From a big, exciting bowlful of Vietnamese bún to the austere deliciousness of zaru soba, here are seven cool noodle dishes we’re lucky to have.
This wasn’t supposed to be a story wholly about cold noodles. It was supposed to be about all kinds of ideal eating for hot weather: crisp salads, chilled seafood, big sandwiches with slices of ripe tomato unwrapped on the shores of Lake Washington while looking at Mount Rainier (and drinking a can of Rainier). But then I started thinking about the greatness of all the different cold noodles we’re lucky enough to have in and around Seattle. Enough for an entire article, and more! With a little diligence, we could also make all these noodles ourselves — but hell, it’s too hot to cook.
This Vietnamese wonder-dish rests on a bed of vermicelli made with rice flour. At their best — as at restaurant/noodle-maker Dong Thap in Seattle’s Little Saigon, where a huge bowl of bún is $10 — these angel-hair-thin, ethereally white noodles are nearly cloudlike in their freshness and softness, while still miraculously retaining their noodle-integrity. The sauce, served on the side for dipping or pouring-over, glows an amber-orange — it’s nuoc cham, made tart with vinegar and/or lime juice, sweetened with sugar, given some fish-sauce funk, and slightly spiced with garlic and chili. With the noodles goes a festival of cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, and a tangle of julienned, pickled daikon and carrot. Crushed peanuts add yet more crunch. On top of that, options include lemongrass-marinated chicken or tofu, strips of smoky pork striped with dissolvingly soft fat, grilled shrimp, crispy-fried spring rolls or (why not?) a combo.
Bún is the noodle-salad you could never get tired of, each bite different from the last, with an overall lightness that defeats any notion that it’s too hot out to eat. Almost any Vietnamese restaurant makes it; for a fancier version, head to a location of Ba Bar ($11.50-$15.50), or to Monsoon or Monsoon Bellevue ($11-$13, lunch and brunch only). For much cheaper and entirely satisfying bún, head to any Vietnamese deli.
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ANY COLD NOODLE ENGINEERED BY RACHEL YANG
“I am a fan of all kinds of cold noodles!” Seattle chef Rachel Yang says. At first, her husband and partner in cooking, Seif Chirchi, didn’t understand; he’d tragically been brought up thinking that pasta salad was all there was to it. Now each of their restaurants serves a house-made cold-noodle variation in the summertime, and every one is marvelous in its own way.
At Trove, in the streetside, counter-service Noodle part of the restaurant, it’s thin, slippery, sobalike noodles in a modicum of cool broth that’s salty with soy sauce, slightly oceanic with bonito, and sweet-tart with mirin and rice vinegar, all topped with perfectly poached shrimp, crunchy baby bok choy, shavings of pickled fennel, and a soft-boiled egg ($14). At the end, I drank the rest of the broth out of the bowl, and I felt no shame.
At fancier Joule, springy-textured black sesame noodles are composed in a shallow black dish, topped with pickled maitake mushrooms, slices of itty-bitty cucumber, peanuts and more. The deeply flavored tahini tom kha sauce pools prettily at one end, until you mix it all up and wolf it all down ($16).
And at Revel, at happy hour and weekend brunch only, there’s such a thing as cold ramen ($8/$14) — it looks just like hot ramen, minus the steaming, and tastes like a hot day’s dream with its chewy noodles and super-rich, yet slightly vinegary-sweet, cool broth (it’s their tare, a mix of tahini, soy, mirin, lemon and vinegar). Also included in the bowl: a small pile of kimchi to wake you back up again.
(Trove, 500 E. Pike St., Seattle, 206-457-4622; Joule, 3506 Stone Way N., Seattle, 206-632-5685; Revel, 403 N. 36th St., Seattle, 206-547-2040; relayrestaurantgroup.com)
This marvel of a cooling dish features noodles so long, it sometimes comes with scissors. Lots of Korean places serve versions of it — you could try naeng myun (also rendered in English as naengmyeon) at Sam Oh Jung in Lynnwood, Seoul Garden in Bellevue or a number of places in Shoreline. I headed out to Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari on Aurora and immediately fell in love with its sign: a cartoon pig and squid with their arms around each other, smiling while holding forks and wearing chefs’ toques. Inside, brightly painted walls make the utilitarian space a happy one. So does the rumbling of the cart that’s necessary to convey all your banchan — complimentary cold side dishes like sesame spinach, sweetly sauced potatoes and tofu skins with carrots — to your table (nine kinds, even if you’re eating alone!).
