Whenever I travel to a new city, I’m fixated on the food. While my companions might plan sightseeing excursions and light, touristy things to do, chances are I’ve already planned three to four stops per day for meals. Finding the places where the locals eat, the tried-and-true favorites — that’s where the tourism is for me.
Visiting San Francisco last year, I convinced my friend to skip our planned ferry ride out to Alcatraz in favor of an entire afternoon spent munching our way through Chinatown. The steamed bao and egg tarts were gone in a flash, but the memory sticks better with me than any grainy iPhone photos of a haunted prison ever could.
Snohomish County probably doesn’t rank at the top of anyone’s foodie-travel bucket list, but our home isn’t lacking in those semi-secret hidden gems.
There are so many hidden food gems around the county, in fact, that this column is just the first installment in a series highlighting them.
Today we’re focusing on Asian cuisines, but do you know of the best taqueria hidden in back of a local Mexican market or a neighborhood gas station with disproportionately delicious deli food? Get in touch! I’d love to be a food tourist in your neck of the woods.
For now, get off the beaten path and poke around in nondescript strip malls and the backs of family-run grocery stores to find some of the area’s tastiest morsels, and give yourself a pat on the back for being such an intrepid urban explorer. Next time your friends ask, “What should we get to eat?” you’ll be able to say with a knowing smile that you know just the weird little place.
Among those experts I’ve personally surveyed, Yeh Yeh’s is the destination for banh mi. I heard tales of its deliciousness from the moment I took the job as The Herald’s food reporter, but it was ages before I finally put together where it actually was — in an incredibly nondescript building, tucked behind a tire shop and a saloon on Highway 99. Only one small sign alerts you to its presence from the main road, but it’s well worth a quick detour.
Each component of a Yeh Yeh’s sandwich is praiseworthy in its own right. The baguettes are fresh, steamy and moist inside with a satisfying crackly exterior. The proteins, whether they be fall-apart chunks of pulled pork, lemongrass chicken or marinated tofu, are served in generous helpings that bely the eatery’s outrageously low prices ($7.25 for a pork banh mi). Garnishes such as jalapeño medallions, sticks of carrot and sprinklings of cilantro are always crisp, fresh and just what you need to bite into after a big mouthful of rich pork.
Stop by on a weekend to see what the special is — if it’s hủ tiếu, a pork bone soup traditionally eaten as breakfast, savor every last drop of that broth — or try some of Yeh Yeh’s other menu offerings, like pho and spring rolls. There isn’t a lot of room to sit in the small counter-serve dining room, but the sandwiches will travel well for fuel along the rest of your SnoCo tourist journey.
Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, 19915 64th Ave. W, Lynnwood. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday.
Toshi’s Teriyaki, Lynnwood
Okay, so this one may not seem particularly hidden if you’re already familiar with the countless identically named restaurants around the greater Seattle area, spawned by Toshi Kasahara’s very first teriyaki joint in downtown Seattle in 1976. What you may not already know is that this location, wedged between an Ethiopian grocery and a pawn shop on Highway 99 in Lynnwood, is actually not affiliated with the granddaddy of Seattle-style teriyaki at all, according to Toshi’s website.
Teriyaki drama aside, though, this restaurant’s extremely no-frills exterior perfectly matches the ethos of its menu — straight to the point, almost utilitarian in its streamlined delivery of generous portions of meat and rice for not very much money. The only thing that passes for décor on the outside of the building is lettering in the window that faces the highway proclaiming a SPECIAL on teriyaki chicken with rice and salad for $7.50, and you get the feeling that that SPECIAL might not have changed much since the place opened in 1986.
The thing is, though, you don’t really need anything more to enhance your enjoyment of a Toshi’s teriyaki plate. Whether affiliated with the great man himself or not, this spot has got the magical combination of meat + sauce + rice nailed, and if you’re looking for a satisfying, cheap and quick dinner, you could do much worse than the brusquely named Chicken Dinner. For $9, you get two sizeable hunks of grilled dark-meat chicken nicely coated in sweet-sticky sauce, a mountain of steamed white rice and a serving of crunchy, vinegary salad. Could you really ask for more?
