Soft tofu stew at Korean Tofu House.

Soft tofu stew at Korean Tofu House.

The Seattle Food Scene’s One-Hit Wonders

When a restaurant gets a single dish right, sometimes it needn’t do anything else.

For every restaurant I review in the paper, I visit at least a couple more places that don’t merit full-length treatment. Some are too small and specialized, others mom-and-pop joints too mediocre to bash. Others I don’t cover because there’s only one great dish at the place.

Yet sometimes that dish is so magnificent that I spend the next few weeks thinking about it. Sometimes it brings me back for a second or third visit, looking for something—anything—else to praise so I can write the restaurant up.

All of us, critics or no, have restaurants we go to for a single dish. We crave it. Write status updates about it. Plan to have it buried in our coffins with us. Dishes that resonate so deeply with our appetites that we can’t order anything else on the menu, even if we’re on a first-name basis with the restaurant’s owners and eat there every week.

I wouldn’t necessarily go that far in my faithfulness to the following, but here are five of my favorite dishes of recent months from otherwise unexceptional restaurants.

Chicken yassa

Bantaba, 13915 Hwy. 99, Lynnwood, 425-745-5590.

A couple of months ago I had designs on writing a piece about the Gambian restaurants opening up on Aurora north of town, but in all my visits I only liked one of the dishes I tried: the chicken yassa at this restaurant in Lynnwood, a five-table diner connected to a quickie-mart. The short menu includes kabobs (all halal, by the way), egg rolls, and okra braised with salted fish and gristly lamb that didn’t appeal to my palate. But this chicken yassa, it’s something. The cooks caramelize onions—masses and masses of them—and then add mustard and chicken legs, simmering the stew together until the mustard’s pungency fuses to the silky, sweet onions and the meat deepens their flavor as it grows tender. Not only does the dish cost $10, it’s served on a bed of rice big enough to cushion a chihuahua, and two people could split an order.

Soft tofu stew

Korean Tofu House, 4142 Brooklyn Ave. N.E.

If you want good Korean food in Seattle—spectacular food, really—you’re just going to have to steal a car, because there’s little worth eating between Federal Way and Shoreline. For those of us who need the occasional fix between road trips, the Korean Tofu House (alternate name: Myung Dong), housed in a below-ground-level storefront around the corner from University Way, is one of the two places worth hitting (the other being Kimchi Bistro, where I only order the dolsot bibimbap). And, as I can tell you after being underwhelmed by most of the menu, you’ll want to stick to the restaurant’s specialty: soondubu, or soft tofu stew. The panchan (pickles and other side dishes) are fine, the gruff middle-aged women who run the place get sweeter every time you show up, and the soondubu with beef, shrimp, and clams is huge on flavor. It comes to the table boiling away in a clay pot, and the server cracks an egg into the bright-red bubbles, which you stab with your chopsticks and stir into the broth. The egg quickly cooks into fine strands, a rich coating to the clouds of soybean curd filling the bowl. The tofu seems to dissolve on your spoon as you lift it, blowing hard on the contents, as if that were going to cool the soup’s chile fire and not just its temperature.

Patties and callaloo

Eloi Traditional Caribbean Food, 4419 Rainier Ave. S., 760-6116.

OK, two great dishes at this shambling hole-in-the-wall (which otherwise serves chewy curry goat, flavorless stew chicken, and veggie pelau seasoned with nothing but frozen peas and carrots).The turnover’s turmeric-yellowed short crust shatters and disperses when you bite into it, and the ground meat inside has enough spice to season a whole cow. And another dish knocks me out: The callaloo stew is thick with finely chopped taro leaves. Too often those taste both slimy and depths-of-the-earthy. Here, though, coconut milk softens the flavor of the greens and masks their okra-like texture—it’s a rich soup—and floating in the bowl are appealing oval dumplings, a sort of hand-rolled spaetzle. The owner of this place comes from tiny Dominica, and runs a successful festival-catering operation in addition to this restaurant, which also has a closet-sized bar whose selection is, of course, heavy on the rum. But I’m probably going to stick to nearby Kalaloo and Island Soul, both better restaurants overall.

Al pastor taco

Laredos Grill, 555 Aloha St., Suite #100, 218-1040,

This new Queen Anne sports bar—sorry, “Northern Mexican” restaurant—serves food similar to Peso’s, but worse. All thoughts of a review fled after a recent meal of mediocre cocktails, limp salads (with chips in them), lackluster salsas, and a bizarre chicken breast drowned in sour cream. Fill up instead on the warm, light, salty tortilla chips that are continually replenished. There’s one other bright spot among the big-screen TVs, though: the tacos al pastor. Rubbed with chiles and cooked on the spit, the pork—a Lebanese-Mexican variation on shawarma—is sliced off in tender chunks and wrapped between freshly made corn tortillas with tiny chunks of charred pineapple. If only the rest of the food were made with such care.

Red bratwurst sandwich

Bratz, 4759 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., 523-1680.

Poor Bratz has just about the worst street visibility of any restaurant in Seattle: a walk-up window below street level, underneath Cedars. On slow and sunny days, the chef/owner, a friendly German guy, likes to hang out on the stoop outside his stand. When you start to make your way down the ramp to his store, he’ll rush ahead of you and dart behind the counter. Bratz doesn’t serve much more than pretzels (just-baked), roasted nuts, and a lousy schnitzel (if you order the jäger schnitzel, he’ll top it with a few limp, squashed mushrooms). But the signature sausage, a red (pork and beef) bratwurst, has a pop to it, a gush of juice, that beats any all-beef kosher in town. It looks like a cartoon sandwich, sticking out both ends of its stubby roll, piled high with cooked-down but tart sauerkraut. I’ve begun to pick movies at the Varsity Theatre so I could run up the street for a brat before showtime.

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Mustard is a must on Bratz’s brat.

Mustard is a must on Bratz’s brat.