Every year around Christmastime, Angela Cheng flies home to Taiwan to visit her family for a couple weeks. Two years ago, the visit was a little different. For about a week straight, every night, she went with her father to the Donghai Night Market to stand by his friend’s food stall and watch him make malatang, the Chinese dish that’s part secret broth, part hot pot and stuffed with a veritable cornucopia of meats and vegetables.
“Please teach me how to do it,” Cheng recalled asking. “He told me he had a recipe he’s been improving and working on for 20 years. He’s just showing me one by one, all the steps, every detail matters, all the measurement matters, all the timing matters.”
Earlier this summer, she opened 19 Gold, in Fremont, a small shop named for the 19 spices in that revered recipe. Cheng won’t say what the spices are, but some pop out — star anise, cinnamon, ginger.
Malatang is named after the classic Sichuan flavor combination mala — the spice of chilies tempered with the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns.
Cheng tames both flavors and goes for a more subtle broth.
“That’s why we’re called Taiwanese malatang,” she said. “We turn down the numbing spices but add additional flavors.” The chicken-stock broth is hearty but delicate, spicy but not overpowering, with currents of vinegar.
Order the house special and it comes with your choice of meat (pork or chicken $13.95, beef or lamb a little more) and a list of toppings almost too generous to believe. Better take a deep breath before you try to read them out loud: cabbage, bean sprouts, lotus root, tofu, tofu skin, enoki mushrooms, quail egg, kelp, boiled potato, corn on the cob, crab stick, fish ball, lobster ball and fish tofu.
The soup arrives with a little side dish of glass vermicelli or rice to dunk in at your leisure, and you think you’ve been sold a bill of goods. No way are all those bits swimming in this modest bowl. But, like a clown car of delights, they emerge, a riot of textures as much as flavors. Bouncy fish balls, slippery mushrooms, lotus with crunch.
There’s also the option of building your own malatang, choosing at least seven toppings from a list of dozens. This is too big a task for me to handle; I’d much rather leave the choices in the hands of the professional, but it’s how they do it in Taiwan, Cheng said.
“You walk into the malatang shop, everything is ‘pick your own,’ ” she said. “Kind of like when you walk into a Chipotle.”
A malatang with dumplings ($10.95) is filled with crescent-shaped pork-and-cabbage packets, plump and pliant.
19 Gold is not just a soup shop. There’s a lengthy menu of appetizers and side dishes, noodles and fried things.
The 19 Gold Fries ($8.95) are a plateful of French fries crowned with popcorn chicken and laced with three sauces — ketchup, honey mustard and condensed milk. It was, for a dish that uses condensed milk as a sauce, disappointingly subdued. The condiments were applied sparingly. It didn’t have any of the soppy-mess qualities I’d been expecting.
Chilled tofu with preserved egg ($5.95), meanwhile, was a model of restraint and balance. The chilled block of tofu was like a white custard canvas for the oozing, salty drama of a nearly-black preserved duck egg.
And a green onion pancake ($5.95), so often doughy and leaden at other restaurants, was as light and flaky as I’ve ever had.
Cheng, 32, moved to the U.S. for high school when she was 14, came to Seattle to go to the University of Washington, and has been here ever since. She was a product manager at Huawei before turning to restaurants.
“I love food and I just wanted to bring authentic Taiwanese flavors to where I live,” she said.
19 Gold, daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; 3601 Fremont Ave. N., Suite 101, (Fremont) Seattle; 206-588-0952