Tag Archives: dining out

Seesawing through Seattle eateries

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.

Interview with Graze

I’ve been curious about the people behind the newer eateries in downtown, so I decided to ask a few of them to give interviews about their lives as business owners, gourmands, and as part of a revitalized, local food community here. Last month, I sat down with the owners of the Colville St. Patisserie; this time around, I talked with the owners of Graze, a sandwich shop overlooking Mill Creek, and a catering business. Becca and John Lastoskie came to Walla Walla in a very food-model way: by sampling towns across the Pacific Northwest for a few days each. After some thought, they realized this was the town for them.

EM: Tell me what drew you each into cooking.

BL: Well. . .

JL: You first.

BL: I was putting myself through school and working at the Olive Garden, and the kinds of friends that I had were really cool, and they were talking about how they were going to go to Paragary’s in Sacramento, and how great it was, and I had no idea what it was. So I went in and applied for a job, and it was this whole, brand new world. I started hostessing and did that to try to get to waiting tables and I bartended for a while. I did that for a long time.

JL: You did that for ten years.

BL: I did that for a long, long time.

JL: Yeah, and I knew nothing about good food. I started working as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant. Went to college, got a degree, and as I was just finishing up college I got a job making French fries, chicken strips, and another cook there said, “my brother works at the best restaurant in Sacramento.” I really liked to cook, but I didn’t know anything about what the food was, or what, but I thought if his brother could get a job, I could get a job, so I met the chef and he asked, “what can you make?” And I said “I can make ranch dressing.” He asked, “how do you make ranch dressing,” and I gave him the recipe for it, half-part buttermilk, half-part mayonnaise, packet. And he was impressed, so he hired me. And I met Becca the first day working there.

EM: Wow. And that’s when you knew this new world of stuff was really interesting?

JL: Yeah, it was like the second week of work at Paragary’s and I had a sandwich with rosemary, pumpernickel, artichoke hearts and other things and I thought this is the best thing I’ve ever had in my life—what did you do? Is there magic dust in it? And from there I just turned to learning.

EM: Okay, so fast forward now to Graze and what’s your vision for your restaurant?

JL: You go first.

BL: Um, boy. Graze is . . .

JL: It’s like counseling, we’ve never done this before.

BL: The sandwich shop is kind of what we always thought it would be. I think the menu could be a little bit bigger, I think there are a few things I would change a little bit, but we’re just starting out having never done this before, but we’re on track with what we envisioned: simple, for people who don’t know much about food, and when they come in, might keep trying something different.

JL: They’ll start with the turkey bacon panini, and then they’ll see something with Béchemel, and say, oh wow, let me try that. Not to try to teach people but to have good, nice, honest food, we should be able to fit all people, have them walk in, want to eat something that’s really good, and I think we’ve kind of hit that whole demographic. When you look around the room, oh, there’s a couple kids who really know what they’re doing, all the way to someone who probably eats Chef Boyardee Stroganoff every night. And they’re equally comfortable ordering off our menu, so I think it’s the one great thing, we can serve all. We get them all. Not enough kids. We see two-year-olds, and then we don’t see them until their teens.

EM: You have some complicated flavor profiles in some of these sandwiches. How did you develop the menu?

JL: How would you know, Everett, you always get the turkey sandwich!

BL: He always gets the turkey sandwich?

EM: No, no, I get other things there.

JL: Turkey sandwich, no tomato. [Ed. note: this is patently untrue.]

BL: I don’t know why people put tomatoes on everything anyway. Even when they’re not in season, when they’re not good.

EM: So tell me, how did you come up with the menu?

BL: Well, we knew we had to have some standard things.

JL: You have to include things that make people feel comfortable.

BL: And then, we love chimchurri sauce, so we put that on. And that’s based on seasons, too; you can always get parsley and cilantro.

JL: Yeah, and the menu actually revolves around the space, because it’s based on a Subway. There’s no stove, there’s no oven, so we looked at the space and said, okay, how do we make this work for fast service, good price, and we developed a menu. A few years ago when we were catering, we thought a good promotional thing would be to go serve something at the farmer’s market. The first week at the farmer’s market, we made Belgian waffles.

