West Seattle’s New Luck Toy (5905 California Ave. S.W., 971-0698) is, first and foremost, a bar.
An homage to the dearly departed 60-year-old restaurant of the same name on California Avenue, the 21-and-older establishment is a kind of Chinese restaurant/dive bar/Tiki bar mashup from the chef and owner of the neighborhood’s Ma‘Ono Fried Chicken and Whisky. The ceiling is covered in red paper lanterns, the walls are papered in Chinese money, and there are lots of bamboo curtains—as well as Skee-Ball, a Family Guy pinball machine, and a digital jukebox.
Fittingly, the cocktails are wickedly good and play to the Asian/Tiki theme with concoctions such as a “Frozen Lucky Colada” (the contents of several slushy machines mixed into one frozen drink); a mai tai served in a tall, wooden Tiki cup; a passion-fruit caipirinha (my favorite), and a “New Luck Tea” (black-tea vodka, gin, tequila, lemon juice, and a Jägermeister float). However, though the food is downplayed, there’s plenty of it. To order, you simply check off the items you want from a sheet dim-sum style, and it arrives in take-out containers. The intention here is clearly classic Americanized Chinese, while trying to inject a bit of whimsy and modernity to it without being precious. That’s a fine line to walk, and they do it with verve.
You’ll want to order at least one thing from all four sections of the menu: Smaller Dishes, Larger Dishes, Noodles & Rice, and Sides. From the Smaller Dishes, the salt & pepper spareribs are a must—half-inch meaty bites with a spot-on savoriness that dunks deliciously into a five-spice dip that situates the star anise proportionally well to the other ingredients. The spicy shrimp and pork-fat dumplings are equally tempting, with a skin that’s neither pasty or too thick; they sink into a pool of Sichuan-doused sauce, sesame, scallions, and cilantro that you’ll want to save and pour over any leftover rice you might have from other dishes. It’ll make a great hangover lunch the next day. From Larger Dishes, we were compelled to try their General Oh Tso Good Fried Chicken, though it was the most disappointing of everything we ordered. The chicken skin wasn’t lacquered and crispy, but rather soggy, and the flavor was too mild. I gather they may have been trying to throw off the predictable trademark treacle of this Chinese-American favorite, but it just felt like a totally different dish as a result. Fortunately, the Half Lucky Ducky—a half duck, roughly cut, with plenty of requisite fat and crisped skin—made up for it, and came with a beguilingly good iteration of typically too-sweet plum sauce, instead fermented to give it an earthier tang. It’s just a hell of a lot of meat, and I wished for some Peking Duck-style pancakes to make sandwiches out of it.
As for Noodles, the chow fun mian—fat rice noodles with mung bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, sesame, and basil—were too doughy and soft (almost like cubes of tofu) and the sauce was rather sweet and one-note. Instead, go with the more unusual Chinese Spaghetti Bowl, which contains thin “Hong Kong” vermicelli noodles tossed about with a bit of spicy meat sauce (hence the spaghetti reference), cabbage, and a medley of fresh herbs like cilantro and basil, lightly bathed in Sichuan oil for that slightly numbing, metallic aftertaste that is peculiarly good.
To balance all the meat and carbs, you should probably add a veggie to the mix. The dry-fried long beans with chili pepper and sesame seeds will do, despite being a tad lackluster. (Perhaps drizzle some of that dumpling broth crack on them).
While I’m often skeptical of the hipsterization of traditional “ethnic” restaurants, often family-owned, New Luck Toy manages to play it well, coming up with an interpretation at once distinctive and just derivative enough to feel cozily familiar. It’s a great option for when you crave a seriously good cocktail with your Chinese-American fare, something that old-school joints just don’t deliver.