Wild Ginger's Static Cling

Seattle's favorite fusion restaurant sticks to its guns.

A list of things that were big in 1989: the Nintendo Game Boy, hurricanes, The Simpsons, sushi, Duran Duran, Ronald Reagan, Colombian drug lords, the Bangles, the Berlin Wall, and Wild Ginger, in its original location on Western Avenue. A list of things that were big in 2000: Same-sex marriage, Blink-182, cell phones, the tech bubble, mad-cow disease, America Online, Y2K, Survivor, Coldplay, and Wild Ginger, recently moved into its new location in the Mann building at Third and Union. A list of things that were big in 2010: iPads, bank bailouts, Justin Bieber, late-night weight-loss infomercials, Ronald Reagan, foreclosure sales, Facebook, and Wild Ginger, now with two locations (the newer one is in Bellevue). If anything, Wild Ginger, like Reagan, is more popular now than it was in 1989. The most recent Zagat survey of Seattle tagged the downtown location as the single most popular restaurant in the city. And Wild Ginger is not only tourist-popular. It is beloved—in some cases fanatically—by Seattleites who drop by on a Tuesday for satay, a couple of sake bombs, and maybe some duck. Twenty years out, it tops 'em all, outstripping Canlis and everything Tom Douglas has ever done. And even though it has grown, expanded, and changed locations, Wild Ginger hit it big the day it opened with what at the time was a fairly unique take on Asian cuisine, and has simply never wavered. Asian fusion was not invented at Wild Ginger, but it was, in a way, codified there. Owners Rick and Ann Yoder took off on a trip through Southeast Asia in the waning days of the 1980s. When they came home, they decided they wanted to start a restaurant that would combine everything they'd eaten and everything they'd seen while traipsing through strange latitudes. What was unique then was the odd purity of their vision: doing their best to recreate the flavors of the Mysterious East in a jumbled and borderless fashion where Thai chicken can rub shoulders with scallops dripping with black vinegar, where pot stickers, crab cakes, Malaysian laksa, and Mongolian noodles can all come together without it seeming the least bit weird because the entire board, taken together, just comes off like a huge, mildly psychotic dinner-party menu thrown by someone so jet-lagged and travel-chapped that the thousands of miles between the cultures that created the Mandarin chicken and the green papaya salad seem like nothing. It is a whole cuisine made of pieces, done in the shapes and colors of a dozen overlapping passport stamps. What's unique now is that this hasn't changed. There are dishes on the menu tonight that were served, in exactly the same way, 22 years ago. In those two decades, Asian fusion has swelled, become wildly popular, threatened to take over the entire American food scene, staled, become a joke, and then resurged. The food world has lapped Wild Ginger while Wild Ginger has done nothing but stand still. The "new" home of Wild Ginger is already 11 years old when I enter it for the first time, walking in on a relatively quiet weekday and immediately assuming I have accidentally walked through the wrong door. The tables, arches, sweeping staircases, and two floors look like the open-plan lobby of a very nice boutique hotel. At the only desk I see, I have to check the business cards in their holder just to make sure I've come to the right place. I have, and when the woman working the reservation system sees me looking, she smiles. I tell her I wasn't sure I'd come in the right door, and she nods. "Happens all the time," she says. "Right this way." Wild Ginger is huge, with a seating capacity in the hundreds and more overflow space, private rooms, and extra tables than most big restaurants have on their entire floor. Yet on weekends, during prime time, the place still fills with regulars fighting for tables on the upper deck so they can look out across the heads of the less fortunate and think themselves kings of this tiny, lemongrass-scented corner of the universe. On this night, however, there are only about 50 customers, spread across the bar and the main floor, and the place feels almost empty. The seats are wicker, the fixtures glass and steel. The furnishings look as though they've been bought from the estate sale of a destitute former teak baron, and a vibe hangs over the place that tastes of ridiculous luxury, barely restrained. The best expression of the forethought inherent in Wild Ginger's genesis is the satay bar: a dozen-odd dishes, all wickedly overpriced, which offer the widest possible tour of the influences at play in the kitchen. I eat prawns, perfectly cleaned, butterflied, skewered, and