From the owners of the former Bamboo Garden comes La Bu La in Bellevue.
When Stacy Zhong and her husband, Dietmar Schimmel, opened their first Chinese restaurant in Bellevue in 2007, they named it after a famous restaurant in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. But “delicious smells all year long” was the closest English approximation to the restaurant’s poetic Chinese name, and it wasn’t exactly pithy.
So, in English it became Bamboo Garden (no relation to Bamboo Vegetarian Garden in Seattle), though the Chinese community knew the restaurant by its Mandarin name.
They still do, even though last spring, with redevelopment imminent, Zhong and Schimmel closed Bamboo Garden and reopened in the nearby Soma Towers with the same menu but under a new name: La Bu La.
“Spicy, not spicy” is how that translates, an apt description of what the lengthy menu offers: American-Chinese fare, plus more authentic representations of Sichuan cuisine, the sort of dishes often written only in Chinese on a list of specials.
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Adventurous eaters looking for a thrill need only consult the section of the menu headed “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” to find dishes like “The Other Parts of a Pig.”
I wasn’t the only one at my table willing to dip into that bubbling, fragrant fire pot, but beyond the first bite, I was pretty much on my own. If you’re unused to eating offal, it requires fortitude to sample a stew featuring pig intestines and slabs of coagulated blood.
The aroma was ripe and gamy. The textures varied from tender to fatty to chewy. The searing broth benefitted from the pork and vice versa. The blood tasted liverish and was even softer than the tofu that helped balance the stronger flavors. A similar stew, equally fiery, combined pork intestines with morsels of sole, bamboo shoots, tofu and salty chunks of what tasted like Spam. I liked it even better.
Only in this context could tender lamb scallops, sizzling with scallions and ginger, come across as mild.
The lamb was a crowd-pleaser, and so was tilapia, a whole fish, big enough to feed several. Swimming against a fragrant tide of chile and spice, with a fruity undercurrent of black beans, the tilapia tasted as luxurious as black cod.
Ma Po Tofu with minced pork had a forthright spiciness, too, but bite-size cubes of remarkably silken tofu buffered the burn.
Supple bamboo shoots lavished with chile oil tasted very young and very green. Chile oil also slicked the floppy wings of house-made pork dumplings, making the transfer from bowl to mouth slippery but rewarding work.
Crisp-chewy nuggets of Chong Qing Hot Chicken were fiery as well, though not as mouth-numbing as this dish is known to be. Could the kitchen have toned it down for two white women? We were in the minority in a dining room where conversations swirled in several different languages.
Looking for something less wild? Try blistered string beans basted with a salty, tangy mince of garlic, ginger, pickled mustard root and chilies; savory scallion pancakes; or crusty walnut prawns that deliver sweet relief from the cavalcade of heat.
For chow mein or Chengdu Dan Dan, consider substituting the thick, slightly firm hand-shaved noodles. Spaghetti-like egg noodles were perfect for Sichuan cold noodles, swaddled in a smooth, sesame sauce that finishes with a surprise hit of chile heat.
La Bu La sits on the second level of Soma Towers, a high-rise apartment complex. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around a figure-eight floor plan that encompasses the dining room and bar on one level, banquet tables and private dining above.
A collection of fanciful opera masks adorn the dining-room walls; bronze reproductions of the Xian terra-cotta soldiers stand guard in the bar; otherwise the atmosphere is starkly contemporary and the sound system spews energetic pop.
Service was attentive though some niceties were lacking. Drinks were carried to the table without a tray, beer slopping over the side of brimming glasses. Tea grew cold in the pot and wasn’t replenished. It would have been nice to have individual bowls and spoons for the fire pot.
The message in my fortune cookie read: “You will enjoy trying something new.” Indeed, and delicious smells all year long will lure me back.
La Bu La ★★½
288 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more
Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5-9:30 Sunday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; happy hour 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
Prices: $$ ($6.95-$16.95; lunch specials $8.95-$10.95)
Drinks: cocktails, beer, wine, sake, tea
Parking: two hours free in the Soma Towers garage; reserved free parking in stalls 16 through 28 in the Diamond Parking lot next to Bellevue Auto House across the street
Sound: loud, but quieter if you are cocooned in a cylindrical booth
Who should go: Fiery-food fans can take “a walk on the wild side” and exercise their inner Anthony Bourdain; family friendly; easily accommodates groups
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Access: elevators to the restaurant entrance (on the second level of Soma Towers) and restrooms
Sichuan-style dumplings $8.95
Chengdu Dan Dan noodles $9.95
Chong Qing Hot Chicken $14.95
The Other Parts of a Pig $14.95
Crispy walnut prawns $16.95