7845 Lake City Way NE
Seattle WA 98115
Chiang's Humble Exterior Hides Amazing Food
By: Grant Chen
Our trip to Chiang's Gourmet was motivated by one fact alone - it had won the Chef Seattle survey as the best Chinese restaurant in Seattle. After hundreds of votes from the University of Washington Chinese Students Association, this easily overlooked Lake City restaurant managed to beat out popular International District favorites for the coveted title. Without the need to confer, we packed our cameras, notebooks and readied our appetites as we headed toward Lake City.
The outside of Chiang's can be described as uninviting, even to the sensibility of a foodie. Nothing about the restaurant beckons you inside, from the faded color of the building to the awkward location off the I-5 / Lake City highway exit. The interior didn't fare much better, with aging tables and furniture, though the banquet tables were fairly well maintained. My investigative senses paint this as a positive sign, indicating that Chiangs may do brisk business to native Chinese customers, given their penchant for large group outings.
Like any restaurant however, the first real test comes with the menu. The first menu is a laminated single page, listing off standard sweet and sour staples, Mongolian meats and traditional luncheon fare. Opening up the second menu, however, revealed a true playground of flavors and hinted at what gems Chiang's may really offer after all. Handmade noodles, smoked duck, tripe, shredded pork and green onion pancakes were just the tip of the iceberg in a dizzying array of authentic Sichuan cooking. Not having Bryan with us today, Steve and I opted to pace ourselves and settled on a modest five dishes.
First to arrive was the Cold Spiced Beef ($7.95), which glistened in a red hue from marinating in chili oil and Szechuan spices. Taking a bite, the meaty flavor and soft tendon consistency reminded me of the cold pork jelly at Fu Man Dumpling House. It was an instant favorite, especially when sampled with some of the parsley and green onion garnish.
After our initial dish, it took some time before our server appeared again with our Crispy Salt and Pepper Chicken ($11.95). The presentation of this dish was playful, with a bounty of little fried nuggets over a bed of lettuce. A light batter enveloped each little piece, making for a satisfying and crisp texture that wasn't oily or crunchy. While salt and pepper may seem like an odd mix of ingredients, the flavorings are used in moderation and make for a highly enjoyable dish.
Up next was the House Noodles with Ground Pork and Bean Curd ($8.95). We were quite appreciative of the two giant spoons that arrived with this large bowl of noodles, as serving otherwise could turn into a comedy routine. After mixing and serving the dish, it was clear that the noodles at Chiang's Gourmet were in a class of their own here. The noodles had a superb taste and mouth feel, with a wonderful chewy texture and a taste that could only be derived from freshly made pasta.
Last to arrive was the tofu with strong odor, which is famously known as just "stinky tofu". If you need to ask why it's called stinky tofu, then you have not had the dubious pleasure of smelling this dish. With an aroma that rivals a post-game locker room, connoisseurs claim that the taste of the tofu is correlated to pungent smell. Even with a mere waft of the dish, my olfactory senses compel my stomach to think otherwise.
However, there may be some truth to fans' claims, as our stinky tofu was fairly tame in both flavor and aroma. Other than some sampling of soy sauce, lima beans and star anise flavoring, the flavor was mostly non-existent in this firm tofu. Steve took a bit more coaxing to sample the dish, even pulling out a rare food reviewer's veto card. Eventually he caved and also came to the conclusion that the taste was very mild given the smell.
Overall service was sporadic, with a young waitress managing the entire restaurant and possibly doubling on kitchen duties. While the lunch crowd was fairly small, it did take some time for dishes to come out, which we can only assume would be a bit slower with larger weekend crowds. Water was filled quite frequently however and our waitress was cordial.
In the end, finally having Chiang's Gourmet under my belt, I finally understood the draw to this tiny unassuming restaurant. Good cooking, a large selection of choices all at very reasonable prices makes for an attractive recipe indeed. If you're ever in the Greenlake neighborhood, definitely drop by Chiang's Gourmet at least once to taste for yourself some great Sichuan cooking.
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