I’ve been spending my winter vacation at home in Washington state visiting family. While the break has been good, the same can’t be said for the weather. It’s likely I’ve been spoiled by the Bay Area climate (although things aren’t that pretty in Northern California right now either) but I have a tough time dealing with the cold, the wind and the rain up here. The cold rain makes one want to stay inside while the wind can leave one in the dark as it did a few nights ago when it caused a power outage. With conditions like these I sometimes wish we had a different climate in the Pacific Northwest. After all, south and Southeast Asia gets similar wind and rain storms except theirs are usually warm. Couldn’t we trade for that?
It seems my wish has been granted. While it’s no storm, Monsoon in Seattle is providing a much safer and tastier method of staying out of the cold. Located in Capitol Hill, a Seattle neighborhood that reminds me a lot of Berkeley, Monsoon specializes in “tradition Vietnamese cuisine with Pacific Northwest innovation.” Their menu, a creation of owners Eric and Sophie Banh, blends Vietnamese, Chinese and French flavors with wonderful result. The menu changes monthly and is prepared with locally sourced and organic ingredients whenever possible. With this kind of mindset, I can’t help think that Monsoon would thrive in a nice spot like the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley but perhaps I’m asking for too much. I don’t want to steal Monsoon away from Seattle mind you, I could settle for a second location. So how about it Eric, Sophie, ever been to the Bay Area?
My first visit to Monsoon had been with my older brother. He promised me a bowl of pho unlike any that I had tried before. When I met him at the restaurant however, I must admit that I had my reservations. Frankly, the place was too nice. Restaurants that serve good pho can usually be found in the dodgier parts of town and generally boast an Asian greasy spoon allure (both literally and figuratively). This was neither. Furthermore, a quick glance around the dining room made it obvious that I was the only Asian, or, well, half-Asian customer in the house. The primarily Caucasian clientele made me fear the worst: General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Combination Chow Mein and Fortune Cookies or perhaps more accurately in this case, packaged MSG laden pho. My worries were immediately assuaged however when the food arrived.
We began the meal with an order of the braised berkshire pork belly. The slightly crispy, fried exterior gave way to the juicy, succulent interior, accentuated by the thin layers of fat between the meat. The richness of the pork was cut well by the subtle kick of the accompanying spicy mustard. This reminded me of the Chinese red-braised pork I ate as a kid and I would have loved to seen this pork belly paired with a similar sweet, dark sauce.
Next came a few of their dim sum delicacies. I found both the bbq pork bun and the steamed lotus leaf rice to be executed right on point. They were excellent representations of classic Chinese delights.
Finally came the piece de resistance. From the moment the bowl arrived at the table I knew it was unique. The wafts of steam drifted into my nose, bringing with them the highly aromatic smells of the soup. The broth was much darker than most restaurants’ due to the ox tails used in the making. The meat was also distinct. Unlike the regular paper-thin slices often resembling sandwich meat, this steak was cut thicker from high quality wagyu beef. I took my first sip of the broth and was amazed. It managed to be rich and hearty yet subtle and nuanced at the same time. It was like a heavy weight boxer: he’s light on his feet but packs a mean punch. I had hoped I might be able to go nine rounds but I was stuffed full by the relatively small bowl after the first.
My brother was right. This was one of the best bowls of pho I had ever had. Yet to be fair, Monsoon is simply in a different weight class. And rightfully so. Their attention to detail and the quality of ingredients sets them leagues apart from most Vietnamese restaurants. Their ability to meld varying cuisines harmoniously awards them further distinction. If this were not enough, Monsoon also boasts a wide selection of fine wines. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to sample them yet, I fully intend to soon. I guess I know where I’ll be the next time my power goes out. Actually, probably sooner than that.
615 19th Avenue E
Seattle, Washington 98112
PS - Drive slow on 19th as it's nestled location is easy to miss.