On the plate:Pan-fried noodles with slices of beef, bitter melon, green onions, mushrooms, carrots, and black bean sauce.
Supporting cast/What to do: Your main decision with this mein dish is what type of noodles you want. Choices include rice noodles, rice vermicelli, egg noodles, spaghetti, and udon.
Noodling around: This dish jumped out at me on the menu, as I’m a big fan of bitter melon. It’s a tough taste for many Westerners, but worth exploring, perhaps even just for the fruit’s nutritional and other health benefits.
The bitter melon is cut into smaller pieces as compared to how I’ve had it in Japanese and Vietnamese preparations. This means eating less of the fruit in one bite, but a good ratio of melon-to-noodle throughout the dish. And that bitter flavor fully permeates the noodles, which was a welcomed surprise.
The noodle choice was a no-brainer for me. The rice noodles are the wide ones, which I like for their size and chewy texture, so that’s what I chose for this chow fun. There’s something fulfilling and comforting about wide noodles, and I especially liked how they soaked up some of the black bean sauce. Just about each bite of the dish gave me noodles, meat, melon, other vegetables, and bold flavor from the sauce.
If you want more: There are filling fruit drinks, milkshakes, and desserts (like sweet sago soup with jellygrass), but more intriguing is the selection of toasts and sandwiches. You can go simple like toast with condensed milk and peanut butter ($2.25), or more complex with a corned beef and egg sandwich ($3.75).
If you’re with a dining companion and craving more noodles, Happy Times offers customized soup bowls. For $5.99, you get your choice of noodles. In addition to the above-mentioned noodles, there’s macaroni, wide egg noodles (though they were out of this the day of my visit), rice balls, and even instant noodles. In addition, you get to pick two (extras are $1.25) from a long list of non-meat items (like radish, seaweed, and bean curd stick) to meat (the usual suspects, like beef, pork, and chicken, to the more exotic, like ox tripe, pork stomach, pork blood, and the lovely “luncheon meat”).
Be aware/beware: Happy Times Bistro is located across from the International District branch of the Seattle Public Library. This is one of my favorite branches, full of Asian-language books, videos, and more—plus an interesting selection of books in English, as they don’t fly off the shelves as at other branches. It’s a comfortable place to hang out when killing time in the area, like if you’re trying to create space between lunch and dinner.
Next to the library is perhaps my top current pick for Chinese food in the International District: Gourmet Noodle Bowl, discussed in a previous Mein Man column. Their hot pots are a great deal, and you’ll find that all-you-can-eat action at nearly every table, though I’ve enjoyed my simpler noodle bowls here as well.
But if bitter flavor is for you, go to Happy Times Bistro instead. The bitter melon beef chow fun made me happy, though the Celine Dion-like soundtrack might leave you more bitter than happy.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on April 17, 2013.