Down the Rabbit Hole

A little bit of everything, and then some, in the International District.

Amid multiple "Garden"-themed restaurants in the International District is a cafe quickly becoming well known among lunch goers, late-night karaoke stars, and kitsch seekers. Finding the Purple Dot can be tricky if you don't have friends like mine, the kind who make 2 a.m. weekend pit stops for congee, dumplings, and spicy Mongolian beef. The cafe opened in late November 2004, and has been renovated since to intriguing effect: from the purple confetti'd carpet and the daisy and gingham tablecloths to the blue-lit silver cubes cut out of the gold and purple walls, the Purple Dot's internal atmosphere is markedly louder than the side street it sits on. A swirling facade of brushed silver slices the restaurant in half; window cutouts let you peek at the diners and aquariums on the other side. The decor is something else, all right, but the menu at Purple Dot is really a trip, with 186 unique choices from categories like "rice," "noodles," and "snacks," where French toast mixes it up with Cajun chicken wings and something called "beef internal delicacies." There's even an "as you like" section where you have the opportunity to pair macaroni, vermicelli, or instant noodles with luncheon meat, curry fish balls, and pan-fried eggs. Whoa. Weirdly Westernized cuisines like Purple Dot's are sometimes called Macao-style fusion, after the blend of Cantonese, Portuguese, and European flavors popular in that peninsula community. Our first visit was for a late dinner at around 10 p.m. Green tea served customarily in lieu of water warmed us while we waded through the appetizer menu, deciding on a generous portion of seared pot stickers (eight for $6.50). The house special fried rice ($10.95), recommended by the server, was a delicious scatter of vegetables, egg, pork, and shrimp; Szechuan-style chicken with black pepper sauce ($9.25) was pleasingly spicy and even better. A couple of "exotic cold drinks" ($3.50 each)—"passionate love" with pineapple juice, strawberry, and milk, and "magic ocean," made with pineapple, Sprite, coconut jelly, and blue Curacao—hit the spot for post-dinner relaxing. Purple Dot serves dim sum around noon, but when we returned the next day at 2 p.m. the full menu was back in effect. In his clean suit, the efficient manager/host was back in full effect, too; seemingly unchanged in the last 12 hours. Two deep-fried egg rolls ($2.25) filled with shrimp were dunked in an especially tangy sweet-and-sour sauce as my companion asked me to order another "passionate love" for him, too embarrassed to request it himself. After a short wait, his mountainous portion of house special fried noodles ($8.50) arrived in a glass pie dish. The piles of crispy chow mein noodles, topped with Chinese cabbage, carrots, squid, and mushrooms, were, like almost everything else in this place, endearingly over the top. The vegetables seemed exaggerated versions of themselves, plump and huge, like the tears streaming down the face of the lovesick Asian pop singer on a nearby TV. I'd ordered a Japanese-style chicken fillet ($8.95) from under the "Hong Kong Style Steaks" header out of sheer absurdist curiosity. The chicken was served with a choice of seven sauces—garlic, cream of mushroom, and wine among them, but I chose teriyaki. I was also offered spaghetti, rice, or French fries; I went with the noodles, and had no idea how it would all turn out. When it arrived, my massive plate contained three fillets, smeared with a garlic–mustard seed sauce (delectable, and I hate mustard!), a heap of plain spaghetti, a sauce dish filled with what looked and tasted like regular brown gravy instead of teriyaki sauce, some random cauliflower and zucchini, and a steak knife. Wondering whether I should dip pieces of the fillet in the sauce or mix it all in with the spaghetti, I tried it both ways and got a tasty mess. Often inclined to stick with favorites when eating in the I.D., I'd tried, in my humble way, to be as adventurous as Purple Dot is. Next time, maybe I'll go for the fish maw soup . . . or the chicken in tomato and shrimp cream sauce over fried rice. International District? I'll say. Purple Dot Cafe, 515 Maynard Ave. S., 206-622-0288. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT. 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 9 a.m.–3:30 a.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.–3:30 a.m. Sat.; 10 a.m.–11 p.m. Sun.

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