Growing up Jewish in New York, the kosher Chinese food I ate was delicious — but completely Americanized. You know what I’m talking about: chicken that was orange, sesame or “General Tso’s.” Endless fried noodles dipped into vast bowls of unctuous orange duck sauce.
As I got older, and reviewed eateries such as Buddha Bodai in New York, I came to understand the fare I grew up on is not quite the same as traditional Chinese food. And since I moved to Seattle in 2018, I’ve enjoyed the vegetarian Chinese food at Seattle’s Bamboo Garden.
Bamboo Garden is a rarity: It’s the only free-standing, certified kosher restaurant in the city of Seattle. The restaurant, in Lower Queen Anne, says it designed its menu to hearken back to imperial China. It’s vegetarian, their website states, because “before making his annual prayer for the kingdom’s prosperity, the emperor was required to practice strict vegetarianism for seven weeks.” And it’s kosher, meaning it abides by the dietary rules observant Jewish people live by.
When news broke earlier this month that the restaurant would shutter at the end of July, because of recent pandemic-related challenges and the owners’ desire to retire, I received messages from lifelong Jewish Seattleites about their “mourning” this loss. How their only experience of dining out involved Bamboo Garden. How, to my friend Nina Garkavi, eating there became part of a night-out ritual during any visit to the symphony or opera or trip to the Space Needle with tourists.
Its regulars call it a place that bred diversity, feeding Buddhist monks, vegetarians and observant Jews, but also familiarity — a place where they could count on running into each other; servers who greeted diners with Hebrew phrases, anticipated your order and remembered your daughter’s age even when you hadn’t been there for a year or two.
For me, it was a place I could tell my friends and family about when they questioned my decision to move from Los Angeles to Seattle for work two years ago. “What will you eat?” they often asked. I pointed to some grocery stores and Bamboo Garden, centrally located near McCaw Hall. I wasn’t worried for myself: I’m not too strict about vegetarian food. But knowing there was a reliable option certainly made it easier for my parents to visit.
The owners of Bamboo Garden, Xue Chen and Wei Tan, didn’t want to make a big deal of the news outside the Jewish community, so they declined an interview request for this story. But the restaurant’s impending closure made me curious about how kosher food came to Seattle, what its future here is and how it affects the observant Jewish community here — if it does, at all.
How Jewish food options developed in Seattle
Twenty-six years ago, when Rabbi Moshe Kletenik moved to Seattle, he says there was only one kosher restaurant and one kosher store. Kletenik now provides spiritual leadership at Minyan Ohr Chadash, a congregation in Seward Park, and is the director and head of religious court at the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, an organization that oversees kosher food certification and other religious matters.
Many Jewish traditions, holidays and milestones, such as the weekly shabbat, revolve around shared meals. The labor of preparing them often falls on women. In New York, while my mom cooked, some families counted on kosher takeout to offset packed work schedules. Here, doing so routinely isn’t quite an option — so the community learned to rely on home cooking.
“We’ve taught ourselves to eat at home,” said Jessica Russak-Hoffman, a writer who was born and raised in Seattle and was a frequent Bamboo Garden patron from her childhood onward, through her pregnancy — when, despite living in New York, she found herself craving the restaurant’s beloved soup, known as the “daily soup,” a creamy corn chowder.
Growing up, she, too, learned about the plethora of kosher options those in other cities had. When she visited her aunt on the East Coast, there would be stacks of takeout menus for each child to pick from on Saturday nights.
In Seattle, Saturday nights in Russak-Hoffman’s household typically involved heating up chicken soup.
“When you’re a Jewish kid growing up in Seattle, you don’t eat at a restaurant that’s kosher and just say, ‘I really don’t like it,’” said Russak-Hoffman. “Every kosher restaurant you eat at you think is the best restaurant.”
Seward Park resident Rina Mizrahi-Varon can talk at length about her favorite Bamboo Garden dishes — taro fish, mushrooms in satay, “daily soup, obviously” — and the restaurant’s significance to her. It’s where she went on the first date with her husband Michael Varon, and it’s where he proposed to her, through a fortune cookie. (“This is Mike. Really. Will you marry me?”)
