Despite its share of desirable free parking, Seattle's commercial-residential Pacific Rim Center has struggled since opening. But there's a lot going on inside one particular restaurant in the quiet, largely abandoned mini-mall. While other restaurants continue to close, the evolving Uway Malatang is giving food lovers a good reason to swing by this stretch of the city's International District for a meal.
A friend who has studied Chinese language extensively tells me that the tang that accompanies mala (numbing and spicy) in the restaurant name means "hot and scalding" (it would mean "soup" in a different tone), but says that uway looks like fake, nonsense characters. He guesses that uway is actually short for "you way" as in "have it your way," hinting that the restaurant name advertises design-your-own-hot-pot. In fact, when Uway Malatang first opened, this was the crux of the business. Now the buffet-like hot pot part of the operation has been polished up, and the menu has expanded to reflect the chef's new skills in noodle-making.
Immediately upon entry you'll find a self-service cooler area with an incredible array of ingredients. Here, you fill a bowl with the raw ingredients you'd like in your hot pot. At $8.99 per pound (with a one-pound minimum), you can get meats like beef tendon, lamb, pork belly, sole, and mussels. There are also plates and bins full of a variety of mushrooms, vegetables, tofu, noodles, quail eggs, and more. Bring your bowl to your table, and the server will collect it and ask how you'd like it prepared. Options include cook-it-yourself Hot Pot and Hot & Spicy Dry Hot Pot, but I selected the namesake Malatang "Mini Hot Pot" ($11.69 for my 1.3 pounds of ingredients).
For the Malatang option, the ingredients come back cooked in a choice of soups: hot and spicy, bone, pickled vegetable, satay, curry, Thai flavor, Japanese miso, and Korean kimchi. Given the Sichuan influence of the restaurant and my desire for fiery heat, I went with hot and spicy, asking for it as pepper-packed as possible. While not as spicy as other Sichuan hot pots I've had, there was good zing to the broth (you can further spice up your food at the sauce station), and I enjoyed the satisfaction of my customized bowl, containing exactly what I wanted: a wide sampling of the aforementioned ingredients that kept the hot pot alive with all kinds of flavors and textures, giving me pride of ownership!
While contemplating hot pot options, you'll note that menu has a good number of "regular" dishes, largely Sichuan, plus the increasingly ubiquitous bubble teas and smoothies to garner the youth vote. My eye immediately spotted pictures of burgers, so I couldn't resist the Pig's Ear Szechuan Burger ($4.95) as a starter. The homemade "bun" is crumpet-shaped and pita-like, though not quite as dry as other Chinese burgers I've had previously. The crispy and chewy pig's ear is simply adorned with chili oil, cilantro, and green onion. The sandwich offers a slightly tangy and slightly spicy start to the meal.
You can't sit long, though, without noticing the chef making noodles in the glass window, designed, I believe, to entrance diners with showmanship and entice an order of stir-fried or soup noodles. Having enjoyed the hand-shaved noodles in my hot pot, I wanted to give a nod to the deftness of the dough-handler and try one of the pulled noodle dishes, too. The soup options range from beef noodle and lamb noodle to dan dan noodles and Sichuan pork rib.
I went with the Pickled Vegetable Pork Noodle Soup ($8.95), hoping for some sour notes to contrast with the rest of my meal. The soup, featuring cabbage, green onion, daikon (I don't typically see this in Chinese soups, but it worked well), and a generous amount of cilantro, highlights good, strong flavors. And I especially enjoyed the springiness of the made-to-order noodles—something that's sadly often missing with thinner noodles.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.