By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
What exactly is 250? Wild Ginger’s owner, Rick Yoder, constantly refers to it during an interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly. It’s not the number of staff members who work for him. Wild Ginger has a workforce of 350 in its downtown Seattle location, which is also its headquarters and houses the Triple Door lounge. It’s not the number of Asian ingredients the restaurant uses.
It’s not the number of people the restaurant can seat. However, 250 has been the guiding force for Yoder since the restaurant’s opening. Before Yoder started the business, he and his wife Ann, worked and traveled all over Asia. They discovered their love of Asian cuisine, and Yoder loved to cook, so he collected Asian cookbooks. Those 250 Asian cookbooks are like his treasures, prominently displayed in his office. Those books are also his training tools for his kitchen and for experimentation in many of the recipes. The old recipes work, said Yoder, so we focus on cooking.
The Yoders love Asian food. One day, they asked each other, “What if there is a restaurant in Seattle, which serves [traditional] Asian food?”
That awakening motivated the couple to open their first restaurant on Westlake Avenue and later expanding at its current location, and also another one in Bellevue.
The Yoders were pioneers. In those days, most Asian restaurants either served one or two Asian dishes, rarely four or more under one roof. Asian fusion food was not big in the mainstream culinary scene then. The concept of having traditional Asian food, from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Chinese, Singapore, and Cambodia, in one restaurant was unheard of. It was hard to train Asian chefs in cross-cultural cooking techniques.
How Wild Ginger began
I still remember the day Yoder, a boyish-looking fellow, walked into the Seattle Chinese Post’s office (Northwest Asian Weekly’s sister paper), and placed a small classified advertisement, looking for a Chinese chef. “A white guy wants to start an Asian restaurant?”
I was surprised.
James Lock, his first head chef, responded to the ad. Lock was unique — he’s fluent in both Chinese and English — not many Chinese-speaking chefs, at the time, possessed bilingual skills.
The kitchen, staffed with immigrants, was hard to manage. But Lock’s command of the English language, and his Chinese skills to train his Chinese staff, allowed him to communicate and implement Yoder’s vision. His management style also earned his peers’ respect. I call him Jim, but other chefs address him as “Big Brother.” The rest is history. Lock retired more than a decade ago. Today, the Wild Ginger kitchen is diverse with lots of immigrants. So are the staff, with many people of color. And Yoder is proud of the fact that many Asian kitchen staff members have worked for him for decades.
Over the years, we have dined at Wild Ginger off and on. One thing is constant, its ingredients are always fresh.
Yoder said the restaurant makes its own egg noodles, Peking duck bun, and hoisin sauce. Yoder said the restaurant can easily sell 2,000 buns a day for all his dining facilities.
And the restaurant buys fresh roasted red pepper directly from a source in California. The knowledge of the wait staff is top-notch. They know how to sell the menu, describing each entrée in detail, edging out the competition. This helps customers decide which dishes to order, and they usually order the correct one for themselves. How often have you experienced ordering the wrong thing due to insufficient information?
At Wild Ginger, the menu doesn’t include Japanese food. “That’s a totally subset type of food,” Yoder said.
My husband, son, and I decided to dine at Wild Ginger recently. It’s an advantage to include our son so we can eat more variety. Between appetizers and the main course, we picked multiple dishes for family-style dining. It was a Tuesday and the restaurant was pretty full.
No MSG, I told the waitress.
“We don’t use MSG,” she replied. I liked that answer.
Anything to do with lobster sounds good. So we had lobster and prawn wonton soup ($15). One bowl carried a big enough portion for the three of us. I liked the broth, while my husband thought it was a little salty.
For appetizers, the waitress brought us grilled asparagus shrimp ($13), and we requested a larger portion of the tuna bruschetta ($21). The asparagus dish was enough for two servings.
Since my husband is a big fan of asparagus, I let him have my share. This dish is a clever fusion of Vietnamese cuisine with shrimp wrapped around sugar cane.
As for the tuna dish, we spread the superb ahi mixed with wasabi, sesame oil, and green onion on buttered toast. Bread tends to be over-buttered at other restaurants. At Wild Ginger, it was just right, and we just ate up all the 10 pieces of delight.
I thought I wouldn’t have room for more food. But my head overrules my belly when the food is delicious and the presentation is enticing.
For our main course, we had market fried rice ($12), seven-flavor beef ($21), stir-fried string beans Sichuan-style ($13), and green curry chicken ($18). The men in our household have an itch for beef, although it had an interesting twist. My husband said, one bite and you would shoot for more. The green curry chicken was nicely cooked. I told the waitress not to make it spicy. But I forgot to ask for dark meat. Surprisingly, the white meat didn’t taste overcooked.
And the coconut curry sauce was just perfect for me. The fried rice was wonderful, not greasy, and mixed with ingredients I enjoyed.
The leftovers meant we needed doggy boxes, not doggy bags these days. That meant that I didn’t need to cook the next day!
Wild Ginger fans, here is the good news — a new restaurant is going to open this summer at South Lake Union.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.