BL: Oh my God, it was just bad.

JL: Belgian waffles with raspberries and fresh whipped cream, it’s just heaven when you make them yourself. So, we thought we’d also make panini. Waffle for breakfast, then as the day goes on, panini. Well, I burned one out of three waffles, and I was so angry about it. For every waffle that I gave somebody that they paid for, I was basically giving it to them for free, because I’d burned the previous one and undercooked the second one, and they’re standing there for 15 minutes watching me fumble around with the waffle iron, but the paninis we sold out of those right away. Then I said, okay, we’re going to do paninis, and we sold out again, and so we started serving the turkey bacon panini that we serve here, and five weeks later, we’re selling 120 paninis. So we realized we were on to something. So that’s how the sandwich shop came about. Since we have a catering business there’s no way we’re opening a real restaurant. We’re cautious—you can lose a ton of money opening a restaurant. But that’s the evolution of it.

EM: Why Walla Walla? What is it you think about Walla Walla that’s interesting or a good place to set up shop?

BL: That’s a really good question. (laughs)

JL: It’s a good story. We were living in downtown Sacramento, on the verge of a [bad] neighborhood. In one direction, it was pretty nice, but 180 degrees in the other direction, it just got incredibly bad. Two blocks away were two murders. We decided to move to Portland, and then we started reading this book, called The Next Great Place, about smaller towns with a great quality of life.

EM: Was Walla Walla in that?

BL: No, no. Not at all.

JL: No. Although Walla Walla would probably be in that book if they rewrote it now.

BL: I’d always thought about living in a small town, I’d thought I’d enjoy small town life. Coming from California, it sounded kind of cool. So we thought, okay, we’ll sell our house and we’re gonna move to Portland, so we packed up with our kid who was 17 months old.

JL: We decided, after reading this book—

BL: You didn’t read the book.

JL: Yeah, I did. I read the book. So, we packed up our son, our stray dog, we tried to live in each of the towns on our list for three or four days. It sounds incredible, but we didn’t have a great plan.

BL: And in my mind, we went the wrong direction. We went northeast, to the desert side of the mountains, instead of going up the coast. We went the wrong way. So we made it up to Coeur d’Alene.

JL: So on our list were all the like, small cities and towns—

BL: Bend, Missoula, Boise. . .

JL: And then, when we were in Bend, someone actually said, a young couple with a couple of kids, said, what you’re describing sounds like Walla Walla, you should go there. Okay, so we stopped here on our way to Coeur d’Alene, and after just a couple of days, I was saying to Becca, it’s great, this is the place to come to. She agreed with me. So then we came here, and fought, madly.

BL: And we’d never fought before.

EM: But at that point?

BL: Yeah. Well, not so much a fight, but a discussion about what to do. We wound up going to Portland after our trip, and had a really good coffee. We went to a bookstore, heard some great music, talked about it.

JL: We decided [to] drive back to Walla Walla, spend a couple nights there, and see. We came back, and we stayed. It was completely the right move. If we were going to do anything with food, there were talented people here, didn’t have to spend a lot of money, or need a lot of experience. I was a school teacher in Sacramento, and to move out to Portland or Seattle to set up a shop and get in there was not as appealing.

EM: Are you saying there is something less pressured about Walla Walla?

JL: I looked around and decided, a catering business would work here. It’s way less risky than opening a restaurant. It’s more precision-oriented. At a restaurant, you’re gonna buy a bunch of food and you hope people walk in the door. If people don’t walk in the door, you throw a bunch of food away. So, at the time, nobody in Walla Walla was doing that kind of food in a catering business.

EM: It can be hard to break into a catering market.

JL: It was difficult, yeah. But a lot of interesting things happened and in a couple of years, the catering business—we have turned into a very large caterer, with lots and lots of events, with fairly high quality [food].

EM: Where do you see yourselves with regard to local or organic producers and the market here?

