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Café to Café



By Ronald Holden

As humans, some of us have evolved with highly developed senses. Females of the species, typically, are finely tuned to nuances of taste and smell to detect poisons in food; males are more visual, to recognize signs of outsiders. Is that milk too sour? Is that nostril too flared? Fortunately, we've evolved enough (in stable, prosperous cultures) to accept pungent aromas in our food and a variety of skin tones in our fellows.

We may cringe at the notion of calling Seattle's historic ghetto for Asian citizens "Chinatown," but nowhere is the challenge of cultural diversity more apparent than in the hub of immigration and innovation that Seattle calls South Lake Union (photo). In less than a generation, it has gone from wasteland to metropolis, from backwater to vibrant forum.

What happens inside the shiny new buildings is an encrypted mystery protected by non-disclosure agreements, but what happens on the street, well, that's public and exciting. There are dozens and dozens of new restaurants in this neighborhood; we'll take a brief look at three of them.

For the purpose of this article, let's draw a line around "South Lake Union." Dexter on the west, Lakeview/Eastlake to the east. Mercer to the north, Denny to the south. That leaves out all the restaurants actually on the lake, and a stretch of worthy spots between the downtown core and Denny: Circadia, and the "Westlake Four" (Barolo, Cinque Terre, Butcher's Table, Mistral); each one merits a standalone review.

Re:Public and Serious Pie have been around for a while, as have Flying Fish, Portage Bay Cafe, Row House, and Blue Moon burgers. Other ethnic outposts have been here since the beginning. Feierabend opened in 2006, Cuoco in 2011, Rigoletto in 2014. Four very traditional spots seem to be thriving: Bravehorse Tavern (Tom Douglas's early foray into SLU), Cactus (locally owned with a Mexican theme; the Chatalas brothers also have four other stores); and two run-of-the-mill beer & burger bars, Sam's Tavern, and Canadian import Local Public Eatery (same ownership as JOEY in U Village).

So, let's look at a couple of ventures that are clearly aimed at the "quick & cheap" crowd of mid-day tech workers.

Hurry Curry of Tokyo (825 Harrison St) is a chain whose first US outpost was Los Angeles, bringing the Japanese fondness for breaded cutlets and cultural mashups to the US. Why? Well, the former CEO of the Port of Seattle, Tay Yoshitani, liked the concept (good, fast, inexpensive) when he came across it in Japan; when he retired, he opened a second shop in SLU.

Certainly was fast; I had barely filled my water glass and found a table when the waitress came by with a tray: the chicken cutlet and white rice, a simple salad, and a big bowl of medium-spice curry. And good! If it's a "real" Wiener schnitzel you're after, you could head to the Queen Anne Beer Hall about a mile to the west, where it'll set you back $19 (and it's German, with potato salad). Here it's $13.

Photo by Ronald Holden

And there's Naanz, a fast-casual concept at 1256 Republican St., serving up Indian food. It's similar to Chipotle, in that you're getting a custom-assembled plate of steam-table food. You pick a base: a traditional rice bowl, or a bed of salad greens, or a naan wrapper. The counter person tops this with chicken, lamb, cheese (paneer) or vegetables. Then comes a generous ladle of curry: tikka (mild tomato), vindaloo (spicy tomato), daal (stewed lentils), or saag (spinach-coconut). But you're not done yet. They also garnish your dish with up to nine chutneys and toppings, from yogurt raita to avocado and hummus. There are a couple of tandoori ovens on-site where the food is prepared. Everything tasted a bit sour and under-seasoned (the salt shaker helped). I would have welcomed some additional condiments but the price, at ten bucks, was more than reasonable. Truth be told, next time I'm down this way, I'll stop in at Bar Harbor instead, in the 400 Fairview Building. If it's too early for the spectacular rooftop bar, I'll have a lobster roll at Bar Harbor in the lobby, even if it is $20.

Photo by Ronald Holden

Finally, Ba Bar's SLU outpost at 500 Terry Ave. N. Full-serve, sit-down, upscale street food. A real restaurant and a whole different world. No newfangled techno-glitz here; this story goes back four decades.

After the fall of Saigon in 1974, tens of thousands of Vietnamese citizens who had worked with the American forces were flown to the US, and herded into Camp Pendleton, California. California's governor put out a call for other states to help, and Washington responded. Today, no surprise, Seattle is home to the third-largest Vietnamese community in the nation, Vietnamese is the most-widely spoken foreign language in the city, and there are more phở parlors than Starbucks. Or pizza places, for that matter. On rainy winter days, it seems our town was made for soup, especially phở. Not so easy is reproducing the Vietnamese character for the horn-and-hook letter o. The diacriticals that mean you say fuh, not foe.

One of the arrivals, in 1978, was young Eric Banh, who first settled in Canada with his sister Sophie. In Seattle, Eric started Baguette Box (sandwiches), then Sophie joined him to open Monsoon (upscale Asian) followed by the original Ba Bar on Capitol Hill. The sandwich shops were sold, a second Monsoon followed, then a second Ba Bar in South Lake Union. And soon a third, in U Village.

The king of Ba Bar's phở, for me, is made with oxtail, but there's also a Saigon style and a Hanoi style (different chilies, different seasonings). They're all superb, and are now all made with hand-cut noodles, which Eric Banh assures us are fresher, preserving the character and purity of the broth.

Banh Cuon is a Vietnamese rice crêpe filled with ground pork (Carlton Farms) and wood mushrooms, topped with slices of cha lua (Vietnamese ham) garnished with cucumbers and bean sprouts, and a generous sprinkling of the sweet dipping sauce called nuoc cham. An order of three Banh Cuon is $11.50. Perfect for breakfast, but only on weekdays.

Photo by Ronald Holden

And if you're really hard to please, here's something irresistible: the påté chaud. It's a puff pastry filled with savory mixture of pork and caramelized onion, which you should order topped with gravy and a fried egg for maximum nutrition and pleasure. Breakfast or lunch, your call.

March 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.

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