Where's the sizzle? Mostly in the red-hot service
The strip mall housing Bamboo Garden was poorly lit, and as I pulled into a parking slot in front of the adjacent adult "toy" store, my...
Seattle Times restaurant critic
202 106th Place N.E., Bellevue; 425-688-7991,
Reservations: For parties of seven or more.
Prices: Soups/appetizers $2.99-$8.95, entrees $5.95-$13.95, lunch specials (served daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m., includes soup/rice) $4.99-$5.99.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (and holidays).
Drinks: Full bar, cold beer (you'll need it!), refreshing fruit smoothies.
Parking: Private lot.
Who should go: Bargain-seeking Sichuan food fans who don't want to stray far from downtown Bellevue.
Credit cards: All major cards.
Access: No obstacles.
Pickled cabbage soup with fish $8.95
Fiery cucumber $4.95
Chengdu BBQ lamb $9.95
Hand-shaven chow mein $6.95
Chong Quing hot chicken $9.95
Camphor wood and tea smoked duck $8.95
Whole fish in spicy black bean sauce $11.95
The strip mall housing Bamboo Garden was poorly lit, and as I pulled into a parking slot in front of the adjacent adult "toy" store, my headlights caught a well-dressed man clutching porno to-go.
We all have our vices. Some come for spicy video, others for spicy basil tofu. Some long for Girls Gone Wild, others for wild chili beef. Steamy visuals or steamed bean jelly — this mall's got it all.
Bamboo Garden made its debut early this year in the Bellevue backyard of its cultural cousin, Sea Garden Restaurant. Buoyed by reports that the big Bamboo was serving fabulous Sichuan food, I went to see for myself.
That day I consulted the long list of cold Sichuan appetizers and sampled young bamboo shoots whose mild "hot sauce" smacked of the vegetal flavor of cheap cooking oil. Chong Qing hot chicken offered tidbits of fried meat scattered with scallions, dry-fried green beans and Sichuan chilies; moisture-free, those bitty bites would have been better as a bar snack served alongside a bottle of Tsingtao.
Where was the textural interplay of crisp coatings and vivid seasonings? Where were the fantastical fireworks that have piqued my palate elsewhere, leading me to search out the bolder flavors of this distinctive cuisine? Sure, the flash-fried Sichuan crab brought the vague numbing zing of Sichuan peppercorns, yet that Dungeness wanted for garlic and salt.
One thing that wasn't wanting — then, as now — was terrific service. Our friendly, helpful waiter insisted we order the Chengdu dan dan noodles dappled with ground pork. Then finding that dish largely ignored, he grabbed a clean set of chopsticks and showed us how to properly coat the ropey noodles with the mix of peppercorns and brown sauce that lurked in the bottom of the bowl, bringing up the flavor quotient, though not by much.
On a more recent return — accompanied by a crowd weaned on moo shu pork — I did my best to accommodate all of our tastes, helped along by dining room manager Ming Liao (a familiar face from Bellevue's Szechuan Chef). She took our order for a bargain-priced feast that fed seven hungry diners and afforded a multitude of leftovers. The final tally: $120 before tip.
I noted with grave disappointment that the menu had been revised and divided into two sections: one in English, the other in Chinese. Gone! — or so I thought — were the cold Sichuan appetizers and a good third of the Sichuan menu. Turns out they weren't gone at all: just translated into Chinese characters.
We ordered fiery cucumbers — chunks of skin-on English cukes marinated in chili oil for a pungent punch. And made good use of the black vinegar-laced dipping sauce presented as a much-needed moistener for the "house special" pancake: one that stayed too long in its frying pan, rendering the pastry closer to burnt than to flakey. Handmade potstickers — thick-skinned pan-seared dumplings stuffed with lightly seasoned ground pork — were classics of the genre.
Cumin played top note in a dish of Chengdu BBQ lamb, fiery with pepper flakes and dried chilies and a tad too sweet for my tastes, while chewy corn kernels provided a "huh?" in the otherwise-impressive cashew chicken. Moist, meaty morsels of camphor wood- and tea-smoked duck lacked the prosciutto-like depth of flavor I've enjoyed elsewhere, but nonetheless get a "go" from this fan. Walnut prawns, on the other hand, get a "no": Crisp and hot though they may be, the oversweet sauce set my teeth on edge.
Come late of an evening, and you're likely to find Bamboo Garden filled with Asian diners snacking on cold five-flavor chicken (try it, you'll love it — but watch for those devilish bones), or delving into a delicious crisp whole tilapia in a black bean sauce sparked with fresh red chilies and ginger.
They know that a tureen of pickled cabbage soup with fillets of white fish and pickled greens offers a delicate balance of sour and spice. And they're swift to take advantage of specials like that Sichuan crab (priced to sell at $7.99 a pound, and much better, to my thinking, on my second try).
In recent weeks, owner Stacy Zhong unveiled a new menu that needs no translation. Turns out I'm not the only one who found the dual-language menu a distinct disadvantage. The English text explains that Bamboo Garden is reintroducing "authentic Sichuan dishes" for those willing to "take a walk on the wild side."
And though I'm not about to rush back for beef stomach in hot garlic sauce, I'm pleased that Zhong has seen fit to again shine a light on Sichuan cuisine for those looking to spice up their life in this dark little strip mall.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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