Over the years, kosher restaurants in the Seattle area have come and gone. Russak-Hoffman ticked off a list: There were pizza joints and a panini place where you had to call before arrival. There was a deli. There was a meat restaurant.
Religious demographics are tricky: the U.S. census generally doesn’t ask about it, and people have different definitions of what it means to be Jewish. That said, the Jewish Virtual Library cites the 2019 American Jewish Year Book as showing that the Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue area is home to the country’s 15th-largest Jewish population, with 62,350 people — or 1.6% of residents — identifying as Jewish. At the top of the 2019 list, for scale: the Greater New York region, with 10.6%, and Los Angeles (including Long Beach and Anaheim), with 4.6%.
In 2015, a Brandeis University-based study found that Seattle’s Jewish population had grown by 70% since 2001. That study found that Orthodox Jews — those most likely to keep kosher — made up 7% of Seattle’s Jewish population.
Both Russak-Hoffman and Mizrahi-Varon said they noticed a theme over time: A kosher restaurant in Seattle can’t sustain itself if it caters primarily to Jewish people. “You need to be able to draw from other sources,” Mizrahi-Varon observed. “You need to have a broad enough appeal to people besides Jews, people who don’t keep kosher. Otherwise you won’t make it, you just won’t.”
People here are “used to having to cook everything themselves” if they keep kosher, Mizrahi-Varon said. And, Russak-Hoffman suggested, the Orthodox community is small, and people in other Jewish groups might not see the need to seek out kosher food.
Bringing kosher restaurants to Seattle
Of all the places open now, Bamboo Garden was the first to become kosher in the early 1990s.
That process was a labor of love, with a lawyer named David Grashin working with 10 families to help subsidize the cost of the new plates they’d need to buy to make the transition to being kosher. Full disclosure (that shows how tiny the Jewish world is): Grashin’s son, Zach, lived down the hall from me in a Los Angeles apartment building.
David Grashin grew up in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, before there were any Orthodox synagogues there, he said. In the 1990s, after returning to Seattle from a stint in Alaska, he and other community members thought there needed to be more kosher products. He approached several vegetarian restaurants and stumbled upon Bamboo Garden, which he noticed took a strict approach to vegetarianism. For various reasons — a predilection for specific cheeses that simply aren’t certified kosher; an impending move — it didn’t work out at a few other spots.
As Grashin remembers it, he approached Victor Yeung, Bamboo Garden’s owner at the time and said, “How would you like to have a rabbi come into your restaurant and make it kosher?”
The response: “What’s a rabbi?”
Grashin explained further, after taking a cursory look around, that making the restaurant kosher would involve a specific cleaning of the machinery and metal, a few ingredient swaps and new plates. The plates were costly, so 10 families each contributed $1,000 toward the cost, in exchange for dining credits. Grashin gave the owner a contract with a monthly fee, saying if he was losing money as a result of the deal, they could talk about ending it.
While many think kosher certification involves a blessing from a rabbi, that’s not the case. Kosher laws require the avoidance of certain animals, like pigs or others that don’t chew their cud and have split feet; fish that don’t have fins and scales; the combination of milk and meat; and some other restrictions. Animals have to be slaughtered in a specific way.
A certification means that someone who is trained in these rules regularly checks every aspect of a restaurant to make sure it’s abiding by them. The point, Kletenik said, is that “it marks holiness in Jewish life, and distinctiveness.”
Being able to eat out at Bamboo Garden, Grashin said, made Seattle feel like a bigger city. “We have a complex: We’re not L.A., we’re not this, we’re not that. Bamboo Garden set us apart,” he said. “It’s one of the most unique kosher restaurants in the entire country, where you know exactly what you’re getting. Same chef, same vegetables, same recipes.”
After returning from a year living in Israel, Grashin said he approached Seattle’s rabbis and asked to run the Va’ad, and formalize it as a nonprofit. He next worked to identify well-known vegetarian spots and other food producers for potential certification.
