South Sound is home to pockets of Asian restaurants clustered in neighborhoods. The Korean restaurants threaded between Chinese and Vietnamese along Lakewood’s section of South Tacoma Way remain my favorite, along with the rich concentration of Vietnamese dining in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood.
But you’ll have to head north to find a truly unusual regional culinary tourist destination: The Great Wall Shopping Mall near where Kent and Renton collide.
The Great Wall Mall hosts the gamut of Asian dining under one roof, providing Chinese dim sum, Vietnamese banh mi, Japanese bento, Korean tofu soup, and Taiwanese jelly desserts within steps of one another.
The entirely indoor shopping mall was opened in 1999 by real estate developer Omar Lee, a native of China who lived in San Francisco before moving to the Puget Sound area. He hatched the idea for the Great Wall Mall after seeing outdoor malls with collections of Asian stores in California’s Bay Area. He wanted the same here, just translated for our climate.
“It had to be indoor. We had to create something where whether there’s rain, hail or if it’s hot, people can come inside,” he said.
“We always joke that you can go to Asia for a day without bringing your passport,” said Lee, whose next project is building a hotel in Southcenter.
His 100,000-square-foot mall, designed to resemble a pagoda, seesaws between eateries and a collection of service and retail businesses focused on Asian goods. The anchor tenant is a national Asian grocery store called 99 Ranch.
“It’s all about the culinary experience. We’ve tried different retail, but they don’t seem to do as well as food. That’s why we’re so food centric,” said Lee of his tenants. Lee also owns the mall’s anchor restaurant, Imperial Garden.
The population of a city moves through the mall each week, about 50,000 visitors. Weekends bring a wall-to-wall cacophony of shoppers. Quieter weekdays make for more relaxing visits.
The eateries include seven flagship restaurants with table service and deep menus. Seven more quick stops offer diners light eats, treats and cafeteria-style dining.
Of note: Three of the restaurants have ties to Tacoma and Lakewood.
IMPERIAL GARDEN SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
The first protocol for dim sum at Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant is to wait. And look.
Flocks of servers cruise newly seated tables in search of fresh eaters who hungrily fill up without giving the carts a discerning once over.
I smiled politely and took a gander, but waited several minutes before truly digging in. The art of dim sum: Always wait to see what’s on the next cart. If you miss out, there will be another one by in just a few minutes.
With South Sound notoriously short on dim sum (Tacoma’s Ginger Palace is the sole weekend-only source), my go-to dim sum destination has become Imperial Garden. Served seven days a week, dim sum there is straightforward, reliably good and with quick cart turnover, especially on weekends.
A weekend morning visit found us plowing through myriad bamboo steamer baskets filled with dumplings aplenty: porky shumai, velvety shrimp har gow, and squat dumplings filled with shrimp and herbs.
A plethora of buns were presented for plucking: steamed buns filled with sweetened pork; followed by a baked version with a slightly saltier pork. We untangled lotus leaves to reveal steamed sticky rice. Steamed spareribs were threaded with black beans; puffy chicken feet dripped with a sticky spicy-sweet sauce.
We ended our meal the way all good dim sum should end: with a feast of sweetened bean- and cream-filled pastries, a jiggly pudding molded to resemble Hello Kitty, and steaming bowls of congee rice porridge with freshly fried doughnuts.
Small and medium baskets with a few pieces each were $2.75-$3.55; larger servings were $3.95-$4.95. Premium items were $6.95.
The menu looked familiar. Chong ging chicken. Hot pepper lamb. Dried bean curd in hot oil. Was I at Tacoma Szechuan? That’s my favorite Pierce County Chinese restaurant, a handsome restaurant in Lakewood on the edge of the Korean dining neighborhood. I confirmed that Minjie Xie, the orginal founder of Tacoma Szechuan is the owner of Szechuan Impression (she’s since sold Tacoma Szechuan).
The two don’t look much alike. Tacoma Szechuan is dressed in warm colors and layers of artwork; Szechuan Impression is more sparse and cafeteria like, with nearly bare walls. But don’t let appearances fool you — the food was just as delicious.
The Kent restaurant held a distinct advantage: bargain prices. If I were to select any restaurant in Great Wall based on value, Szechuan Impression would win. Lunchtime entrees stayed below $8.49; larger dinner portions were just a few dollars more.
A longtime fan of Tacoma Szechuan, I already knew the menu. I stuck with favorites. Chong ging chicken ($10.50), a dish of boneless chicken breaded, fried and coated in a fiery finish of Sichuan peppercorns that imparted a tongue-numbing sensation that left lips tingling. Better eat that dish last. Eggplant in hot garlic sauce ($6.49) paired a sticky glaze with rough-cut Chinese eggplant. Ma po tofu ($6.49) was cubed stir-fried tofu with ground pork in a fiery chili oil sauce.
The dense eight-page menu was deeply Szechuan, which means this is a restaurant for spice lovers. Dishes came flecked with chilies or shimmering with hot chili oil. Sliced jalapenos and other devilishly hot peppers weren’t just garnish, they were primary ingredients. You’ll leave here with stinging lips and a smile.
YUMMY HOT POT
I perused the menu at Yummy Hot Pot expecting the usual offerings for a Chinese hot pot restaurant. Not so fast. This was a pan-Asian fusion restaurant built with a unifying theme of hot pot soup, but with ingredients and broths meandering all over Asia. Thai, Japanese, Korean and Chinese food were all represented in the form of a bubbling cauldron of soup.
