There is only one thing to order at Buerjia Chinese Sauerkraut Fish.
It’s right there, centered, bold and alone at the top of the menu — The Sauerkraut Fish — with the definite article included, lest there be any confusion.
The restaurant’s china is decorated with a fish cartoon. On our recent visit to the Haller Lake branch, flat-screen TVs play highly produced videos, on loop, of the dish’s preparation — live fish, wriggling and splashing in slo-mo, destined for the cleaver; pickled vegetables emerging from earthenware crocks; chilies sizzling in oil.
Once you order, it comes out with a flourish. “Fish soup is here,” a server proclaims in Chinese, as they arrive with a veritable vat of broth, vegetables and tilapia fillets.
It is very good — rich, sour, oily and hot. The broth is tart with ribbons of pickled mustard greens, the sauerkraut of the dish and restaurant’s name. It’s studded with flavor land mines to pick around — planks of ginger, a fistful of dried chilies, Szechuan peppercorns deployed with such abandon that they come in bundles, still attached to the twig.
And all throughout is the star of the show, snow-white, skin-on chunks of fish, unassuming, peeking through the noisy broth. It’s fresh and firm, velvety and tremulous. It doesn’t flake apart on contact, like lower-quality fish can tend to do.
It is compulsively eatable. The chilies and peppercorns will make your nose run and your mouth buzz, but you’ll keep searching, poking around and under the canopy of spices, for each piece of fish.
Another TV, again playing silently on repeat, explains the fish’s provenance. They all come from Dutchboy Farms, a hatchery and fish farm in Idaho that’s situated on a geothermal spring so they’re able to farm warm-water fish like tilapia.
Fish comes in live from Idaho once a week and is held in a tank and butchered daily, explained Peipei Cao, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Xiaomeng Liu.
“We use live fish so it’s very, very fresh,” Cao said. “It’s a good combination of the spice and the sour and the fish.”
The combination comes from Guangzhou in southeastern China, where Cao and Liu were traveling a few years ago, noticed the dish’s popularity and thought they could bring it here.
And while it may technically be a mom-and-pop operation — it’s owned by a husband and wife — it doesn’t feel like one.
They opened their first location in Redmond last May, and, within months, had opened three more — in North Seattle, in the University District and in Kent. Everything, save the fish, is imported regularly from China and they want to take their burgeoning chain national.
“If we can keep the procedures simple and keep the consistency of the flavor, that’s the most important thing,” Cao said. “That way you don’t even need a chef, anybody can do it.”
The couple also owns Flying Fish, in South Lake Union, which Liu, who previously ran about 20 high-end restaurants in China, bought in 2013. They previously owned Crab King, a high-end hot-pot spot in Bellevue.
There are, despite there being only one dish, a few choices to make. The soup comes in three sizes, the smallest ($35.99) feeds two and is served in a bowl that’s a foot-and-a-half wide. You can choose soup add-ons ($3.99 each). Wide starch noodles are a big, chewy contrast; transparent, an inch wide and thicker than you think. Rice and fried bread are good options to absorb the broth.
There are a handful of appetizers. Pickled cucumber ($6.99) is pleasantly cooling, next to the fiery soup.
Cao said the Redmond location was so crowded when it first opened, that it convinced them to expand immediately. Cao said they plan to open a branch in San Francisco this spring.
Buerjia Chinese Sauerkraut Fish, Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; buerjiacsf.com
Multiple locations: 15163 N.E. 24th St., Redmond, 425-531-7988; 13200 Aurora Ave. N., Suite D, (Haller Lake) Seattle, 206-466-1005; 4509 University Way N.E., (University District) Seattle, 206-946-6562; 18230 E. Valley Highway, Suite 126, Kent, 253-277-2331