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West Seattle Without a Passport

By Ronald Holden

You take the Harbor Avenue exit off the West Seattle bridge, before the divided highway heads off across the hill and down the other side to the Vashon ferry. There's no toll plaza, no passport control, no immigration office, but you're in another country nonetheless, for West Seattle is not your ordinary neighborhood. Downtown is in the distance, a skyline with the Space Needle off to the left, looking almost shy; the massed skyscrapers of the downtown core, flanked by Seattle's Great Wheel and the neon ribs that light up the Clink. It's a great view, make no mistake, and it feels a little like you've taken a boat ride to the Statue of Liberty.

In fact, if all you're going to do is have lunch at the pier, don't even drive. Just walk onto the West Seattle Water Taxi at the Colman Dock, fork over a five-spot, and in 15 minutes you'll be at Seacrest Dock, a great jumping-off spot for hikes around this new country. There's a fine little restaurant here, Marination Ma Kai, from the folks who also operate Marination Station on Capitol Hill and whose big blue Marination Mobile turns up at various downtown locations. Ma Kai translates as "by the sea," and the food is described as "Hawaiian-Korean," a mashup that tastes better than it sounds. The base is mildly smoky barbecued pork. Tacos, sliders, kim-chi fried rice (there's the Korean). The Hawaiian classic Loco Moco turns up (ground beef patty, white rice, beef gravy, and two fried eggs). Fish tacos, fish & chips, a pork katsu sandwich, a "sunrise burrito." It's very high quality picnic food, well executed, and served with grace and charm. Come in the afternoon and enjoy happy hour prices from the full bar. Try the Lilikoi Negroni if you like the idea of your Campari fighting with passion fruit.

Fish taco at Marination Ma Kai

Then again, you don't have to take the water taxi; you can cross the bridge in a car, and follow Harbor all the way around to Alki Beach. Plenty of stalwart favorites await you: La Rustica, Phoenicia, Duke's. Chef Andy Dekle took over from Jef Fike last year and renamed Cassis as Marée. There's a plinth across the street to mark the official birthplace of Seattle and honoring Chief Sealth,

But we're not going to Alki; we're going to Admiral. From Marination Ma Kai, head up the slope along California Avenue to the Admiral district at the top of the hill. (There's another fine panorama from Hamilton Viewpoint Park.) The Angelina's on California Avenue, just up the street from the Admiral Theater, closed last year; it had been a great neighborhood hangout, originally built by Dany Mitchell (Mitchelli's, in Pioneer Square) for less than $90,000. Then Rebecca (Becky) Rice, a former manager at Neumo's who'd been eyeing the spot (she was working next door at the Copper Coin) took it over and named it Arthur's Breakfast-to-Bar. With her business partner, Sara Levin, she swung into action. Rice built the white tile wall in the bar herself. "I thought it would take a day, but it took five."

Becky Rice at Arthur's

There's a strong Down Under vibe to the menu; the most popular breakfast, Rice reports, is the $13 Full Aussie (eggs over easy with sourdough, bacon, seared tomato). Chicken with green lentils was a big hit, and ("being Australian") she personally loves the grilled lamb loin. One item that didn't fly during the soft opening: chia seed pudding. But house-made granola remains, as does smoked trout, and a forager's rösti (potatoes, pumpkin puree, mushrooms, spinach, walnuts, topped with a poached egg).

Down the street, at the newly opened Raccolto, we find our old friend Brian Clevenger, an Anacortes native and Ethan Stowell alum, whose culinary skills we described in these columns just over a year ago. That was for his first restaurant, Vendemmia, in Madrona. Raccolto is his second, and follows the same business model: handmade pasta, Italian-style cuisine, neighborhood vibe. "We don't over-complicate things," is his motto.

Raccolto's menu includes half a dozen pastas (cavatelli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, strozzapreti, bucatini). A steak, a fish, a pork chop. To execute all this requires the attention of a full-time chef, and Clevenger has expanded yet again, to the Ernest Loves Agnes space on Capitol Hill, so he needed an experienced hand in the kitchen. That would be Jason Brzozowy, longtime right hand to chef Maria Hines (Tilth, Young American Ale House, Agrodolce). Clevenger lives in West Seattle, so he's able to drop by fairly often; he also has a fine GM in Cameron Williams to make sure things run smoothly.

What a pleasure to find, on the corner of 42nd and California, a quiet, unpretentious, modestly priced tapas bar. The flavors are Spanish and Moroccan, with dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) and maakooda potato cakes, cumin beet salad, and lamb meshwi. The flavors seemed a bit tentative, as if Morocco were some far-off place. But of course, it is far away, a land of enchantment in the African desert some 6,000 miles away. Unlike other Moroccan outposts in Seattle, they don't make you sit on cushions at Itto's, and they don't play bouzouki music while a belly dancer writhes past, snapping her finger cymbals. Here you get a list of saffron- or ginger-infused tequilas, as well as a list of Spanish, Moroccan, and Turkish wines at reasonable prices; bottles are half-off on Sundays and Mondays. The owner is Khalid Agour, a Seattle restaurant veteran, who named the restaurant after his late mother. Happy to report that her hospitable spirit lives on.

Sad but heartwarming West Seattle story. New Leaf, a two-year-old restaurant on California Avenue, was operated by a Vietnamese couple, Geoffrey Ly and his wife, Shi Qiu Chen. They did a good takeout business, and were getting known for their pho. Then, early this year, Ly felt unwell and went to the hospital. The diagnosis was cancer, and it was already too late to save him. That's the sad part. The good news is that Dan Austin, owner of Peel & Press (a pizza and natural juice restaurant) in Morgan Junction, had founded an organization called the West Seattle Restaurant Coalition (two dozen members) to work on political and community service issues. A friend of the family organized a fund drive to pay funeral expenses; Austin's group organized a separate fund-raiser to assist the family. "It's a pleasure and a joy to be able to give back," he said.

Pho at New Leaf

Well, we're not done with West Seattle just yet. Next month, we'll talk about more new restaurants; fortunately, we had our passport stamped with a 60-day visa.

Photos by Ronald Holden

April 2017


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


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