Hot pot usually is the ultimate communal dining experience, with plates of raw food cooked by diners on a tabletop grill holding a big cauldron of bubbling broth. At Yummy, the experience was more individualized with smaller bowls of broth meant for solo feasting.
Ingredients were brought to the table already submerged in broth. A server fired up a dollop of sterno on a cooking base that held a metal bowl full of hot pot ingredients. Lunch was done in just a few minutes.
Pork hot pot ($11.99) proved the meat eater’s delight. It held five cuts of pork, including intestine, blood, and sliced lunch meat that tasted like Spam. Vermicelli and enoki mushrooms, cilantro, green onion and a tomato wedge simmered at the surface. Korean hot pot ($11.99) held much less meat, but plenty of seafood: surimi, fish balls and a mussel. The mild broth grew spicier as the kimchi seeped into the soup.
Group gatherings would be fun at this restaurant, which was plainly decorated but clean.
HUE KY MI GIA
This Vietnamese-Chinese hybrid restaurant is an outpost of the bustling International District restaurant with a focus on noodles. Hue Ky Mi Gia competes with Imperial Garden for longest weekend lines. However, the restaurant is fast, which means tables turn quickly.
The five-page menu listed noodle dishes made with rice, egg, chow mein and vermicelli noodles, all served dry or wet.
Ordered as a soup, roasted duck egg noodle ($8) tasted heavy on aromatic spices that bled into the broth, courtesy of the spice rub on floating pieces of skin-on roasted duck. A tangle of soft egg noodles was nestled deep in the bowl. Barbecue pork rice noodle ($7), ordered dry, yielded a bowl of chewy noodles, salad greens and bean threads. Two kinds of pork topped the bowl — roasted pork and fried cubes resembling lardons. Stir the ingredients with hoisin for a quick noodle salad, or add the accompanying broth if you change your mind and want it soupy.
I know it’s odd to recommend something at a noodle house that’s not made with noodles, but the fried butter chicken wings ($7.50) might be the best wings you’ve ever had outside of Korean fried chicken. Bone-in wings came with a crisp jacket that tasted butter-dipped and dredged through chilies. Inside, the meat was steamy.
Owner Huy Tat, who named the restaurant after his Chinese-born grandfather’s noodle cart in Vietnam, has been working to open a third outpost of Hue Ky Mi Gia in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood. When it opens, expect the same menu.
Bento, katsu, ramen, sushi and udon — consider Edokko Japanese an all-purpose restaurant covering the greatest hits of Japanese dining.
Tonkatsu bento ($13.95) was plated beautifully, the bento box held breaded pork cutlets, a California roll, vegetables and shrimp outfitted in crunchy tempura, and a salad with a ginger dressing. Shoyu ramen ($7.95) was dressed as it should be, with a pile of roasted pork, a floating raft of spinach and fish cakes, the salty broth tweaked with shoyu. A Kent roll ($9.95) was tightly-wound shrimp tempura topped with raw salmon.
We were surprised to see Beijing jianbing— a Chinese pancake that is a street food staple — served Friday through Sunday at Edokko. The pancake comes with myriad fillings. Ours was a crepe embedded with egg and scallions, with a crunchy wonton filling ($4.95).
The booths were comfortable enough to invite lounging in the warmly lit, quiet restaurant. Find a sushi bar at the back of the restaurant.
V GARDEN CONGEE
The thin porridge-like rice dish congee is usually a single offering at a dim sum restaurant, but find an entire menu of congee at V Garden. Seven congee styles were listed: three pork, two seafood, one beef and one plain. The congee section barely scratched the surface of this restaurant with two complete menus spanning 11 pages and more than 150 items. Find everything you might see at a family-style Chinese restaurant, but also Szechuan, Mongolian and Shanghai dishes.
A trip to a congee house isn’t complete without a bowl of the rice soup. Salted pork bone ($5.99) added the heft of porky flavor to the mild porridge. Use a Chinese doughnut ($1.95) for scooping the last bits from the bowl. I was told Peking Duck was a must-order item and it was. A half duck was a bargain at $14.95, the roasted meat and skin served with hoisin, scallions and steamed bao buns for stuffing.
Dark floors and paneling turned this small restaurant handsome. Several large communal tables indicated a specialty in serving large parties.
JANG SOO TOFU
The wood-wrapped walls at Jang Soo Tofu hold a display of hundreds of soup bowls, quite fitting for a Korean restaurant specializing in tofu soup (called soondubu or sundubu in Korea). If the warm decor and servers in matching floral uniforms seem familiar to locals, that’s because Jang Soo Tofu is the sister restaurant to Lakewood’s Cho Dang Tofu.
Soft tofu soup is the real focus here, with more than a dozen varieties that arrive as a bubbling stone pot filled with chili-flecked broth that tastes milder than you think it will, the bowl brimming with custardy puffs of tofu.
Little dishes of pickled vegetables, banchan, began our feast. I stuck with my favorite soup, a bubbling bowl of bacon tofu ($8.99) with fatty slices of pork belly and soft tofu. Scrape the rice out of the accompanying hot stone pot and add the accompanying broth to create a mild soup from the roasted rice left behind. If you don’t order the soup, get the dolsot bibimbap ($9.99), a Korean rice dish served in a hot stone pot with a melange of vegetables and a raw egg meant to be stirred into the hot rice until it’s cooked.