The rain has finally arrived — not that I was complaining about the excessively sunny October we’ve had so far, minus all that smoke — but with it comes a predictable shift in what I’m craving. These past few weeks, with my favorite tomato guy still at the Saturday farmers market, raspberries still spilling over the tables, it felt like summer. I made beef stew last week and it just felt … weird?
But now, with rain firmly falling and in the foreseeable forecast, I am ready. I’m ready for steaming bowls of chili sauce beef with rice; piping hot pork shumai dumplings; greasy, chewy scallion pancakes with a cloud of scrambled egg on top. Thankfully, there is all that and more in Kirkland’s Houghton neighborhood at Fan Tang Asian Cafe and Early Bird Cafe.
First: Fan Tang Asian Cafe, a Hunan-style restaurant situated in a strip mall anchored by a Met Market. Open since last June, the expansive cafe is counter service with big video touch screens for ordering. I had my heart set on the pork belly steam buns, which were shown on the large video screens anchored to one wall, but could not find them anywhere on the ordering screen.
A person working at the cash register mentioned that if something isn’t on the order screen, it means it’s unavailable. While disappointing, it was amazing to have the smart technology just disappear the item from the options instead of ordering only to be told they were sold out.
Even without the steam buns, my friend and I were able to get our hands on chili sauce beef ($17.50), umami vegetable green beans ($9.50), the Mei Cai Pork Belly Bowl ($15.75), and shrimp and pork wontons with chili oil ($9.50).
The window-filled dining room is large, and there’s a big serve-yourself station stocked with cutlery, sauce bowls, share plates, condiments and water. We were there for a late lunch around 2 p.m. and the dining room was empty save for one other customer.
Maybe this place is hopping over the noon hour — or maybe they do a brisk takeout business — but for as good as the food was, I expected Fan Tang to be bumping.
The chili sauce beef is studded with still-crunchy hunks of sweet red bell pepper amid all the thinly sliced sautéed beef, both swimming in a silky bone broth and chili sauce that was more tangy than overtly spicy. It’s served with a side of rice that if eating alone I would’ve dumped directly into the beef bowl and mixed.
The wontons have a delicate wrapper cocooning an amalgam of fatty pork and snappy shrimp, just begging to be stirred up in their bowl of sauce. They — along with the chili sauce beef and the unctuous pork belly bowl, sautéed with dry pickled mustard — were all listed as “spicy” on the menu, but none of the dishes raised my delicate spicy senses. If it’s spice you’re after, better visit the condiment bar for added chili oil.
And while the green beans, shot through with flecks of mustard greens, weren’t spicy, they were wonderful: still a little crunchy and slick with that elusive umami flavor that kept you going back for just one more.
Just across 68th Street is Early Bird Cafe, housed in a former bubble tea spot and open just two months.
It’s a minimalist spot that opens at 8 a.m. every morning with a dim sum menu only served until 11 a.m., when it switches over to a completely different menu with wok-fried rice and noodle dishes. There are holdovers from the former bubble tea shop as you can still get a wide range of bubble tea and coffee drinks. Yes, Seattle area, you can get dim sum on the Eastside for breakfast.
However, this is dim sum with a twist. You order everything from the counter from incredibly helpful employees eager to tell you their favorites and everything comes in a takeout box. When our food was delivered, the server told us the kitchen is so small they don’t really have the space for dishes or large dishwashing equipment. They also can’t find labor to have a dedicated dishwasher. So, takeout containers it is.
And as for only serving dim sum until 11 a.m., again the kitchen is small — just two wok stations. If they made dim sum all day, they wouldn’t be able to offer the rest of their extensive menu.
Still, nothing quite hits the spot on a cool autumn morning like piping hot rice rolls with pork and egg ($6.50) and plump, steaming pork shumai ($7.50), both delightful.
There’s also shrimp dumplings ($7.50), but those delicate see-through wrappers turned deathly sticky in their plastic container prison and were impossible to pry apart without divorcing shrimp from wrapper. Tasted terrific, looked a mess. Another casualty of the morning were the soup dumplings, called steamed Shanghai dumplings here ($6.50). The soup was wonderfully heavy on the ginger, but unfortunately the little top knot sealing all those perfect pleats was still a bit doughy and again, housed in a plastic container, the sides of the dumplings bonded quicker than two girls at sleepaway camp, and tore open and spilled that precious gingery soup all over the bottom of the container.
There were saviors, though. The green onion pancake ($7.95) was delightfully chewy and greasy, the scrambled egg inside a veritable cloud. The beef sautéed with onion ($15.95) featured wok-charred onion and chewy noodles, plenty of sweet onion, sprouts and velvety strips of charred beef. Those two dishes, the rice rolls and the pork shumai made Early Bird worth going back for the next time the craving for breakfast dim sum strikes.
Fan Tang Asian Cafe 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10615 N.E. 68th St., Kirkland; 425-298-4597; fantangcafe.com
Early Bird Cafe 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily; 967 Sixth St. S., Kirkland; 425-242-0610