to take in the summer’s street-market festivities; on a Sunday if you want a more quaint setting. Stroll toward the fountain on Main Street to the new seafood market for the stellar fish and chips — the fillet is flaky and opaque, the batter crunchy but not greasy. The thick tartar dotted with squishy capers is meant to be dipped and dipped again. (We do not count calories here.)
From the same owners behind Bar Dojo, one of Edmonds’ best restaurants, The MAR·KET is a casual fish-and-chips and fish-taco spot near the ferry terminal. Its window display boasts a nine-pound king salmon perched over pebble ice next to a Rainier tallboy and a 40-ounce bottle of rose. (Priorities!)
The layout: On Saturday afternoons, people pack in like sardines in this 10-seat seafood retail shop/fish fry. No matter. You want the seats outside along its sidewalk cafe anyway. (A deck that can seat up to 30 is on the drawing board.)
Any of the salmon, halibut, scallops and seafood behind the glass display can be poached, pan- or deep-fried for $3 upon request. Most patrons just order from the menu. The seafood, chowder, shrimp tostada and smoked-salmon bagel range from $8-$18. Wine by the glass is $6, though the better deal is to order the bottle, only $14-$19. If you’re overwhelmed by all the Old World selections, just get a bottle of vihno verde ($18), a poorman’s Chablis, a spritzy and crisp table wine that will go with most of the seafood here.
What to get: The fish-and-chips. A thick fillet of rock fish comes with a copious amount of golden, salty fries and sides of tartar sauce and minty, mushy peas and a lemon wedge. Underrated is the mound of salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab battered in flour and sautéed with garlic and chilies. It will taste even better as leftover in a po boy. Its much-loved signature burrito is excellent — if poke is your thing. It’s essentially a reconfigured poke rice bowl with creamy avocado wrapped with sushi-grade salmon, hamachi and tuna along with some seaweed salad, cucumber, tobiko and sushi rice. It’s meant to be dipped with the sides of wasabi and soy sauce. It’s a generous ratio of sushi to rice without many of the fillers that usually mar most poke bowls and seafood burritos. The fish taco is adulated with so much of its condiments that you don’t realize there are good chunks of fillet until you scrape away half of the queso fresco, mango cubes, corn, napa cabbage and aioli. What you’re left with is a toothsome, clean taste of fish fillet.
A sample bill: Fish-and-chips ($15), signature burrito ($15), two tacos ($10) and bottle of table wine ($18) totaled $58, enough for two for dinner.
— Tan Vinh