JL: The food costs for the catering business—my costs for the catering business are higher than any other catering business in town. I spend plenty on goods from local farmers. Number one we do everything from scratch. This summer we’ll probably buy 80 percent of our stuff from local farmers. As for the sandwich shop now, pretty much all of our stock is coming from a couple of local farmers. And I’ve told them, you walk in the door with it, we’ll buy it. So, they show up with salad greens, whatever. For summer weddings, I’ll show up at the farmer’s market at 7:30 in the morning and buy five giant boxes of things, fill up the back of the truck, take it to the catering kitchen, prep it, and then we’ll go to the wedding. So we try to have a good relationship with everybody who goes to the farmer’s market. It’s good to be tied to a community. We were asked [to do a May 15 wedding] so we got meat from Thundering Hooves, asparagus from Bonnie, we got milk and cream that we turned into butter from Pure Eire, we got garlic scapes and lettuces, the whole meal was 98 percent local.

BL: So how can you go wrong?

JL: Even being that local, you can get caught forgetting some of the things that are available, so on a menu that you arrange with somebody two months in advance, I show up at the farmer’s market and buy my stuff, and then I see something that would be awesome for today, but I can’t not give them what I promised, so it’s hard. We may show up with a different menu than we drew up! So that’s our relationship with food providers here. The only thing that stinks is that we only have a growing season of 8 months.

EM: Do you have anything you want to share about your next plans? New menu items?

JL: We’re opening three restaurants simultaneously.

BL: John maybe is, his vision is he’d like to open more Graze sandwich shops. Maybe one in Tri-Cities. I’d like to expand Graze here.

JL: The idea was to provide the high quality of food at a lower price with the fast service of a Subway. I want to have one central kitchen that serves a few stores. If we’re talking big picture, we still don’t know what’s really going on, but if [the sandwich shop] does what I think it can do, then the idea of putting up a number of them all in a similar geographic area, servicing from one central kitchen, isn’t crazy. It’s reproducing a whole nother business model. At the heart is the food. And really, I just want to eat nice stuff. I wouldn’t want to sell food if I felt like people weren’t getting a value. If you don’t walk away saying, I’m really glad I had lunch there—I never want anyone to walk away saying I don’t like what they did, because if they did that they wouldn’t want to come back.

EM: Now that summer is upon you, what ingredients are you excited to work with?

JL: I went to see this lady; we have a blog, and we went to Portland, and saw padrone peppers, and we got an email from a woman who said she had a whole back yard full of padrone peppers. I never met her, I don’t know who she is, but I really want someone here to grow padrone peppers. Put the word out, Everett.

EM: Okay!

BL: I’d love to see just basil and tomatoes. They’re just summer to me. I know it’s the same answer anyone would give, but to me, that’s what summer tastes like.

EM: Anything else you want to add?

BL: I’m really glad we’re doing what we’re doing.

Graze’s hours are posted at http://www.grazeevents.com/

For when the snow melts

Maybe it’s cheating a little bit, but here’s a re-post of a restaurant review I wrote a couple of years back (well, 18 months anyway) of a hamburger joint on Capitol Hill in DC. Once people can make it outside their homes and restaurants begin receiving supplies again, feel free to avoid this place.

So we went to check out Spike’s new burger restaurant in Capitol Hill, the Good Stuff Eatery, and the vague name should tell patrons something before they even cross the threshold. For those of you who don’t know who Spike is, I’m not talking about Spike Lee, I’m talking about the former Top Chef contestant from a couple seasons ago who always wore a hat and made it pretty far to the end. He was kind of a card, as portrayed in the show. We were curious to see how his new venture was going, and a little dumbfounded as to why he’d open up a burger joint in a town already replete with them (thinking of the fabulous local 5 Guys chain, Booeymonger, Tonic locations, etc.).

I crutched up to the street with Susanne at about 7 p.m. on a Monday evening. There was a line of about oh, 8-10 people snaking down the sidewalk. Really? I don’t think I’ve seen that in DC except for one truly amazing Mexican place in Adams Morgan, but okay. Come to find out, as we cross the street and head over, there’s actually an Ombudsman standing outside guarding the door. You can see inside the place that there’s plenty of space for us to stand inside (where we will later freeze our asses off), but he’s got us out here. Where everyone can see how “jumping” the place is, we presume. Well, clearly Spike’s got the skill of spinning his reality down pat already, giving evidence that anyone can acclimate to DC standards.

