I volunteered to give up eating burgers this summer because I consumed far too many on our last road trip through the US two years ago, and because often, they’re just not that good. They’re overcooked until they resemble hockey pucks, or they’re served with limp lettuce or overly membrane-y onion slices, they’re on Goldilocks-like, ill-fitting buns, and they’re almost never the right temperature. There are a lot of things, it seems, that can go wrong with preparing a burger. And here I thought I was ordering something everyone knew how to make.
So we said we’d forgo the burgers on this go-round, and I found myself eating a lot of chef’s salads, even though one table of manly men in South Dakota looked at me like I was nuts, or on a dare—something. Why is that big guy eating a pile of lettuce, they looked like they wanted to ask. I wasn’t about to elaborate, because really, where does the story end? It would be like unraveling a sweater on a slippy slope way over the line.
August rolled around and our vacation was over, noted with distinction by the piles of boxes we unpacked in our new but temporary digs. Nobody knows what to call this neighborhood. Owners of several real estate developers are trying to establish the “South Lake Union” moniker, but old-looking signs dotting the streets around here call it the “Cascade neighborhood,” and some of the folks who have lived here a while and I’m not talking about the ones who live in the lofts that supposedly promote creativity, they simply call it “Eastlake.” Thus I have no earthy idea where we live, except to say that we’re in Seattle proper. And there is a big highway right next to us, so as a fan of white noise, it’s close to perfect over here.
One of the things I wanted to do when we showed up in la citie grande was find some good places to eat. After all, in Walla Walla, if one craves Indian cuisine, one needs to master cooking it oneself or make friends with a fine lady named Shampa. There may be some Chinese restaurants in town, but locals will tell newcomers right away that they should never, never eat there. Two restaurants of Thai persuasion are available, but neither of them provide good service or, for that matter, great Thai. So now that we have access to places that make belly-filling Ethiopian, luscious and spicy Nepalese, or experimental gastronomy items, we figured we should try them out.
Because Susanne had been there once before, several years ago, we went to Baguette Box on Capitol Hill with a friend from out of town, and it was lovely. A small space, very casual but still in the universe of “bistro,” they proclaimed their love of grass-fed, organic meats but also offered vegetarian sandwiches. Most things except the frites and the beet salad came on fresh, still-warm baguette, so thank god they believe in truth in advertising. Although they were busy we received our sandwiches quickly: lamb with cucumber yogurt sauce, pork belly with cilantro and hoisin, and pork loin with carmelized onions and apricot aioli. All were thoroughly delicious, cooked perfectly, and decadent. We also ordered the beet salad and the frites. As far as French-style, shoestring fries go, these were crispy and tender. The beet salad, on the other hand, was pedestrian and lacking the same interesting flavor combinations of the sandwiches. We will definitely return for more. I’m eying the drunken chicken sandwich and the eggplant and feta. (Baguette Box, 1203 Pine Street, 206.332.0220)
Last week I went with Susanne to Blue Moon Burgers, over near our place, just off of Fairmont Avenue. If we were going to have burgers again, we wanted it to be in a place that made them their core business. Friendly atmosphere, boasting of meat from Walla Walla’s own Thundering Hooves ranch—more sustainable and organic goods. I don’t quite bristle at the thought that I had to drive 230 miles for these burgers but hey, I shop direct at their store on East Isaacs when I’m living in Wallyworld, so it’s okay. And I’m glad to see other folks in the Northwest seek them out. It’s one thing to read about it in the Thundering Hooves newsletter, but another thing entirely to watch it in action. Exciting stuff! Burgers is a broader category here than just ground beef; Blue Moon Burgers also features vegetarian and vegan patties, turkey, and the very Seattle salmon burger. Also, they have gluten-free buns, and since I know no fewer than five people with gluten allergies, I’m glad to see this little accommodation for them.
