When I was a little girl growing up multiracial, bicoastal and semi-transnational (Taiwan/China) I ate and loved a lot of food that was quintessentially American: mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, pizza, pie, ice cream and birthday cake.
But I also adored and devoured the very different foods, from dumplings to dim sum, that defined my childhood as first-generation Asian American. Having lived in two big cities stateside most of my life, there have been plenty of opportunities to hunt them down, but it's not always been easy. I have spent the last decade scouring the greater Seattle area for eateries that satisfy my childhood cravings. Here are my top three Asian-American comfort foods and the places I go to share them with my family.
Dumplings at Din Tai Fung
I can’t remember the first time I ate dumplings, which are commonly eaten across Eastern, Central and Western Asian cultures. These delicacies -- ground meat or vegetables wrapped in a piece of thin dough and then steamed, boiled or fried -- are as common in my diet as fruits, vegetables and water. I have always eaten them. My son now eats them. I make them. My mother-in-law makes them. But on those days when our freezer stock has run out and nobody’s made any, our go-to dumpling house is Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain that has locations in both Bellevue and in University Village in Seattle.
My son loves Din Tai Fung so much he once insisted we wait two hours for a table. Indeed, a visit here with children needs advance planning. Though the parking is easy at both sites, you can find massive lines. Once seated the service is fast but it's best to call in advance and go during non-peak hours (usually right around opening time).
Din Tai Fung offers a wide variety of dumplings including their specialty juicy pork dumplings and vegetarian dumplings. A very-cool-for-kids signature at all Din Tai Fung restaurants are the picture windows through which customers can watch impressive roomfuls of workers make dumplings.
One more warning: Once your order arrives, be careful! Dumplings have a teaspoonful of hot liquid inside. Typically you poke a hole, pour the liquid into a spoon and sip it like soup. If you bite in eagerly without taking this precautionary step, tongues are easily burned and as my son said, you’ll be “lucky [if] you didn’t get squirted!”
Other dishes to try: Din Tai Fung's menu also includes many other tasty dishes, from unbelievable sautéed greens (e.g. mustard cabbage, spinach, bok choy) to soups, noodles and fried rice.
Dim sum at Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant
One of my favorite family outings growing up in Los Angeles was piling into the car and driving a good 45 minutes to eat Chinatown dim sum. My dad would always proudly remind us, “This is where President Bill Clinton ate dim sum when he came to visit.”
I remember wide open spaces crowded and packed with busy, bustling bodies. A sea of faces and the dull roar of a hundred conversations. Swirling currents of carts upon carts stacked with bamboo steamers, pushed up, down and around by servers. Shu mai, pork bao, gailan, turnip cakes, sticky rice and many other bite-size choices that I never knew the name of but in a snap can visualize with my eyes closed.
When I need to have this experience again, my family and I head to Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant in Kent. Part of the Great Wall Shopping Mall, Imperial Garden sits to the north and has a separate entrance. Like the places I loved as a child, it boasts a big floor space, many carts and fast, friendly service. It can be busy but we’ve rarely had to wait.
Once seated, get ready because the food comes quickly. Servers wheel up carts and show you their selection. You’ll find a typical dim sum menu here with savories like congee, shu mai, pork bao, gailan, turnip cakes, sticky rice, as well as sweets like red bean sesame balls, mango pudding and flavored tofus. You choose what you like, they set it on the table, mark your order card (which will be used to tally your bill later) and off you go!
Because of the size of the plates and fun flavors, most of theses dishes are very kid friendly; kids also love the movement and energy of the restaurant. My son gets frantic stumbling over himself trying to taste everything.
Egg tarts and taro buns at Regent Bakery
For me, no meal is been complete without something sugary, and my sweet of choice is an Asian pastry. Visiting Taiwan as a child I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a bakery. Bakeries can be found on practically every street in Taipei. Pastries and breads are for meals, dessert, snacks, or at any time of the day, really.
When you walk in to to an Asian bakery, sweet smells waft over you from sponge cake, square loaves of white bread and golden brown buns filled with every sort of filling, from red bean to coconut to barbecue pork. My personal favorites are egg custard tarts and buns filled with sweet taro paste. To get those in our part of the world, I head to Regent n Redmond or Capitol Hill location.
Regent’s spaces are smaller bakery-cafes that offer a full menu of Chinese food, and have a decent number of tables, but the centerpiece is its pastry cases. I recommend my childhood favorites here, of course, but if you are unfamiliar with certain flavors and textures such as sweetened taro or red bean, I'd suggest you try a new sweet (e.g. egg tarts, taro buns) as well as something familiar (e.g. coconut and custard). You won't be disappointed.
If you go ...
Though all of these restaurants are equipped with kid basics like high chairs and booster seats, none of them offers special amenities like play areas, toys and/or paper and crayons. Also, while you will likely find dairy-free and vegetarian options pretty easily, dietary restrictions like vegan or gluten-free are still unusual in Asian cuisine.
Din Tai Fung (two locations)
Address: 2623 N.E. University Village, Seattle, 206-525-0958
700 Bellevue Way NE #280, Bellevue, 425-698-1095
Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant
Address: 18230 E. Valley Hwy Ste. 116 (at 184th St.), Kent, 425-656-0999
Regent Bakery & Cafe (two locations)
Address: 15159 N.E. 24th St., Redmond, 425-378-1498
1404 E. Pine St. #CU Seattle, 206-743-8866
Photo credits: Din Tai Fung photos by Sharon Chang; Imperial Garden courtesy of Great Mall; egg tarts by Alpha/flickr, Creative Commons