I found a chair at an unused outside table (if it’s so busy, how is it that there are free tables), and sat down, letting the others hold my place in line. About 8 minutes later (oh, counting the minutes, I later realized, would get me nowhere), we were let in to Studio 54 — I mean, to the Good Stuff Eatery. We’d had time to peruse the menu so we knew what we wanted to order. A somewhat eclectic mix of burgers, wedge salads (how strangely out of place for a burger joint), three different styles of fries (featuring the Spike™ name), some milkshake options that looked interesting, and assorted beverages. Yuengling and Blue Moon beer were on tap. We should have, however, stored our selections in long term memory, as we saw that there were 30 or so people ahead of us in line. There were a lot of lines in this place. In solidarity, the lines on my forehead decided to join in, furrowing themselves more permanently onto my face.

I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stand for this whole line, so I asked Susanne to order for me and made my way up the inaccessible stairs to get a table. Because surely with these many people here I’d need to also queue up for a table, right?

Nope. Sure there were people upstairs, but there were tables free. It had the same layout as the Cosi next door, which serves people with much more efficiency and much less fanfare from its staff. Susanne remarked that putting the tables over the frying surfaces downstairs caused the eaters upstairs to start to take on the smell and appearance of fried foods, and she had a point. But I’ll add that with the perfectly frigid temperaturs (I mean seriously, the place wasn’t warmer than 63 degrees), the lipids in the air start to harden and condense, giving everyone the appearance of waxed mannequins, as if Madame Tussaud’s had decided to move 20 blocks over to get a little closer to those other waxed celebrities, I mean, our elected members of Congress, excuse me.

So I waited upstairs for the food to arrive. And waited. And waited. And….

WAITED. No sooner than 48 minutes after we entered the place, Susanne came up with the burgers and fries. I was somewhat astounded. They better be slaughtering steer in the back alley. They better be the best burgers I’ve ever eaten, thick as my ass and juicy, layered with truffle shavings, some kind of nearly extinct mushroom, and quail eggs.

Wait for it.

I had ordered a turkey burger, thinking back to the three burgers I’d had earlier in the week. One was an undercooked beef burger from Mr. Henry’s (I mean, I don’t expect much from them, so no biggie), one was from a Wendy’s drivethrough (see above), and one was up in Baltimore for lunch at Pebble’s Diner. Surely this burger, this 48-minutes-in-preparation burger would put all of them to shame.

Mushy bun that had done its best to soak up the bloody juices from the half-cooked, thin-as-a-wafer meat (I mean, it looked a little Jennie-O to me), mushy avocado that probably would have been excellent the day before, limp and mushy lettuce, and a variety of sauces that seemed to act as a pre-stomach-acid food liquification system, which served to make the texture of the experience particularly disgusting. The fries, on the other hand, were terrific until they cooled down, and then I realized they were over-spiced. The shake was great, little hints of caramel and malt that made my tongue decide mutiny after the burger experience wasn’t really necessary.

Susanne reported that they were charging a 25-cent fee on every order for “environmental processing.” She asked the cashier what this was for. He reported that it was because you know, like, they pay someone to go through their trash to make sure nothing recyclable is being thrown out, and that’s expensive. My god THAT job has to suck nails! She found this an interesting rationale, given that practically everything they handed to us was unrecyclable plastic, and that they didn’t have a “is it for here or take out” option so that folks eating in the restaurant could get reusable utensils or napkins. And at the end of the meal, which was like a blessing from God (that it was over, I mean), a busboy took out trays and dumped everything — including two glass bottles — into the trash can. Good thing someone’s going to comb through it later looking for those bottles! That’s like letting your cat catch the fake mouse every so often so he stays motivated to keep trying. If they’re so into the environment, couldn’t they have at least a couple containers for recycling?

So, all that said, I can’t really recommend the place. If you want an $8 burger, go to a steakhouse and get one. If you want a thinner burger for a better price, stick to the places in town that know how to make them that I mentioned earlier.

Thank God he didn’t win Top Chef.

