Spicy Talk Bistro was pushed out of its Redmond location in 2016, but fans are finding it in its new, smaller Kirkland location now, and the food lives up to fond memories.
Early one weeknight, we were the only diners at a new Chinese restaurant in a strip mall behind Fred Meyer in Totem Lake, though many people came and went picking up takeout orders. At one point, a slight, silver-haired woman peeked in the door and then hesitantly approached the counter. “Is this the same Spicy Talk that used to be in Redmond?” she wanted to know. When owner Hoang Ngo assured her that it was, the woman heaved a sigh and ordered wonton soup to-go. I have no way of knowing how far she’d come, but as a fan of Spicy Talk myself, I understood the quest.
Until development pushed the original Spicy Talk Bistro out of its downtown Redmond location in late 2016, it had been my family’s preferred spot for Szechuan food, even though it was a good half-hour from home in a best-case traffic scenario. In February, Spicy Talk resurfaced in Kirkland, which cuts our travel time in half. Not exactly down the street, but we’ll take it, along with a green onion pancake, salt & pepper squid and Chong Qing Hot Chicken, please.
We always order the green onion pancake. That golden disk of oniony crunch, dribbled or doused (or not, according to your taste) with sweet garlic-soy sauce, travels the same pleasure paths to the brain as potato chips and onion dip. But we are just as fond of the lightly browned pot stickers, the dainty chicken-filled wontons and the tender young bamboo shoots, their soft crunch and vegetal taste evident even dripping with peanuts, cilantro and hot sauce.
Szechuan cuisine is famous for its pungency, but not every dish is fiery. Heat levels (from zero to five) are noted on the menu. Chow mein swings both ways. Specify if you want spicy; the default is not spicy. Either way, hand-shaved noodles make this chow mein better than ordinary. Those same sturdy, ragged-edged noodles bolster various noodle soups, including the dan dan noodles with chicken. I used to love Spicy Talk’s dan dan noodles, but now the broth tastes mostly of peanuts, muting its gingery spunk.
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Chef Jing Tang Ye, Ngo’s business partner in this new venture, oversees the kitchen. He also cooked at the Redmond location, succeeding chef Cheng Biao Yang, who opened Spicy Talk with Ngo in 2010.
Most of the dishes I tried here — a small fraction of the 158 on the menu — lived up to fond memory. Chong Qing Hot Chicken comes close to what I think of as the definitive version of the dish at Lionhead in Seattle, where they call it La Zi Ji. I love the salty, resounding crunch of the chicken bits, the plethora of red and green chili peppers, and the added attraction of string beans. Wok-bronzed and heat-wrinkled, those beans are spectacular all by themselves tossed with soy sauce, garlic and chilies. They were my favorite vegetable dish, until I tried the eggplant, slippery-soft amethyst jewels in a garlic sauce with a pronounced ginger snap. Now it’s a tie.
Sizzling beef Szechuan-style was true to its name. The hissing, smoking platter turned heads on its way to our table, and for a moment, its peppery aroma hung so thickly in the air it caught in the back of our throats. That is what I imagine the Cantonese mean by wok-hai or “breath of the wok.”
Wild chili smoked pork was less flashy but had more textural interest. Lots of bright-green cabbage leaves, Chinese celery, carrot and fleshy green peppers balanced petals of rosy-edged tenderloin and fat-striped belly meat smoked over tea leaves. Cumin lamb, on the other hand, tasted gritty and one-dimensional, the meat so caked with cumin I wouldn’t have guessed it was lamb.
The roster of seafood dishes is long. It includes prawns several ways, but I chose salt & pepper squid. Battered and fried, they look like onion rings. Big enough around to be a mermaid’s bracelet, they are as salty as a sailor and peppered with wok-seared chilies and onions. This is one dish you don’t want to-go. Those rings would lose their brittle edge fast in a styro container.
I’d urge you to eat in anyway. You wouldn’t guess it from the modest facade, but the restaurant’s interior is handsome and inviting. Fine art hangs on the Chinese red walls. Seating is a mix of booths and tables whose tops are a striking zebra-grained wood. The new place is about half the size of the original, which is partly why takeout business is brisk. “People don’t want to wait,” said Ngo in a phone interview. She is grateful so many former customers have found them and regrets that they were short-staffed when they opened. Service was slow and long waits were distressingly common.
Not every detail is in place yet. A license for beer and wine is pending. For now, it’s just green, jasmine or buckwheat tea, and soon, fresh fruit smoothies. But the servers, including Ngo and her sister, are up to speed. I found them invariably cheerful, quick and attentive, even during peak dinner-hour madness with a waitlist forming and a constant stream of people picking up takeout orders. The word is out. Spicy Talk is back.
Spicy Talk Bistro ★★½
12305 120th Ave. N.E., Kirkland
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Saturday noon-9:30 p.m.; Sunday noon-9 p.m.
Prices: $$ (appetizers, soup, noodles and fried rice $4.25-$13.95; main dishes $8.95-$16.95)
Drinks: tea and smoothies (beer and wine license pending)
Parking: free on site
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles