It's so easy with little people around to fall into the rut of mac-and-cheese, quesadillas, fish sticks – the easy stuff, the guaranteed hits. But like many parents, we're trying to expose our toddler to foods with a variety of flavors and textures.
So when time allows, we're happy to grab a bib and head out to one of our favorite dining spots, Shanghai Garden. It's in the International District, kitty-corner from Uwajimaya and a couple of doors down from a place with chicken feet heaped in the window (we're seeking culinary adventure, but those claws are a few steps beyond my own comfort zone).
There are no paper menus or crayons to mark Shanghai Garden as officially kid friendly, but we've found it welcoming and entertaining to our daughter on repeat trips.
The food comes quickly and a stroll over to the restaurant's large salt-water fish tank makes the time pass even faster. Clown fish (think Finding Nemo) and vibrant blue and yellow tangs swim in and around rocks. The buzz and energy coming from the customers and staff bustling in and out of the kitchen provides needed punctuations of distraction throughout the meal.
Once the food arrives, it's an eye-catching assortment. At a recent lunch, our toddler was quick to grab a chopstick and poke it into a mound of fried rice, fishing for grains. A lot of the food can be eaten by hand or twirled around a chopstick, but it's not a bad idea to bring a kid-size spoon.
Eggs are a staple in our daughter's diet, and she was happy to eat them mixed into various Chinese dishes including fried rice and mushu pork. She was also game for the healthier, nuttier brown fried rice with veggies. Another favorite was the hand-shaved barley-green noodles, one of the restaurant's specialties. The noodles are thick and chewy, and sliced water chestnuts make for contrastingly crunchy bites.
The crispy chicken in sweet chili sauce – fried nuggets of sticky chicken-y goodness – is probably too spicy for most young palates, but our toddler was happy to eat the steamed broccoli garnish. The menu includes a steamed chicken dish that would be kinder to kiddos. The sautéed sugar pea vines are another delicious specialty of Shanghai Garden, but take a bit of work to cut into smaller-size bites.
And if that's not enough, there's always the much-anticipated finale: the pile of fortune cookies that come with the bill.
IF YOU GO
Where: International District, 524 6th Ave. S., Seattle.
When: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Cost: Entrees from $9-$15, with seafood dishes costing more.
Contact: 206-625-1688; www.urbanspoon.com/r/1/3913/restaurant/International-District/Shanghai-Garden-Seattle.
Lisa Stiffler is a writer and the mother of one little adventurous eater.