Licensed to serve

We are vacationing this holiday season-come-semester break at Susanne’s parents house in the “southern thumb” of Michigan. Yes, when you ask a Michigander (it just keeps getting better, doesn’t it) where they’re from, they’ll hold up their hand and point. It’s actually pretty handy [sic]. Every state should look like a limb one could hold up and point to. “I live in the adrenal gland portion of the kidney,” say. Okay, maybe that’s not the best idea ever, especially given Manhattan’s geography.

Anyway, if they’re from somewhere in the vicinity of Detroit, the state’s most populous city, they may say something like “11 Mile,” referring to the regular spate of roads that run parallel to the north boundary, further and further to the top of the hand. Eminem made his 8 Mile movie, everyone already knows, about the area where the suburbs take over—but as far as I know, there are no plans for a “40 Mile” sequel, all about the drama of car parts factories on the outskirts of the dying automobile center. No wait, that was Roger and Me.

After a few days of meals at home, we descended on a local eatery, the Raiders Coney Island. By “we,” I mean me, Susanne, her mom, two brothers, sister-in-law, and their four kids, ranging in age from 2 to 17. It was a little Jon and Kate Plus 8 meets a Top Chef challenge—the elimination kind, not the simple quickfires, either. Taking up three booths in the small eatery, the waitress was a little overwhelmed.

Upon seeing customers who needed her service, she probably would have drawn a sharp intake of breath on a good day, but on this day she had no backup help, either, it being two days after Christmas and the other staff not having the same level of commitment to the family establishment that she did, since it was clearly her family’s establishment. But my immediate concern wasn’t for her ability to take our drink order, it was for the obvious extreme edema she had in her ankles. It was so bad I wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get her feet into her sneakers. My next worry was if her apparently chronic swelling had anything to do with the food in this place. Perhaps I could suck on a gratis lollypop and call that supper.

She slowly made her way to each table, starting with the ones who were already seated before we’d gotten there. Well, slowly isn’t really the right word. She was hurrying in a way that did little to increase her speed in any measurable fashion. Perhaps in an alternate universe we’d eaten already.

Finally she plunked down our menus, and the “raider” concept hit me. They had a knight on a horse, holding a spear, with a weiner at the end. This was the graphical fusion, I supposed, of the raider and Coney Island. Someone should tell the restaurant owners that Coney Island is about to be bulldozed into a suburban-like subdevelopment a la the Goonies. Only instead of pirate treasure maps we have the near-total collapse of the global economy. That’ll slow ’em down. The raider, however, was smiling, so excited about the opportunity for a hot dog that he was obliquely unaware of the doom awaiting the old amusement park.

“Hey, isn’t that the mascot for your old high school,” I asked Susanne. She nodded. “Well, kind of. The real mascot looked more serious.” She paused.

“And there’s no hot dog in the real logo,” she added, just in case I leave this experience wondering why the superintendent of schools thinks it’s okay for the local high school to model such poor food choices to its impressionable students.

I appreciated that they hadn’t stolen the licensed image from the high school, even as they were clearly looking to it as their reference point. I later learned that they regularly give money to the high school, so I suppose they should go ahead an name themselves after the mascot—they’ve earned it.

“So was your school color orange,” I asked, looking at the menu cover. I went to Syracuse University for college, so I’m familiar with the futility of trying to work school-licensed clothes into one’s general wardrobe.

“Orange and black,” she said, knowing full well I’d be shocked. They were always ready for Halloween, I guess.

“My high school was brown and gold,” I said, “so I never thought I’d hear of worse colors than that.” I made famous a short story from my graduation, when one of the girls asked me why the women wore white graduation caps and gowns instead of gold, since the men were wearing chocolate brown, to which I’d remarked, “because they don’t want it to look like a lot of shit and piss out there.”

There is no restaurant, nice or not, in Hamilton, New Jersey, that has my old high school logo on it. Just saying.

The menu was a strange blend of Greek culinary tradition, pub fare, and Johnny Rockets diner food. I still don’t see my beloved pizzaburger outside New Jersey, but I won’t hold it against them. I tried to order the chicken kabobs.

“We don’t have those made up yet,” the salt-retaining waitress told me, as if any minute now, chicken kabobs would be good to go. “But this other chicken meal is the same thing, just not cut up.”

