NUE - Seattle, WA
Whenever I research a road-trip restaurant (or any restaurant, really), I always head to their "about" section first. It's where I hope to find the heart and soul of a place, and let's face it - there are hundreds of restaurants opening (and closing) daily, so when a place shares a bit about its vision, it makes it easier for road-weary diners like myself to whittle down their massive list of options.
Full disclosure: I LIKE TO FORM RELATIONSHIPS WITH RESTAURANTS. I want to know the mission behind the menu, and NUE hooked me from the very start. Chef/owner Chris Cvetkovich and his wife are avid travelers (well, they used to be until they came home and started a restaurant) and insatiable eaters, something I strongly identify with. With a background in marketing and as a 3D environment artist (aka -creative), it's no surprise to me Chris and his team at NUE are succeeding at making this unique eatery stand out among the wide variety of ethnic locations in Seattle.
Their mission is not to tell people what they should eat, they're not trying to resurrect or salvage an "ancient approach to cooking" for future generations - they have no lofty goals, other than to share what excites them: "Freakishly awesome food." As I said, I was clearly hooked at the first paragraph of their mission statement, but it was the "get involved" link on their site that most excited me. Click on the link and see for yourself - these crazy kids are actually INVITING their patrons to share ideas and recipes from their own home countries and/or international travels. They're ENCOURAGING folks to show them how to make any amazing foods they may be overlooking.
Whaaaaaa? This is highly irregular, but after spending the short half hour I did with Chris, it became clear to me that the reason he opened this restaurant is to provide a place for the staff AND the patrons to experiment and explore without "any pretense or culinary douchiness".
I'm sorry, but these guys seriously kick ass.
Chris met me at the door with a menu and while I glanced at it briefly (I'd researched the joint, remember? I already knew what I wanted), he asked how I'd heard of the restaurant. I admitted NUE had made THE LIST as it offered such a wide and seemingly unrelated variety of dishes. East Indies brussels sprouts, fiery chicken wings with Szechuan and Thai influences, and a Vietnamese developed duck egg were definite go-tos, but dishes from Malaysia, Trinidad, Cuba, Peru and Israel all looked just as good.
I'd read a bit of the history behind NUE when I researched it, but I asked Chris face-to-face what inspired him to create NUE. "Well, once I had a really great meal at a restaurant in Romania, and I thought I'd like to have that meal again sometime when I returned home - but I didn't necessarily want to open a Romanian restaurant, you know what I mean? That's how the concept was born - I've enjoyed so many great dishes all over the world, why not create a place where they can all be enjoyed but in one place?"
Why not, indeed?
I had a sneaking suspicion the spices and flavor profiles of all the dishes on the menu would be sure-fire wins, but it was the Balut - Vietnamese Hot Vit Lon that I was there for. Balut, simply enough, is a developing duck egg embroy that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It is commonly eaten in Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as well as in the Phillipines. Chris was pleased I wanted to try it and when I voiced some concern about the texture, he let me know that while these duck embroys are developed enough to "notice" some features (it doesn't look like a raw egg in other words) it wasn't so developed in the traditional sense that you could feel feathers, beak and bones when you ate it.
I was easily sold. Anyone who knows me knows I'll try anything once and I can even get past "squirrely" texture if the flavor is good enough. I had nothing to worry about with this balut and I promise you, gentle American eater, you wouldn't either. The egg is steamed so you're not eating anything "raw" and the flavor was amazing. Chris instructed me that instead of peeling the egg as if it were hard boiled, I was just to tap the top of it with the spoon to break the shell, then scoop out the goodness inside. The egg was served resting on a bed of fresh herbs that had been tossed in a little nuoc cham and there was a little dish of salt and pepper to season the egg with as well. I promise you, this was nothing short of delicious. It was creamy, the broth inside was delicious and I'm happy to report I finished the whole thing off with no squirming.
Chris asked if I'd ever had pig tails and I admitted I'd been reading about it a lot lately, but hadn't had the chance to try. Before I knew it, a plate of Grilled Barbados Pig Tails with a spicy jerk glaze and fresh cilantro was placed in front of me, nudging my crispy brussels sprouts and piping hot chicken wings out of the way.
Before you turn your nose up at pig tails and tell yourself it simply isn't worth the effort, remember the lengths you'll go to for crab and crawdads (mmm-hmmm). It's true, there isn't a lot of meat on a pig's tail, but there isn't a lot of meat on chicken feet either and the concept is the same: you're cooking a part of the animal that in most countries is not tossed out because why would you waste a perfectly tasty part of the animal? Cooked low and slow (usually by braising in liquid) for hours, the collagen turns deliciously gelatinous, and in the case of NUE's pig tails, they are grilled to crispy and golden perfection. Dunk a piece into that jerk seasoning, stick it into your mouth and gnaw on that sucker like it's your last day on earth. You'll go back for more, stab the hands of friends who try to sample them and finish the dish huddled by yourself in a corner. I promise.
I should mention here that the only dish I ate in it's entirety was the balut (egg). I was on a sampling mission and I had hungry mouths to feed back home - my sister and brother-in-law were unfortunately stuck at work that day. I happily toted by leftovers home to them: the crispy brussels sprouts and mind-blowing/tongue-numbing wings.
East Indies Brussels Sprouts - crispy fried Brussels sprouts, coconut and garlic chutney, peanut satay and sweel chili dipping sauce
Chengdu Spicy Jumbo Chicken Wings - green szechuan peppercorn, fish sauce, lime, chile, basil, mint, Thai Chili
NUE is really an amazing place and a place I would love to be able to frequent on a weekly (if not daily) basis. If you're anywhere near Seattle I hope you'll stop in and give the crew at NUE a chance to blow your mind. If you do, be sure to ask him about the beetles his uses to infuse some of his vodka ... (you heard it here first!).