The Lincoln District is a magnet for diners in search of Tacoma’s best Vietnamese food. Pho soup shops, banh mi cafes and Vietnamese grocery stores are concentrated along 38th Street South between South Yakima Avenue and South G Street.
Walking into Hue Ky Mi Gia, a newcomer might assume they’ve stumbled on another humble pho restaurant, but a quick perusal of the six-page menu telegraphs another specialty. It’s a Chinese noodle house started by a family whose grandfather opened his first noodle cart in Saigon in 1959 after emigrating from China.
Owner Huy Tat calls his food “Chinese, done in the Vietnamese way.”
Hue Ky Mi Gia also sticks to the Lincoln District’s reputation of inexpensive and interesting cuisine. Nothing on the menu is above $10.
Considering the quality of ingredients sunk into the steaming soup bowls at Hue Ky Mi Gia, that’s more than worth the price of admission. I recommend this restaurant with high praise following five visits since its opening one year ago.
It’s not a complicated restaurant or very fancy. In fact, it’s anti-fancy. It’s the place you go for a satisfying and quick lunch or a fast family dinner on a rainy spring weeknight. The restaurant is almost cafeteria-like in its quickness with which diners are served in a pleasant dining room. Cushioned booths line the right wall. A banquette is along the opposite wall. Four-top tables sit in between. The dining room seats about 60. Diners pay at the counter at the end of the meal, but table service is offered.
The menu is easy to navigate, with half of it dedicated to about 40 soups with three noodle choices: egg noodles, rice noodles or rice vermicelli ($7.50-$9).
Another three pages lists appetizers ($5-$9); chow mein (soft or crispy, $9-$10); chow fun (gravy or dry style, $9-$10); stir fried rice vermicelli ($9-$10), fried rice ($8.50-$9.50) and stir-fried specialties ($9-$10).
Of the three styles of Chinese noodle soups, each is made with broth or dry style. Get the broth because it is magnificent. Chicken is at the base of all of Hue Ky Mi Gia’s soups.
“We use free-range chicken and a lot of bones (to create the broth). The process to cook is anywhere from eight to 12 hours. It’s a lot of work to make our kind of noodle soup,” said Tat, who opened his first Hue Ky Mi Gia in Seattle’s International District in 2009, followed by an outpost in Kent at the Great Wall Mall in 2011. He’s since added two stands at CenturyLink Field and a higher-end seafood and raw bar, Salted Sea Seafood and Raw Bar, in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood.
He operates Hue Ky Mi Gia with plenty of family help. His sister Thu Tat helps at the Kent store. His parents, father Ha Tat and mother Thuy Nguyen, also are contributors. Huy Tat’s wife, Liz Tat, also is involved in the business.
My favorite menu item is the braised duck soup, which is his father’s recipe.
“It has a lot of Chinese herbs, star anise, five spice powder that brings out the flavor,” explained Tat. “It goes through stages that a lot of people skip. We season the duck, marinate it for 24 hours. Then we pan sear it and get the nice, crisp skin. Then we put it in a braise and let that braise for the better part of a day. That’s why it falls off the bone, that’s what you want.”
That same dish on three visits yielded generous portions of braised bone-in duck floating atop a chewy raft of egg noodles ($9). The duck meat slipped easily from the bone into the anise-scented broth. Bok choy, plump dates and mushrooms floated to the surface, coated with a delicate sheen of duck fat.
Roasted duck with egg noodle was a lighter version with a flavor boost from fried shallots, little cubes of fried pork (something like lardons) and barely cooked greens and scallions ($8.50). The same fried pork cubes floated atop thinly sliced barbecue pork in a rice vermicelli soup with julienned celery, greens, scallions and a more simple broth ($7.50).
Another version of the barbecued pork soup with slippery rice noodles tasted splashed with sesame oil, the bowl brimming with wispy wonton wrappers filled with seasoned pork ($8). Those wonton dumplings are made in house.
Spare ribs in an egg noodle soup tasted long simmered, with light seasoning ($8). A chicken soup with rice vermicelli included slices of chicken and giblets with a delicate chew ($8.50). Seafood lovers should veer to the prawn soup, with curled-up shrimp swimming with rice noodles, bean sprouts and a kick of fried shallots ($8.50). Vegetable and tofu soup with egg noodles was the most delicately nuanced of all the soups sampled ($7.50).
The restaurant is known for its butter chicken wings, and with good reason. They arrived carrying a crunchy coating that broke to steamy hot chicken with a salty tang. The garlicky seasoning tasted rich with butter and a kick of chiles ($8). Also from the appetizer menu, fried calamari was jacketed tempura style ($8). Plump, sweet honey walnut prawns were flanked by glossy sweetened nuts ($9). Pick steamed pot stickers over fried ($6.50).
Moving to the entree menu, the shrimp fried rice was uncomplicated, threaded with tiny shrimp and flavored with little more than soy sauce ($9.50). Vegetable and tofu chow mein was studded with chunky, crisp broccoli, carrots, onion, snow peas and tofu ($9). Chow fun, served dry style, came with broad slices of tenderized beef ($9.50).
One piece of advice for a tasty freebie. If the delicious house-pickled jalapenos are not on the table, ask for a bowl. You should add a few of the sweet, vinegar-tinged chiles to everything.
Hue Ky Mi Gia Chinese Noodle House
Where: 711 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-272-1268; huekymigia.com.
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Closed Tuesdays.
Menu overview: About 40 varieties of Chinese noodle soups — made with egg noodles, rice noodles or vermicelli noodles — plus an assortment of noodle and fried rice dishes.
Recommendation: Highest recommendation with no reservations.
Price range: Inexpensive. All items $10 or less.
Beverages: Vietnamese coffee, coconut juice, soybean milk, soft drinks.