In the spirit of experimentation, I tried a bite of my naeng myun without scissoring it up first, and it’s true: The noodles were possibly without end, like you could slurp forever. (Witnessing my apparent idiocy, a kind server rushed over and cut them for me, then suggested, “Mix!”) And the noodles were great: Made with buckwheat and, often, other starches, these ones were very thin and chewy, but with a lovely, jellylike bounce akin to japchae (Korean sweet potato noodles). A few slices of lean beef, crunchy pickled daikon, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and more lent their flavors and textures. The sauce in the bottom of the deep stainless-steel bowl, billed as spicy and richly colored with gochujang (red chili paste), was only slightly so, mostly tasting light, sweet-tart and refreshing. The bowl itself seemed bottomless; it cost $8.95 ($9.95 at dinner).
Next time, I’m bringing friends, in order to have room to eat the pig and the squid, too.
(Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari, 15001 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline; 206-367-7843)
“It’s very spicy,” the server said when I inquired about the bibim guksu. “Very spicy,” he repeated. It was the late lunchtime of a hot day, but within the tranquil confines of Girin in Pioneer Square, it was cool and dim and understatedly elegant, the air being conditioned to the ideal degree. “Excellent,” I said.
The chilled somyeon — very thin, slippery wheat noodles — wore a coating of a warning-orange color, but the taste was sweet, sour and spicy all at once, the burn only mild but pleasantly lingering. With red-edged rounds of radish, pickled daikon in matchstick shapes, pretty little sprouts, and two adorably tiny halves of soft-boiled quail egg, it was a beautiful bowlful; down beneath hid a small trove of pickled mustard seeds for pop. For $11 ($13 at dinner), it came with two banchan: kimchi for more spicy/sour heat, and cooling creamed potato salad. With the addition of Girin’s melty-soft, cool yukwe ($7/$15) — paper-thin-sliced raw beef, gorgeously arrayed with pear and toasted pine nuts for crunch, more lovely little sprouts, and an egg yolk for richness (with just a few bites oversalted) — it was a pretty much perfect summertime lunch.
I cannot locate these traditional Korean cold noodles elsewhere in Seattle or nearby, but if you have, let me know so I can go eat them there, too.
(Girin, 501 Stadium Place S., Seattle, 206-257-4259, girinseattle.com)
The best soba in Seattle, and possibly the country, is made by hand by the great Mutsuko Soma, who studied doing so in Japan. Soba noodles are on the thin side, made with buckwheat (of which Washington state is a major producer), and, by the hands of Soma, they’re superbly pliant, never mushy, and possessed of just a gentle touch of the earthy taste of, say, a buckwheat crepe. She used to make her soba at the restaurant Miyabi 45th, but no more; now she’s crowdfunding her forthcoming restaurant Kamonegi, to be located in the former Art of the Table space.
Cold soba is often served quite plain, on an elegant tray, with a restrained dipping sauce that might involve soy sauce, mirin and dashi. Compared to the other cold noodles here, it sounds (and looks) austere. But when it’s made with exacting care, as Soma’s are, it’s a beautiful, incredibly tasty study in simplicity. Even when it’s just pretty good, like the zaru soba I had at the Japanese restaurant geographically closest to my apartment recently, it’s an excellent hot-day food, cool and soothing, light but filling. For something complementarily crunchy, tempura is traditional.
Of course, Soma is also famous for her hiyashi tanuki bukkake soba ($13), which name-checks a couple of Japanese concepts for going over the top, and is served cold with all kinds of stuff on it: wakame seaweed, sprouts, fish cake, cucumber, crispy tempura-bits. No need to always be austere. See you at Kamonegi when it opens this fall (and next summer!).
(Many local Japanese/sushi restaurants, check menus online; Kamonegi slated to open fall of 2017)