Thanks to my technology-savvy children, who, unbeknownst to me, downloaded all manner of extraneous widgets onto my phone, I can now tell you — to the second — how long we have until Christmas. If you are reading this paper fresh from a newsstand, you've got somewhere between 216 and 223 shopping days left.
I suppose it's never too early to start stocking up on G.I. Joes with the kung fu grip, or whatever turns out to be the must-have Tickle Me Elmo of the 2013 wishlist. But there's one holiday list I'm always working on: the list of restaurants open on Dec. 25.
True confession: I don't cook on Christmas Day. The Fox children will have no memory of roast goose. What they will remember is a flavorful smattering of meals from an array of establishments that have the hospitality, work ethic and business savvy to stay open on Santa's big day.
I bring all this up 223 days out because I recently added another potential Christmas Day feast to the list. E Hur Wei, the new Asian-inspired eatery in Bellevue, is a "definite maybe" for being open on Christmas, according to management. That's good news for anyone in search of the classic 12/25 menu of Chinese food, because — at least when it's firing on all cyliners — E Hur Wei offers an admirably fresh roster of favorites such as General Tso's chicken, beef and broccoli, and moo goo gai pan.
Now, don't get too excited. I'm not talking about the elusive unicorn of "real Chinese food" that local bloggers are always clamoring for. You will not mistake your meal in the Bellevue strip mall for a Bourdain-worthy dining adventure on the streets of Beijing. It looks mostly familiar: broccoli, carrots, snow peas, rice, noodles, chicken, scallions, peanuts, soy sauce in the center of the table and fortune cookies at the hostess stand.
Nor will you exalt in any sort of convivial atmosphere in the austerely sleek dining room, which once housed a Chinese buffet run by a different team. In the renovated space, seating is comfortable and appointments are clean and attractive, but dim lighting and dark colors make the setting somber. Emptiness in these early days doesn't help matters.
And service is unpredictable. On one visit, our surly server seemed annoyed by our presence, not to mention our audacity to want food. In the few words that were exchanged, there was no mention of any menu beyond the very terse printout of lunch specials. Consequently, we left after our first visit with the impression that there were only about eight items on offer at E Hur Wei.
At least they were good. And cheap. We dined for less than $10 per person. Kung pao chicken arrived with a generous portion of tender stir-fried white meat tossed with peanuts and fresh vegetables in a tangy chili-tinged sauce. Chicken and garlic sauce was similarly fresh and plentiful, loaded with al dente vegetables and coated lightly with a zesty garlic-infused glaze. Shrimp and lobster sauce was freshly prepared, with fluffy clouds of stir-fried egg floating in the clear sauce, but the medley of carrot cubes and peas tossed with the shrimp didn't exactly sing with freshness. Teriyaki chicken was a succulent sliced breast in a dark sauce that balanced sweet and salty without being cloying. When we finally coaxed the dessert options from the server, she brought us a banana split, which was an overly glamorous description of three naked scoops of ice cream with a half-banana.
Had that been our only experience, we would have forgotten the whole thing faster than we forgot the lucky numbers in our fortune cookies. But we returned for dinner the next night and had a meal that we'll keep in mind for at least the next 216 to 223 days.
Large-format menus announced a broad but well-edited and well-organized selection of starters, soups, seafood, rice and noodles, vegetarian dishes, Thai and Japanese cuisine, and kids' plates. Our server was enthusiastic, welcoming and eager to answer our questions. When she didn't know the details, she invited owner Kerry Tang to the table, and he talked us through the ingredients and traditions involved with the more unusual dishes.
This is not Tang's first foray into Asian-themed restaurants. A Chinese native who came to the U.S. for college, Tang lived in Seattle and New York before moving to Nashville. In addition to his career as accountant, Tang also operates New Century Buffet in Antioch.
He explained the tradition of eating meat floss tofu for breakfast and talked us through the ingredients, including soft silken bean curd and tiny shreds of salty felt-textured pork. He advised us on the proper assembly of a mu shu pork pancake, and he explained that the restaurant name translates approximately to Royal and Tasty.
When we complimented the quality and value of the kids' lo mein — glistening rice noodles loaded with stir-fried bok choy and plump shrimp for a mere $4 — he grinned and reminded us that all children bring adults and adults will eat more.
Looking at our table overflowing with tangles of pad Thai and steaming bowls of coconut-infused green curry, we knew Tang was on to something: If people discover his restaurant, they will come back for the quality and value, which exceeded expectations at every turn — at least on our second visit.
Lettuce wraps arrived with four fronds of crisp iceberg to be filled with a fresh medley of tender cubed chicken breast, diced bell peppers, water chestnuts and mushrooms, in a sweet-and-salty glaze. The $6 starter would make an ample meal for one person. Green beans lightly coated in tempura and fried to an al dente crunch made for a great shared appetizer. House special hot pot — served dramatically in a sizzling bowl with a lid — delivered all the comfort of hot and sour soup, with welcome embellishments of tender chicken and beef, as well as crab, shrimp, tofu and egg. It's a bestseller, Tang says, and we understood why. (That said, we heard less favorable reports about the seafood version of the hot pot, whose maritime proteins were allegedly "mushy.")
Pad Thai and curry didn't reinvent the popular pan-Asian concepts, but were admirable executions with plump seafood and fresh sprigs of basil abounding. Meanwhile, Singapore street noodles, stir-fried in a sunny-yellow curry sauce, were a welcome addition to the more predictable Chinese staples.
When we had eaten our fill, our server brought us sturdy plastic tubs with snap-on lids. We loaded up enough food to feed the family a second dinner. Meanwhile, our bill for five people was below $80 pre-tip. Considering we got enough food for two full meals each, call it $8 a head.
That's the kind of math we like to hear when we're plotting out a family meal, for, say, Christmas Day. We could take the whole gang and bring home leftovers for Boxing Day.
Of course, there's no guarantee that E Hur Wei will be open on Dec. 25, or even still be in business by then — especially if the wrinkles don't get ironed out and the crowds don't start showing up. But assuming Tang & Co. get the kinks worked out and start consistently offering the cuisine and service they are capable of, E Hur Wei could be a favorite casual dining spot, at the holidays and throughout the year.
E Hur Wei serves lunch and dinner daily. Full bar, beer and wine are available.
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