When Seattle chef Sun Hong was growing up in Southern California, his Korean-born grandmother used to ferment kimchi by burying vegetables in her backyard garden. The soil was just the right temperature, and Hong remembers the care that went into the process. “She did it the old school way because there was no Korean grocery store near us or anything like that,” he says. For the curious Hong, it was like a treasure hunt to find some of the food she buried.
At Hong’s acclaimed Capitol Hill prix fix lunch counter By Tae, those flavors and memories from his childhood often find their way onto the daily rotating menu, whether it’s a twist on gyeran-jjim (steamed eggs) or mung bean pancakes with kimchi. There’s also plenty of seasonal seafood and hand rolls, with influences from Korea to Japan and beyond, although those expecting a classic sushi restaurant omakase experience may want to adjust expectations. Like the backyard garden discoveries of his youth, Hong — who is now a James Beard Award semifinalist — aims to dig deeper to delight and surprise those who sample his food, and has created a place where patience is rewarded.
It actually may take a few tries to get a seat at the tiny, eight-person counter, which was Eater Seattle’s 2019 Daytime Destination of the Year. There is no website or any online reservation system at all — just a daily sign-up sheet at the location in Chophouse Row for three lunchtime seatings available around 8:30 a.m. (once the sheet is full, that’s it). Hong and his wife Erin, who manages the day-to-day operations, hope that this will encourage more neighborhood locals to become regulars, rather than rely on one-and-done tourists. They also encourage people to dine solo, since part of the overall experience is how easily Hong engages everyone with friendly banter, whether it’s relating tales from his travels or the latest movies he’s seen.
In fact, Hong is a huge film buff, and loves to chat about the movies he grew up with, from “Conan the Barbarian” to “Troop Beverly Hills” to “Stand By Me” (which helped him learn English after being raised by his primarily Korean and Japanese-speaking grandmother). He was enthralled with the Academy Award-winning “Parasite,” and recently whipped up a course influenced by the famous ram-don (jjapaguri) dish from the movie, which was essentially high-end beef with a mix of instant Korean noodles.
Hong appreciates that dish’s sly signal to the class tensions in “Parasite,” especially since he recognizes that his own path to becoming a chef was “more blue collar.” It was a way to pay the bills at first, before he started building his name in Seattle. The early days of By Tae developed as a pop-up at chef Bryan Jarr’s celebrated Pike Place Market spot JarrBar, and it grew a following from there. He and Erin met while working for renowned chef Matt Dillon, even putting in some time on the James Beard Award-winner’s Vashon Island farm picking berries and other produce, some for ferments — finding a way to get in touch with the earth, just as Hong learned from his grandmother.
That connection to ingredients carried over to By Tae. The counter is as much about mood and emotions as it is about what’s in season. If Hong is missing Southern California, he’ll find a way to get more citrus into the menu with Meyer lemons, and make an avocado mousse to go along with a certain dish. If he feels nostalgia over his grandmother’s favorite foods, diners may find crab in the mix. The pacing of the omakase (at a wallet-friendly $30 per person) is leisurely, and fits Hong’s personality well. “This restaurant is about getting to know each other,” he says. “Part of that is sharing my food.”
That philosophy at By Tae won’t change with any additional accolades. There won’t be a new online reservation system, or efforts at expansion in 2020 (although there will be some more grab-to-go items, as there have always been, when the weather warms up). Hong doesn’t get caught up in hype, and didn’t even find out about his James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Best Chef Northwest and Pacific until a friend had messaged him about it. And that Eater tomato can award got lovingly turned into a sauce right away to complement a mentaiko pasta dish. The resourceful Hong was grateful to have something else to create with, to try something new and suit his whims.
“You remember all the things you ate in your life that influenced you, but then you bring it back home,” he says. “This place is not about me. It’s about honoring the past and looking to the future.”