Problem was, it took us 50 minutes to get our food. Blue Moon has a order-at-the-counter-we’ll-bring-it-to-you business model, in which patrons pick up a number to set on their table while they wait. Drinks are self-serve. This means that we were on our 2.5th serving of root beer by the time the staff came by with our meal. I am not fond of this serving method to begin with, as the wait staff don’t know in advance where on has ventured, and so must spend some amount of time, bordering on copious, assessing one’s location. It seems wildly inefficient to me, and yet I encounter the practice more and more often.
So, for the burgers. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Susanne got a burger with blue cheese. We got a combo order of onion rings and fries to share. By the time our food reached us (other patrons were complaining at their tables, too) the fries were entering tepid stage, but these were made warm by the two onion rings placed lovingly on top. Seriously? Two onion rings? That’s a combo? Our gluten-riddled buns had been over heated on the bottom so that they were semi-stale, and they were way bigger than the burgers inside. Picture a lone toddler in a kid’s public pool. Neither burger had been cooked to order, but otherwise they were tasty, but to risk sounding like an ass, I chalk that up more to Thundering Hooves than anything that occurred in the kitchen. Truth be told the burger needed to be amazing to justify the near-hour wait, and it wasn’t anywhere near amazing. Susanne says she plans to go back because it was clear they were understaffed, but money is tight for us, so when I go out I want to feel like it was worth parting with the bills in my wallet. One solution: they have online ordering, so burgers are ready for a later pick up. (Blue Moon Burgers, 2 locations, 206.652.0400)
Walla Walla, fortunately for them, has a mom and pop doughnut shop, called Popular Donuts, which is one street over from Poplar Street. Hence, everyone calls it Poplar Donuts and as people who know me can imagine, this drives me nuts. Nobody gets “public” and “pubic” wrong, do they? As it happens, they’re really good doughnuts, and they’re old school. No gimmicks, no fancy flavors, no branding, just good confections and seriously tasty, cheap coffee. There are always a couple of older people on the six seats inside talking about Very Important Matters, and I’ve realized over the years that their presence indicates good, affordable food.
Out here in the Emerald City are several different doughnut-creating operations, one of them being Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts. They seem to be venturing into ubiquitous territory, with locations at Qwest Field, and other stadiums, designated official doughnut of the Seahawks and Sooners (take that, Redskins!), and having signed some new agreement with Starbucks. Starbucks, people. That’s pretty big time, I suppose, in the hole-in cake world.
We walked over to the location by the monorail (still ferrying 30 people a day since the 1964 World’s Fare, folks, get your ticket today) and sampled four doughnuts: glazed chocolate cake, double chocolate, chocolate glazed cruller, and my all-time, number-one favorite doughnut, the Boston cream. I held off on the cream until last, like hoping for a big climax to a fireworks show. I should say here that all of the service staff at these places are ridiculously friendly, even as they’re serving hour-late burgers. The doughnuts were delightful. Hot damn, they were very good. The old fashioned, cakey doughnuts had a bit of nutmeg in them and even a hint of lemon extract, a detail that we appreciated. But the Boston cream stole the whole show. Yeasted unbelievably well, it defied descriptions of its texture. It was buttery, light, but dense next to the Bavarian cream, moist, vanilla-infused, it was amazing. The chocolate sauce wasn’t a careless artifact from a Hershey’s bottle, but also nuanced and almost a little nutty. And the cream was thick, mouth-coating, and really fresh, a great friend to the other parts of the doughnut. I was also happy, at least initially, to see how much was inside the cake; no skimping going on at Top Pot.
We suffered a tremendous sugar-crash after our walk home. So I recommend not eating two in one sitting. But we’ll be back for more nibbles, I’m sure. (Top Pot Doughnuts, several locations, downtown phone 206.728.1966)
Need I say how grateful we are to be in Seattle? There are a lot more places to check out and people to meet. And even so, we’re definitely missing our friends in DC and Walla Walla.