“I’ve been in here three days in a row.” The man speaking is wearing roofer’s boots. A hammer hangs in a loop on his jeans.
“Oh yeah? Have you had the Reuben?” The man he’s speaking to hangs drywall. He’s spattered with it, dots of it up and down his legs and on his shirt and on his beard and in his hair.
“Oh yeah. Yes. Probably the best Reuben I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Me too! The meat on it is perfect!”
“ I know!”
“I know! He like sautes it — or whatever…”
An excited smile hits them both on the lips, and they wrestle it off their faces, look off in different directions. The sound of sizzling meat fills the silence. The smell of complex flavors.
The men press onward.
“I like the way he grills the veggies — uh, vegetables.”
“Yeah. The katsu, or fried chicken or whatever is really good, too.”
I sit at the table behind these men, watching in slack-jawed wonder as they struggle to express their intense love for the food they’re about to receive in a way that doesn’t make them sound like weaklings. Gentle souls. Foodies. Fighting to keep words like sauté or veggies out of their mouths and away from their masculinity. The exchange is so enthralling that I don’t even hear the chef call my order until the third time, and by then it’s almost too late.
As I’m shuffling back to the table with my sandwich, the drywaller looks me up and down with a sneer forming under the bristly whiskers of his mustache and says, “If you woulda waited one more second, I woulda elbowed my way up there to eat that thing.”
And then he turns back to the roofer, and they have a herky-jerky discussion about aioli and the tanginess that it embodies. To their credit, they call it “the sauce,” which sounds tougher.
Such is the strange power of 99 Cafe and its owner and chef, Shawn Kuo, for whom melding things that shouldn’t work together, like manly men and floofy French words, is a daily regularity. Take his menu, for instance. A wild mishmash of deli-style sandwiches and Chinese food, which, in any other restaurant, prepared by any other man, might give the impression of panic and desperation. We’ve all passed a teriyaki/ burger/ laundry/ pho/ pupuseria joint and thought, “There is no way that place is doing all of those things well.”
Kuo is, and he’s doing it on purpose.
“The Pacific Northwest has a lot of transplants,” he told me over his shoulder, hands busy with the meal in front of him. “I want my food to be like that — a mix.”
He’s dancing back and forth at the stove top, spatulas singing on iron, fingers plunging into spices, moving with an expert touch that only excellent training can provide.
Kuo attended Cordon Bleu and cooked his way through Seattle specializing in French cuisine, which, given his current setting, seems like another bit of incongruity until you actually pick up one of his sandwiches up and give it a once over. A paper-thin slip of carefully grilled cheese garnishes the Reuben. Pork, cooked in pineapple on the Cuban, tossed in a flaming pan. Crackly kung pao chicken; rich and sultry shrimp. Flavors like notes of a finely tuned instrument, measured, but intense.
Kuo’s cooking is absolutely dripping with French style, marbled with it like the beef on his Reuben.
Working with all that skill and attention, though, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud, “Why sandwiches and Chinese?”
Why not a 16-seat, sit-down joint with a rotating menu and a six-week wait on a table? Why not $40 appetizers and sous-vides everything, like all the go-hards in Seattle?
His answer was measured and succinct like his cooking.
“We need street food.”
We, the drywaller. We, the roofer. We all the other working people drifting in and out of that place on their hard-earned breaks with their growling stomachs, talking about food with a passion that seemed strange until I really stopped to think about it.
About the places these people usually have to rush into and out of. About all the convenience store sandwiches with their wilted lettuce and anemic tomatoes and all the fast-food joints with their hastily fried nonsense and artificial flavors.
Standing there in 99 Cafe with those workers fresh off a job site, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I don’t usually hear passionate foodie talk from people like them because people like them don’t always have a chef like Kuo. A man who puts time and attention into street food for the working public. A man who knows what he’s doing. A man with aioli and sauteed veggies.
99 Cafe, 27400 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way, is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.