Toshi’s Teriyaki, 20829 Highway 99, Suite C, Lynnwood. Open 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday.
Best of Chengdu, Lynnwood
If somehow you aren’t satisfied with the bang-for-your-buck at Toshi’s, you luckily won’t have to go very far at all to experience the next hidden gem on our list — it’s just down the highway a bit, and in fact right across an intersection from Yeh Yeh’s. Did they plan this?
Best of Chengdu offers traditional Sichuanese cooking in a low-key dining room, hidden behind a squat brick façade that at first glance you’d think was an insurance office or medical facility. But the flavors coming out of the kitchen are not to be missed, especially if you haven’t yet seen the light of Sichuan-style Chinese cuisine. It’s Mandarin cuisine’s spicier, more flavorful and intense cousin, relying heavily on whole hot peppers, lots of garlic and tingly, mouth-numbing yet fiery Sichuan peppercorns.
Tread carefully if you aren’t yet accustomed to this unique heat — a solid majority of the dishes on the extensive, moderately priced menu bear the warning “Spicy!” in bold red text — but don’t be frightened off by the explosion of flavors. There’s something for everyone to love, from crispy salt-and-pepper tofu ($12) to dan dan noodles ($10) or sizzling pork kidney ($14). But the real hidden gem here, the diamond in the rough, is the wonton soup ($11). I could drink the broth from a Big Gulp.
Best of Chengdu, 6124 200th St. SW, Lynnwood. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Are you sensing a theme here yet? There’s such a preponderance of excellent family-owned, low-key Asian eateries around Lynnwood that it’s easy to overlook the smaller fish in the pond. Here the Korean supermarket chain HMart has done the hard work for you by collecting some of the area’s best offerings into one cozy food court.
At my house, we like to turn a trip to the Asian market into a weekend excursion. Before we dive headlong into HMart’s dizzying aisles of produce, shrimp chips and shabu-shabu beef, everyone splits off to seek what calls to them most in the food court. For me, that’s more often than not Malri Hyang, which serves Korean and Chinese dishes such as tteokbokki, kung pao chicken or black bean noodles in extremely generous portions. One of my roommates will reliably beeline for Best Tofu House for solid sundubu-jjiage, Korean soft tofu soup, while another will head over to Oshima Japanese Cuisine for a Washington roll (crab, avocado and cucumber topped with fresh salmon) at the shockingly good price of $9.
But the uniting factor among all of us is that we’re going to want to hit Beard Papa’s last for cream puffs stuffed with vanilla and matcha pastry cream, then maybe head over to Le Bon Patisserie to grab some milk bread and buns to take home. It’s the platonic ideal of a one-stop shop.
HMart, 3301 184th St. SW, Lynnwood. Store open 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Individual restaurant hours may vary.
We’re venturing outside Lynnwood for our last pick of the roundup, but not by much. This truly hidden gem lives inside Boo Han Oriental Market on Highway 99, surrounded by other treasures such as karaoke bar/fried chicken purveyor Chicken Prince and classy dessert café Our Place.
There are only two dishes on the takeout-only menu, both served in portions large enough to feed several people: bo ssam, or Korean braised pork belly ($30); and the eponymous jokbal, or braised pig’s trotter ($35). Yes, “trotter” is a polite way of referring to the cut of pork that includes the foot from the ankle down, but there’s nothing pedestrian about the chewy, savory, pleasantly gelatinous cuts that Kang’s serves up. Plus, they come alongside generous helpings of Korean shrimp sauce and spicy, funky ssamjang for dipping.
It unsurprisingly takes quite a long time to cook a tender trotter, so be sure to get in early or call ahead to reserve your platter — when they’re gone for the day, they’re gone. There’s even a punch card system that’ll earn you $20 off after you’ve placed 10 orders.
Kang’s Jokbal, 22618 Highway 99, Unit 110, Edmonds. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.