New to town? Tai Tung is a place you should not miss. And if you've already been, don’t forget to show your love. Welcome back to Bethany Jean Clement's series celebrating Seattle’s classic restaurants.
Shiny new restaurants are a dime a dozen in Seattle — it’s our solid-gold greats that deserve the love before it’s too late. Well-priced, locally owned, community-centered and timelessly tasty is what we’re after in this series, which started with Voula’s Offshore Cafe on the north end of Lake Union. Next, an all-time favorite in the city’s historic Chinatown International District.
Tai Tung Chinese Restaurant: 655 S. King St., Seattle, 206-622-7372 or 206-622-7714, taitungrestaurant.com; Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
The old-school, L-shaped counter is the place to be if you want to feel the love at Tai Tung. The stool second from the wall is Tom Douglas’ favorite one, as third-generation owner Harry Chan will explain if you ask about the photo of the illustrious Seattle chef. While Douglas is fond of the fish with vegetables and the chow mein, he always orders something new, too. “He’s smart!” Chan says with a smile.
Other celebrity fans watch over the proceedings from the walls as well: mayors, athletes, comedian W. Kamau Bell, a sad-eyed Anthony Bourdain. Linda Lee Cadwell looks glamorous; the love that her husband, Bruce Lee, had for Tai Tung is legendary (he favored the beef with oyster sauce and the garlic prawns). The place opened in 1935, and the world of the counter is scuffed but spick-and-span, friendly, timeless.
If you say it’s your first time here, other patrons are surprised, and rightfully so — one, picking up his to-go order, reminisces about coming here in the ’80s after nights out in Pioneer Square, back when Tai Tung was open until 4 a.m. … isn’t that right? “3:45,” Chan corrects with a smile. His checked shirt is spotless, his apron snowy, his interest in your happiness clear and joyful. Would you like your barbecued pork lean or a little bit fatty? (The latter is the right answer.) Any hot sauce? Oil or paste?
“It’s really good food,” the regular says, finishing his beer, wishing everyone well and departing with his takeout. A dining-in trio discusses the restaurant-rating placards they’ve seen in other windows nearby: “‘Good’ isn’t good enough — we want ‘Excellent’!” “That’s why we come here like twice a week!” Then huge platters of glossy food crowd the counter in front of you: the barbecued pork, rich with fat around the edges; super-tender chicken with tons of onions in a thick, savory garlic sauce; the chef’s special chow mein, the noodles buried under crisp, bright-green snow peas, crunchy bok choy, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, shrimp and pork and chicken.
A little girl’s fascination with the fish tank in the front window — housing pets, not food — can only be interrupted by Chan’s offer of lollipops. Her mom takes one, too. Another woman, sitting in Douglas’ favorite seat, tells Chan how she spent years ordering moo goo gai pan with no mushrooms, not understanding that they’re a main component of the dish. “I’m an idiot!” she says, and they laugh and laugh together.
The manual cash register rumbles and dings as Chan pushes its buttons for maybe the millionth time. Everybody gets two fortune cookies. “Is that in case you don’t like what the first one says?” the mushroom-averse woman asks. Chan laughs.