Exactly nothing about Lee's Asian Restaurant might lead a passerby to think, "Now that looks like a place with glorious food." It's a shame — but sort of a charming shame. I admit it fills me with a sense of ironic satisfaction to relish the food at a place that has its phone number listed in enormous letters on its awning. To relish the food at a place that is still proudly festooned in garlands and Santa lights.
Indeed, there's not much else to say about the décor of the little West Seattle storefront — except that you're there in spite of it, because — need I say it — you will relish the food.
The menu roams the Orient, from the galangal- and garlic-marinated prawns of Indonesia to the crispy pan-fried mein of Hong Kong to the udon of Tokyo to the coconut-curried calamari of Thailand, with a whole Silk Road-full of stops between. No 10-page catalog of chow meins and mu shus, Lee's menu is sophisticated and worldly — think Wild Ginger — at odds with the plain surroundings and the unpretentious service and the affordable ($6.95-$11.95) price tags.
The food arrives even more at odds, which will have you smiling and munching all the way to the bottom of the enormous platters. (If you don't quite get there, doggie cartons are freely dispensed.)
A lot of people love this place; on the night of my visit the entrance had a revolving-door quality as herds of peckish West Seattleites came in for what looked like regular to-go fixes. (Hence the awning phone number.) Or maybe they weren't West Seattleites; for its seven-flavor beef alone Lee's is unquestionably worth a trek across the bridge. I'll be making several.
Lemongrass chicken satay: This one takes a little longer to prepare, so you might wind up enjoying your appetizer after you've devoured your mains. Get it anyway, if you want to sample a solid exemplar of the satay genre: two tender skewers of chicken, faultlessly moist, fragrant with garlic and lemongrass, and served with moistened greens.
Lee's fragrant duck: As succulent and flavorful as I've ever encountered this classic, at a friendlier price than one usually finds it. With tantalizingly crispy skin and tender flesh, the duck is simply delectable either by itself or tucked into a steamed bun sandwich-style. This platter allows diners to build four little sandwiches, crowned with greens and slathered with hoisin or an uncommonly perfumey plum sauce.
Prawn lo mein: The least successful of our dishes would be a solid hit in any lesser restaurant. Thick, delicious homemade noodles mingle rather uneventfully with bits of vegetable and underseasoned prawns to make for the perfect comfort food.
Seven-flavor beef: Those flavors are lemongrass, chilies, basil, garlic, ginger, hoisin and peanuts, and I swear you can taste every one of them in this pungent blue-ribbon dish. The most tender hunks of flank steak are served with slivered and charred onions, carrots and green onions, everything glistening with the astounding potion and crowned with chopped peanuts. The interplay of textures makes for lots of good crunching, but even better is the substantive complexity of the afterburn. No gratuitous spiciness here: In this dish, every flavor plays an essential role. Just outstanding.
Itemized bill, dinner for 2
Lemongrass chicken satay (2) $3
Lee's fragrant duck $11.95
Prawn lo mein $ 8.95
Seven-flavor beef $8.95
Kathryn Robinson: KathAnRob@aol.com