Dish: Ja-Jang Noodles
Place: Red Lantern, International District, Seattle
In the bowl: Fresh, Korean wheat noodles (thick spaghetti size) with a julienne cucumber garnish
Supporting cast: A second bowl contains fermented black bean paste, beef, shrimp, squid, onions, and zucchini. And a side dish with pickled daikon slices, raw onion pieces, and plum paste.
What to do: Pour and mix the small bowl into the big bowl, but not the daikon, onions, and plum paste. While it made sense to me that daikon was a pickle on the side, I wasn’t sure what to do about the onions. Only after asking did the server explain that they are also meant to be eaten on the side, simply saying, “the plum paste takes away the sharpness of the onion.”
Noodling around: Red Lantern’s website says that the restaurant specializes in “contemporary Northern Chinese-Korean cooking with influences from neighboring Asian specialties without compromising authenticity or taste.”
This might explain why the ja-jang noodles were different than the “zha-jiang mian” (fried sauce noodles) I’m accustomed to eating. Those noodles tend to be topped by ground pork stir-fried with fermented soybean paste (the zha-jiang), with julienned cucumber atop that. The intense black color was familiar, but Red Lantern’s Korean-influenced (northern Chinese, apparently) version added seafood to beef (interesting, though I ultimately prefer pure pork) and zucchini (also interesting, but overlapped too much with the cucumber for me).
The dish has a deep, earthy taste, just as you might expect from something this dark. I did enjoy the slices of pickled daikon to provide an acidic and refreshing crunch to counter the noodle sauce, but I never got quite comfortable with the onions.
If still hungry: Perhaps try one of the tea-influenced desserts: either the black tea crème brulee cream infused with black tea and caramelized sugar or the red tea tiramisu with mascarpone cheese, red tea, and brandy (both $4.95).
Be aware/beware: I am happy to see a new restaurant in the International District, and hope others will follow suit. And while I appreciate the mission to combine the culinary traditions of China and Korea, the menu seems to be all over the map, busting borders in being pan-Asian. A little focus would help Red Lantern establish a firmer identity.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on March 15, 2011.
(Additional thought: I’m surprised that my friends at Seattle Metropolitan included this as one of the area’s best Chinese restaurants for 2010. For example, I also tried the basil-lime shrimp, which was far from perfect–lacking in basil and in need of more lime.)