grilled. They are served with a Cambodian dipping sauce that tastes like a chunky version of an Indonesian peanut sauce cut with a shot of Vietnamese Sriracha, and with a perfect cube of Thai sticky rice and a small mound of pickled cucumbers on the side. I chase it with Vietnamese Hawker Beef—one piece of rare flank steak, stabbed through with a skewer, tasting of lemongrass, yellow curry, and its sauce of peanuts, coriander, and hoisin. You know you're in a place that has committed to its concept when the plates are designed specifically to hold the dish you've just ordered—with a well for the sauce, a flat pedestal for the rice cake, another well for the pickle, and half the plate given to holding the skewers, which fit perfectly into their assigned slot. It's a custom plate. It couldn't be used for anything else. The Singapore-style Dungeness crab comes dressed in a black bean sauce with tomatoes—shot through with ginger, garlic, and chiles—and requires implements to get at all the meat inside. I could've done fine with a hammer, but the claw-crackers and thin forks are a more dignified option. By the time I'm done, you can read the history of Southeast Asia's various expansions, contractions, and diasporas in the stains and spills I've left on the table: the shapes and flavors of Cambodia, India, Japan, a Vietnamese street corner, a Thai kitchen, and the hot alleys of an Indonesian market all mixed together, like tea-leaf-reading for the food-obsessed. Even after that, I am hungry for more. I return a couple nights later for Seven-Flavor Beef, which comes off like a muddle—lemongrass, peanuts, hoisin, chile flakes that catch in my teeth, Thai basil, garlic, and ginger never coming together into something greater than the sum of their many disparate parts. Then I have to worry my way through a short-rib satay because the beef was likely tough to start, even before being overcooked by some inattentive grillman. I drink cold Tsingtao out of a frozen glass that makes the foam on top crackle with ice and take my chances on a second round of food. I ask my waitress what she likes and she goes unerringly for the Wild Ginger Fragrant Duck, another presentation that opened the place and has never gone away. She also likes the Princess Prawns, and since the house offers half-orders of virtually everything (a smart move, considering the prices here run high), I go for both. The duck is fragrant, as promised. It arrives hacked into pieces, sweet and slightly gamy, the crisp bits of skin tasting of salt and star anise. There is a process here, as explained to me by my waitress: You take some duck, jam it into one of the pure-white and fluffy buns that look like marshmallow Pac-Men crowded around the edges of the plate, and add some cilantro and a gob of scratch-made plum sauce jacked up with finely ground Sichuan white peppercorn. "And that's it," she says. "Duck sandwich." The duck sandwiches are excellent, helped substantially by the plum sauce, which should be stolen by every restaurant out there trying to reinvent Chinese cuisine for a new century. The prawns, on the other hand, are dull: deep-fried and jacketed in batter—perfect for those with delicate digestive machinery. They're enlivened only by a sweet-and-sour sauce of soy and peanuts and smoky-hot chiles that could've been put to better use elsewhere. Still, fried shrimp are fried shrimp—they're never really bad. I clean my plate if only to have an excuse to keep dipping things in the sauce. I would eat more, sampling Penang curry and lettuce cups, more satay and Hanoi Tuna, seared briefly and served purple with a sauce of dill, almonds, and curry like some strange experiment in Norwegian/Vietnamese cuisine. I could go on and on, but, really, I was sold on Wild Ginger after my first night there. It's so rare to find a place that remains vital and interesting after 20 years—even more rare when that place, despite the constant flux of tastes and cuisine, has staunchly refused to alter the model which brought its first success so long ago. What was unique 22 years ago is new all over again today. Wild Ginger feels like a new restaurant simply because today's notion of good Asian fusion is to take from the night markets and food carts—the live and vital core of cuisine. That's what Wild Ginger has been doing every night for the past two decades. The Yoders never changed. They just waited for everyone else to come to their senses and remember what was good in the first place. Price Guide Nami Prawns $6 Kom Pot Short Ribs $4.50 Vietnamese Hawker Beef $5 Fragrant Duck $14.50/$23.50 Seven-Flavor Beef $12.50/$18.50 Princess Prawns $17/$27 jsheehan@seattleweekly.com  

 
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