ONE WINTER DAY, a YouTube food star who recommends Googling the phrases “hole in the wall” and “hidden gem” walked into a teensy takeout spot on Aurora Avenue North. “I heard good things about your noodles,” Mike “Mikey” Chen told Joe Ye and Lucy Ye of Hangry Panda. “And the chicken sandwich. So, what’s the best thing here?”
Devouring his multifaceted meal in the back parking lot, Chen spoke with ecstasy about the Shanghainese noodles with chili oil; the minced pork belly, as melty as snowflakes; fried chicken skins so crackling, his microphone picked up the crunch; black-and-white sesame boba tea using housemade syrup.
“You have outdone yourself, Lucy. This is amazing,” he said to the camera.
Also amazing to me: Chen mostly skimmed over some of my own family’s favorite Hangry Panda dishes: the spicy tofu teriyaki; seasoned thin-sliced cucumber salad; and, most of all, the aromatic marble-patterned tea eggs scented with star anise and fennel seed. “You have NO IDEA how much money we’re going to spend at this place,” my 10-year-old correctly assessed after our first order.
Between those two types of encounters, after barely a year in business, Hangry Panda has lost the “hidden” part of its gem status. It has been a rare spot of success for the brutal restaurant industry in pandemic times.
Joe, 29, and Lucy, 24, were born in the Fujian province of China. Joe came to the United States as an infant, and Lucy as a child. They met as adults in New York. When the couple moved to Seattle a few years ago, both found they missed the wide variety of regional Chinese foods available in New York City.
Lucy was studying at the culinary program at Seattle Central College, where an instructor, Khampaeng Panyathong of Taurus Ox on Capitol Hill, became a mentor. Lucy began working at the Laotian restaurant. Then, a 700-square-foot restaurant space near Green Lake became available, licensed for the type of equipment she’d need for the food she envisioned. The mentorship provided a new level of assistance and advice.
“Our plan was to open a place maybe 10 years down the line, or at least like five years,” says Joe. But they seized the opportunity, drawing up a short menu with Lucy cooking and Joe filling the other roles. Panyathong had suggested offering teriyaki, which wasn’t on their list but is a Seattle takeout crowd-pleaser. Fried chicken also was a popular draw, breaded in sweet potato starch and rice flour to keep it gluten-free, as many of their dishes are.
As for the rest of the menu, “Everything is tied to our identity,” Joe says. “Our stomachs are still very much Chinese.
“We’re from an area in China that’s right across from Taiwan. So geographically, it’s like where Florida would be. And, honestly, it’s a lot like Seattle,” with fresh seafood and a mix of saltwater and freshwater options. Some regional dishes were too hard to translate to Hangry Panda’s kitchen size and available supply chain; ingredients had to be fresh and couldn’t be found in the Northwest. But they focused on things that could, putting a lot of work into making the pork dishes in particular, “very local items” that wouldn’t be found on most menus.
My favorite tea eggs fall into that category, too — their version of a specialty that’s commonly sold by street vendors in China, with varying tweaks and degrees of popularity in other Asian countries.
The couple worked seven days a week the first few months, averaging 13-hour days. Chen’s video bumped up business so much, they thought they’d need a commissary kitchen to supplement Lucy’s reach-everything-from-one-spot workspace, but it did eventually calm down.
“We didn’t know all the things we didn’t know, so it wasn’t as scary,” Joe says.
Now they’re planning other projects, including a sit-down taco shop with Panyathong in Ravenna.
They shared the tea egg recipe, which, like most of theirs, has a focus on homemade products. Lucy makes their sesame scallion oil and most of the boba tea syrups, cuts up skin-on chicken for teriyaki and makes her own caramel to add a bruléed flavor to the tea egg marinade. Why?
“It tastes different,” she says.
For future YouTube visitors, I’d say that I do recommend the tea eggs, but you can’t go wrong with anything you try.
Makes 12 eggs
Note: Lucy Ye’s restaurant-size recipe makes 70 eggs. This version calls for half the marinade and just a dozen eggs, but if you want more, there’s enough marinade to add another one to two dozen eggs. Also note that you’ll need to set aside some refrigerator space for 24-48 hours to house the pot.
⅔ cup sugar for marinade, 3 tablespoons for caramel (Note: If not making caramel, then dark soy sauce or store-bought caramel coloring, as detailed below.)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons salt
½ cup light soy sauce
7 whole star anise
1 loosely packed cup bay leaf (7 grams, if you have a kitchen scale)
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons fennel seed
50 g black tea (Note: It’s a lot! If you’re not using loose-leaf tea, that’s 15-25 tea bags depending on the bag size.)
12 room-temperature eggs
To make the marinade:
1. Mix salt and ⅔ cup sugar in a small container, and set aside. Combine star anise, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and fennel seed in a tea ball (infuser) or cheesecloth bag, and set aside.
2. Caramelize 3 tablespoons sugar in the bottom of a large heavy-bottomed pot. (Note: The caramel is mainly to darken the marbling color. If not familiar with making caramel, substitute 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce or ½ teaspoon store-bought caramel coloring in place of caramel, which can burn the pan or you if you’re not careful.) Let caramel cool to a moderate temperature before adding water (it might solidify, which is fine — it will dissolve in the boiling water). Add 2¼ cups water to the pot, and bring to a boil.
3. Add the salt-sugar mix to the boiling water, and stir a few times until the mix dissolves.
4. Add tea ball to the pot, and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.
5. Fill a separate container with 12 cups water (it should be large enough to hold all the eggs and the marinade, too). Add light soy sauce to water.
6. Pour the contents of the simmered pot, including the tea ball, into the mixture of cold water and soy sauce. Add black tea as loose-leaf or in bags.
To prepare eggs:
1. Bring 3 gallons water to boil in a large pot. Use a spider strainer to very gently place eggs on the bottom of the pot. Keep the heat on the highest setting as you add the eggs to ensure the temperature stays as hot as possible. Cover the pot with a lid, and set a timer for 8 minutes. (Keep the strainer close at hand.)
2. Fill a large container with lots of ice, and add cold water until all the ice is submerged.
3. When the timer goes off, immediately turn off heat. Use the spider strainer to quickly transfer all the eggs into the ice bath, and cool in ice bath for at least 5 minutes.
4. Tap the eggs against each other to produce a cracked pattern on the shells, making sure to tap all around so the entire surface is patterned. Take care to leave the shells mainly intact and attached to the eggs.
5. Add eggs to the marinade. Cover container, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, and preferably 48 hours. Peel eggs to serve.