Walk along Eighth Avenue South in the Chinatown International District and you'll notice ginkgo trees growing amid strawberry patches next to Made in Kitchen, a snazzy Asian bistro of the sort more commonly found in Belltown or Capitol Hill.
Made In Kitchen opened a year ago in one of those new retail/residential buildings that continue to spring up throughout the ID. It's a family business, owned by Winnie Che and Chris Dawn, who run it with lots of help from their relations.
The restaurant's handsome interior, its moderately priced Vietnamese menu and its warm, engaging staff effectively whet your appetite. Best of all, what you eat tastes every bit as fresh and good as it looks.
Menus at lunch and dinner look similar, though lunch is slightly cheaper, and dinner choices a little broader; both list small plates, satays and salads, noodles, soups and stir-fries, as well as combination plates. In each category you'll find meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables and tofu.
Many featured items play recurring roles. Golden Shrimp Cakes, La Lot Beef and Saigon Meatball Treasures, for example, go solo for those who want a light nibble with a little side salad. But they also star in full-blown ensembles, what the restaurant calls Kitchen Bowls (at lunch) or Kitchen Plates (at dinner) where they jostle with noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, basil, pickled carrot and daikon. These are hearty, meal-in-one combos, best devoured doused with nuoc nam — the indispensable Vietnamese fish sauce that conveys sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors all at once.
The crunch of jicama is a delicious surprise inside the la lot beef, torpedoes of seasoned ground meat wrapped in betel leaves. A cache of shrimp meat is the "treasure" hidden within the Saigon meatballs musky with white pepper. Shrimp cake is soft and sweet under a golden skin, equally good whether hugging sugar cane skewers or hanging out in a noodle bowl with lemongrass pork and a plump Imperial Roll.
The Imperial Roll is stunning on its own. Stuffed with glass noodles, morsels of crab and chopped shrimp, the crisp, hot wrapper shatters like fragile pastry with each bite. Eaten the traditional way — wrapped in a lettuce leaf and sprinkled with nuoc nam — the lettuce captures the sauce and insulates your fingers.
Lemongrass pork chops are so good you'll want a whole plateful. You'll find them under "Rice Plates" at lunch, because they come with a bundle of jasmine rice topped with a fried egg. The slash of a knife sends the bright orange yolk tumbling over the white grains and into the path of three chops — fabulously fork-tender and skinny-cut — still on the bone.
But it was tofu that really sent us into a swoon. The cubes of creamy bean curd were deep-fried to a light golden crisp. A sprinkle of black and white sesame seeds mixed with finely chopped seaweed gave them a salty, nutty finish that was irresistible even to the staunchly meat-and-potatoes types among us.
In fact, spicy shredded potatoes fried with bell pepper were one of the rare disappointments here. Expecting something akin to hash browns, we couldn't love these limp, pale, not-particularly-spicy spuds.
Spicy Malay Eggplant didn't deliver excessive heat either. But the ruddy brown sauce glazing the vegetable's vivid purple skin and soft, pale flesh was boldly laced with fresh basil and its almost sneaky sweetness complemented the stronger elements of garlic and chili oil.
A gentle burn characterized the Singapore curry seafood as well, just enough to offset the sweetness of the coconut milk broth bathing squid, shrimp and chunks of white fish. But red chili peppers definitely made their presence known in claypot catfish, a bubbling cauldron of succulent, though boney, fish steaks braised in a richly caramelized sauce.
Another potent chili-spiked fish sauce studded with chopped scallion accompanies Trio-Mix Noodle Soup, a mosaic of chicken, pork, egg and rice noodles so beautiful you almost hate to dip in a spoon and disturb the pretty picture. But we did, and left nary a drop.
Nor did we abandon the dregs in a bowl of Braised Curry Duck. A soup that's more of a stew, it comes with a choice of rice noodles or baguette. Warm, crusty bread was ideal for soaking up the complex, mossy green curry sauce left behind after we had decimated the onion and potato chunks and sucked the duck bones clean.
Bite-sized cubes of flank steak sautéed with onion and bell pepper proved daintier to demolish and just as delicious. The meat revealed a silky texture and intriguing blend of spice; its companion, a pretty pink timbale of rice cooked in tomato sauce, was pure comfort food.
The beautifully presented plates are worthy counterparts to the colorful, stylish dining room. Painted in bird-of-paradise hues, it's partitioned in such a way that tables can be shifted easily to accommodate parties of any size. Perhaps the best place to sit is in the VIP Room, a private mirrored tatami den that holds just eight (reservations a must).
On every visit we ordered with abandon, ate till we couldn't eat more, and yet the bill was modest, even with a bottle of wine — though in truth, the aromatic jasmine tea, so assiduously poured into small cups that are never allowed to be empty, is my drink of choice here.
If it's been a while since you've ventured into the ID for a meal, add Made In Kitchen to your list. You can put it in your GPS — or just look for the neon sign peeking through the ginkgo trees.
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Made In Kitchen
701 Eighth Ave. S., Seattle; 206-625-0909, www.mikbistro.com
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays.
Prices: Lunch $4-$12, dinner $4-$18.
Drinks: Beer, wine, sake; lychee drink, coconut juice, tamarind soda and lemongrass lemonade.
Parking: Free parking in lot catty-corner from the restaurant.
Who should go: Great for a quick, inexpensive lunch or pregame bite — but come back when you can linger in the pretty dining room.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Amex.
Access: No obstacles.
La Lot Beef Skewers: $6
Black & White Sesame Tofu: $6
Spicy Malay Eggplant: $8
Grilled Lemongrass Pork Chops: $8.50
Claypot Catfish: $13