His next successful restaurant venture would be not in Seattle.
Beyond Bamboo Garden
In 1998, Pabla Indian Cuisine opened in Renton, primarily to serve the community of Gurudwara Singh Sabha of Washington, a Sikh house of worship, with Punjabi food from India. It was an outpost of a family business that began in India in 1947. The restaurant became known for its extensive, well-spiced menu, its lunch buffet and its unique space, part grocery store, part sit-down restaurant.
“Business in the beginning was up and down, not really good for a couple of years,” said manager Joy Somanna.
While some traditions in India emphasize vegetarianism, most Americans, he said, have become accustomed to Indian restaurants with meat. People would ask for butter chicken, and turn away when they found out it wasn’t on the menu.
Their Jewish customers wondered, he said, if the restaurant should officially become kosher.
Somanna said that’s when he and owner Harnek Pabla started working with Grashin. Becoming kosher can sometimes take a long time. In Pabla’s case, two years. A few sticking points: the tea, a cleaning process so extensive it shut down business for two days, and, like at Bamboo Garden, new dishes.
They got their certification, Somanna said, in September 2001: “At the right time,” at the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. After that, Somanna said, “we did better.”
Somanna, who is from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), describes Punjabi cuisine as spicy, and featuring more wheat — naan, paratha, roti — than rice. It’s rich and creamy, offering comforting curries brimming with cinnamon, chilies, ginger and garlic.
Let me tell you: Coming from L.A., a kosher Indian place was exciting. When I posted on Facebook about Bamboo Garden, Talia Malkin, one of my best friends from there responded a few minutes later saying, “That’s one of my main reasons to visit Seattle besides you and the Indian place!!!!!”
We had found Pabla together on a trip to Seattle, two years before I moved here. While the food, and especially the palak paneer, saag paneer and Pabla special biryani — a sumptuous saffron rice dish studded with nuts, veggies and raisins — never disappoints, I can’t say that for me, personally, it scratches the itch for reliable kosher food. I live on Capitol Hill, and I don’t have a car. I relish the opportunity to get to Renton for a meal when I can, but I can see why Bamboo Garden, with its history and central location, is especially meaningful to some.
What comes next
As sad as this news felt, I’ll survive without Bamboo Garden. But it’ll be harder to know there’s not a place I can take my stricter, New York-dwelling parents when we’re stuck on Interstate 5 after a long, unexpected day trip to Deception Pass. (Long story short, we were supposed to go to Canada — coincidentally, probably the closest place to dine out and eat a kosher meat meal — that morning … but I couldn’t find my passport.)
The end of Bamboo Garden is ultimately not a story about food. It’s about a loss of space to which the coronavirus pandemic denied a fitting denouement. The months leading up to its last meal — served to go — were particularly tough, as the coronavirus kept Jewish congregations from observing important holidays like Passover together. (As King County has advanced through Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening phases since then, though, some congregations, including Kletenik’s, have held services while practicing social distancing.)
“It’s the end of an era,” said Mizrahi-Varon. Some grocery stores, like the QFC at University Village or the Safeway on Rainier Avenue, have dedicated kosher sections. “You can buy kosher food but you can’t buy it all in one place,” she said. “It’s the equivalent of urban foraging.”
Still, Russak-Hoffman doesn’t anticipate that the closure will affect movement into the community.
“People, when they decide to move here, restaurants aren’t usually what clinches it,” Russak-Hoffman said. “Is it affordable? Is tuition affordable? If they get a job offer at Amazon. That usually gets someone on a plane to move here. … You can’t order shabbat food from a restaurant, but that’s not the draw.”
And Kletenik said there are still other options in Renton, Redmond and Mercer Island. But he acknowledged the loss many feel. He said, “It’s been almost an icon of kosher dining here.”
But some want more. “Community members should step up and help with a grant, go to other vegan restaurants,” to make them kosher, said home health and hospice nurse Wendy Bensussen, who chipped in to transition Bamboo Garden even though its food was never her favorite. “We really have to do something.”