Mystery Shrimp


What’s shrimpy, spicy, saucy, and sassy all over? The “spicy shrimp plate” at Bongos restaurant in the Phinney Ridge area near Seattle. It seriously slaps. I can’t get it off my mind, ever, and I’m determined to make it at home.

This restaurant is within walking distance of the Woodland Park Zoo. It’s a bit of a hike down steep sidewalks and back up again (welcome to Seattle), but it’s worth it to sit in a colorful patio and eat some of the best food to ever come out of a converted gas station.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the zoo. It’s a great time when we’re there, but the minute we step inside the gates, I want Nate and Alex to hurry up, so we can get over to Bongos before there’s a crowd. At the zoo, I love to see the penguins and the flamingos, but they just remind me of shrimp. So do the birds, lions, gorillas, and zebras.

So when we finally arrive, and the food’s ready, I usually just inhale the whole spicy shrimp plate without stopping. However, last Sunday, when we were there, I had a different strategy in mind: I would eat slowly and ask myself, “What’s in this? What makes it so good?” I also decided to pass along some of the sauce to Alex because he’s really good at identifying spices and ingredients in things. If I were to pass some of the sauce on to Nate, he’d say, “Yeah. It’s good. It’s shrimp.” Or: “Yeah. It’s good. I have no idea what’s in it.”

But Alex—Alex will actually try. So we played a game of “What’s in this shrimp?” It quickly became of game of “What’s NOT in this shrimp?”

Here’s what we’ve determined is not in the shrimp:




–Bell peppers

Here are the things we think are in the shrimp:

–Maybe a hint of pineapple.

–Maybe a hint of fresh ginger.

–Definitely hot peppers—maybe habanero?

–Some kind of dried spice—maybe oregano? Thyme?

–Those flecks you see on the shrimp in the picture for this post could be black pepper, but Alex and I think it’s one of the ingredients above. The flecks don’t look like ground black pepper up close. In the picture they do, but in person, not so much.

–There’s got to be garlic in there somewhere as well.

–Lots of oil.

–Very little salt, if any. The shrimp may be salty enough on their own.

The sauce is also very smooth. Nothing seems to be chopped up and sautéed in it, so that led Alex to raid the spice drawer when we got home. He mixed together paprika, cayenne, and garlic powder to see if we could get the base for the sauce.

That mixture did not taste anything like the shrimp we ate. We didn’t really notice any powdered substances in the shrimp sauce, so we determined that the sauce was maybe more of a pressed “juice.” Or, it came from a bottle? Did the cooks buy the sauce? I’ve tried all kinds of recipes on the internet before, but nothing matches the sauce for the shrimp at Bongos. I’ve just been so spectacularly disappointed by the recipes I’ve found.

So, out of desperation, I pulled out the sriracha sauce from the refrigerator and took a taste. It was close in texture, and it lacked tomato, which is exactly what the shrimp in the restaurant lacked, so it was similar, but not the same.

From our experiment, then, Alex and I came to the following conclusions:

–The sauce is probably made from fresh spicy peppers—perhaps a variety—that have been pressed in a juicer.

–A smidge of pineapple juice might be in there, along with the juice of some fresh ginger.

–Some thyme or oregano is added to the sauce, along with maybe a pinch of salt.

–The shrimp are sautéed in oil and then finished off with the sauce.

In any case, we haven’t tested out our theory yet, but I can’t wait to get a juicer and try. Oh, the mess we’ll make in the kitchen! All those little shrimps, curled up like pink flamingos with their heads tucked into their wings, are in for a saucy surprise.

Your Turn: Have you ever tried to replicate a favorite meal at home? Did you succeed?

33 thoughts on “Mystery Shrimp

  1. Just s thought, there COULD have been chunky stuff in the sauce that was later strained out… think a long-term cook on some of the ingredients above. Long cooking also makes things like onions and garlic become nothing but flavor.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes I’ve tried to play food detective like that but not too successfully, usually I go through recipes online until I hit one that sounds like a match. That shrimp sounds great, good luck with the quest!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Years ago I bought something called a Juan Dog from a street vendor – it was a hot dog wrapped in a tortilla with some special sauce. It was delish. I did attempt to make it at home because I was a single mom and it was a cheap meal. My kids were not impressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I saw the title of your post come across my email, I thought it was going to be about the provenance of said shrimp, in which case, “mystery” and “shrimp” should not go together.

    I’m still trying to replicate the Sloppy Joes the School Lunch Ladies made when I was in the seventh grade. No luck so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve tried; however, I have fairly blunt senses of taste and smell, so my ability to discriminate is limited. Rather than trying to work out the ingredients by taste, I look up the sauce or dish, look at a few different recipes, and work out if I can do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So far, nothing I’ve found on the internet matches. I did try to ask the restaurant for the recipe–but, as you can probably guess, it’s a well-guarded secret. For good reason. I will have to keep going back to sample.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, first things first, the shrimp looks deliciously juicy! Second, I actually learned to cook spaghetti carbonara because dad and I were always sort of disappointed at the ones we had at restaurants. Now joke’s on me, I have to cook it a lot, especially when we have guests. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello.
    This article about the “spicy shrimp plate” at Bongos restaurant is making my mouth water! The author’s determination to replicate the dish at home is inspiring, and their experimentation with ingredients is fun to read. I can’t wait to see if they are able to recreate the dish successfully.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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