Charley Lee has one simple rule when it comes to the food at his Bellevue restaurant, Hakka House, open since this past November.
“If I don’t eat it, I won’t give it to a customer,” the affable Lee says during a recent phone call.
Lee, who got his start in restaurants working with his father in Taiwan and Honolulu, has opened a string of restaurants around the Greater Seattle area over the years: Golden House in Mukilteo, Eastern Pearl in Redmond and now Hakka House.
You can find him hopping around the dining room at Hakka House — when he’s not in the kitchen with his good friend and chef Ching-Na Tsai, of course — checking in on each table.
“I love people, I love to see the customers. I cook very good, too,” he tells me with a laugh.
When I was in for lunch last week, Lee stopped by our table to admonish me for taking photos of my food. “Put your phone away! Chinese food waits for no one,” he said.
The menu at Hakka House is deep and varied; a full page of dim sum options plus dumplings, soups, stir-fry, noodles and clay-pot dishes. I was there for the Hakka specialties.
Hakka people are a Chinese ethnic group considered to be the most diasporic. A sign outside of Hakka House says the cuisine of the Hakka people “emphasizes the original flavor, retains the charm and characteristics of traditional folk food and cultural heritage.”
The traditional dishes at Hakka House include stuffed pork tofu ($17.95), meatballs with preserved vegetables ($17.95) and crispy beef brisket ($21.95).
Meals at Hakka House begin with a small bowl of rich chicken broth, topped with fresh cilantro and white onion. It’s the perfect comforting opening to a meal, especially on a brisk spring day.
The stuffed pork tofu arrived on a silver sizzle platter, turning heads as it sputtered its way through the dining room. Set atop slivers of onions, the cubes of squishy, seared tofu each have a marble-sized piece of crunchy-crisp ground pork inserted in the middle and a rich oyster/soy sauce drizzled over the top. A bit too large to be eaten in one bite, these nuggets lose their crunch the longer they sit and are best eaten as soon as the active sizzling subsides.
The meatballs, served swimming in a slightly viscous broth with cabbage in a clay pot, are incredibly light and fluffy — almost like a soup dumpling without the wrapper. The broth was slightly peppery — but not spicy. This is comfort food for sure.
Lee says Hakka House is the only restaurant in the area serving the crispy beef brisket, a thinly sliced wonder of a dish that features tender braised brisket perfectly coated in a fragrant crunchy wreath of panko. Served with lightly pickled slivered carrots and ginger and a thick, sweet/salty dipping sauce, this is one of those dishes that is so simple, yet incredibly satisfying.
Lee stresses a few times during our brief phone call that he and his staff are trying so hard to give the best service and best quality they can every day. The dining room, packed full of happy customers the day I was there for lunch, and that crispy beef brisket, are a testament to their hard work.
10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday; 677 120th Ave. N.E., #7A, Bellevue; 425-679-6922
SOURCE: Seattle Times