Charley Lee has one simple rule when it comes to the food at his Bellevue restaurant, Hakka House, open since this past November.
“If I don’t eat it, I won’t give it to a customer,” the affable Lee says during a recent phone call.
Lee, who got his start in restaurants working with his father in Taiwan and Honolulu, has opened a string of restaurants around the Greater Seattle area over the years: Golden House in Mukilteo, Eastern Pearl in Redmond and now Hakka House.
You can find him hopping around the dining room at Hakka House — when he’s not in the kitchen with his good friend and chef Ching-Na Tsai, of course — checking in on each table.
“I love people, I love to see the customers. I cook very good, too,” he tells me with a laugh.
When I was in for lunch last week, Lee stopped by our table to admonish me for taking photos of my food. “Put your phone away! Chinese food waits for no one,” he said.
The menu at Hakka House is deep and varied; a full page of dim sum options plus dumplings, soups, stir-fry, noodles and clay-pot dishes. I was there for the Hakka specialties.
Hakka people are a Chinese ethnic group considered to be the most diasporic. A sign outside of Hakka House says the cuisine of the Hakka people “emphasizes the original flavor, retains the charm and characteristics of traditional folk food and cultural heritage.”
The traditional dishes at Hakka House include stuffed pork tofu ($17.95), meatballs with preserved vegetables ($17.95) and crispy beef brisket ($21.95).
Meals at Hakka House begin with a small bowl of rich chicken broth, topped with fresh cilantro and white onion. It’s the perfect comforting opening to a meal, especially on a brisk spring day.
The stuffed pork tofu arrived on a silver sizzle platter, turning heads as it sputtered its way through the dining room. Set atop slivers of onions, the cubes of squishy, seared tofu each have a marble-sized piece of crunchy-crisp ground pork inserted in the middle and a rich oyster/soy sauce drizzled over the top. A bit too large to be eaten in one bite, these nuggets lose their crunch the longer they sit and are best eaten as soon as the active sizzling subsides.
The meatballs, served swimming in a slightly viscous broth with cabbage in a clay pot, are incredibly light and fluffy — almost like a soup dumpling without the wrapper. The broth was slightly peppery — but not spicy. This is comfort food for sure.
Lee says Hakka House is the only restaurant in the area serving the crispy beef brisket, a thinly sliced wonder of a dish that features tender braised brisket perfectly coated in a fragrant crunchy wreath of panko. Served with lightly pickled slivered carrots and ginger and a thick, sweet/salty dipping sauce, this is one of those dishes that is so simple, yet incredibly satisfying.
Lee stresses a few times during our brief phone call that he and his staff are trying so hard to give the best service and best quality they can every day. The dining room, packed full of happy customers the day I was there for lunch, and that crispy beef brisket, are a testament to their hard work.
10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday; 677 120th Ave. N.E., #7A, Bellevue; 425-679-6922
Elsewhere in Bellevue, I am convinced my colleague Tan Vinh is right when he says “Chinese restaurants are popping up seemingly every week” around the Eastside. And seeing as you might not be able to get a walk-in table at the new Supreme Dumpling in Bellevue Marketplace, don’t miss Núodle — just a few doors down.
The lunch rush has slowed to steady since lines snaked around the corner when this noodle shop first opened, the masses vying for bowls of Lanzhou-style hand-pulled beef noodle soup. While you can still see the famous noodles being pulled before your eyes, ordering and payment all now take place through a QR code sticker on each table.
And while that soup is indeed just as delightful — the noodles as wonderfully pliant and the broth just as fragrant and restorative as it was a few years ago — the real sleeper hit of Núodle is the stewed pork with handmade noodles ($12.99).
The wide, shallow bowl is layered with those same springy noodles, a tangle of bok choy and a heap of the most succulent stewed pork, all topped with a generous stripe of mouth-numbing chili sauce. The more you eat, the less you can feel your tongue, but it is so worth it.
Also wonderful is the crispy beef patty ($4.99), a generous scoop of tender beef and scallions encased in flaky, tissue-thin sheets of pastry fried until crisp. Get a bowl of the soup with the crispy beef patty, an additional side dish and a drink for $20.99.
11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. daily; 14603 N.E. 20th St., Suite #6, Bellevue; 425-395-9999