Wondering why cutting the chicken into smaller pieces would mean it would somehow take longer to cook, I saw that this other dinner also came smothered in green peppers, mushrooms, and provolone cheese, most of which are not to be found on Greek-style kabobs. So okay, I went with that, with a little hesitation about when any of this was going to take to arrive at our tables. Every so often she would call out to her mother for help, and I started to wonder if she wasn’t talking to a ghost or an imaginary friend. But finally, Mom showed up, agreeing to help make the four smoothies and milkshakes the kids had ordered. One look at the mother and I was certain their was some family illness with water retention going on here. Why had no one told them to seek medical help for their obvious swelling problems?

The cooks in the back were doing their best impressions of Wilson from Home Improvement, so I couldn’t analyze whether the male members of the family were afflicted with the same disease, but they put the food up on the counter when it was ready and voila, cheese and fungus-covered chicken was at my table. Susanne and I had finished an impromptu game of dots, with her finding the one and two box spots and me mis-selecting a long chain of 16 boxes for her to label. Damn dots game—you always make me pay for slow diner service by showing me what an awful player I am. Maybe I shouldn’t carry a pen with me wherever I go.

Half our orders were wrong—the mother made milkshakes instead of slurpies, which, 50 minutes after walking in, we were happy to drink anyway. Yes, they needed more serving staff. The food was fine though, and cheap, and finally we were back in the car, heading through the Christmas Week night and jazzed up to play some head-to-head solitaire. Maybe, I thought, we should just cook at home.

Your neighborhood restaurant

I say that I lived in DC for 11 years, but really, about half of that time I lived just across the River Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. The southern part of the city was littered with G.I. Bill-era condominiums, depressing in their seemingly unending beige-ness, save the small rectangular swatches of orange, avocado green, or chocolate brown that were strategically affixed to the outside plaster walls. Row upon row of chunky modern buildings stymied many a newcomer who was driving in for some party or other, and who would likely mention, at some point in the evening and against their better judgment, that the roads were confusing. This was really a standby phrase for, “This place sucks,” or “How the hell can you live here,” two questions I heard with some frequency from the people who were closer to me.

Commuting didn’t seem that hard, after all, it was only a bus, generally on time, to the Pentagon Metro station, and then either a 40-minute ride if you took the Blue Line or a 25-minute ride if you caught the Yellow Line, to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, which then gave way to a 10-minute walk. Of course you could forgo the Blue Line train and hope the next one coming was a Yellow Line, but most folks had the same stratergy, and it was challenging to get oneself on the car, as the platform would have swelled with Blue Line eschewing people.

Okay, okay, commuting sucked. At some point Metro installed display screens in all of the stations that broadcast when the next trains would be arriving and which lines they were on. It took away some of the confusion, and a modicum of the stress. Now one didn’t have to hurl themselves into a train car so much as stand right on the edge of the track and sneak their way onto the car. This did draw the risk that the driver, seeing people too close to the precipice, would honk the horn, which meant that one was startled and had to cling onto the next neurotic to avoid accidentally falling onto the tracks. And it did occur to me that though I feared not making a train, I never actually saw anyone who wanted on a train not make it, unless they hadn’t reached the platform by the time the train had pulled in. Those drivers didn’t wait around for the sun to rise.

So living in Virginia, I didn’t really feel any less of a city person, because Arlington was about as urban as DC. With some major differences.

DC didn’t have chain restaurants. Not a one that I could think of. Now then, for purposes of this discussion, we’re not talking $5 Foot Long Subway or Wendy’s, although both of them serve things that sometimes resemble food. We’re talking sit down, has a menu you can hold, has waitstaff service restaurant. There are no Ruby Tuesday’s in the District of Columbia. There is a TGIFriday’s, in the aforementioned Foggy Bottom (which is one of the most fun to say places ever, right after Virginville, PA), but other than that, the only real chain entities are the ones that specifically cater to large groups, like Buco di Beppi and The Cheesecake Factory, the latter of which is so close to the Maryland border that it barely counts as “in” the District. For the most part, DC has independent, one-of-a-kind restaurants, which I’ve always loved about the place.

Not all the residents feel this way, however. I was shocked when I heard a friend ask if, when we were planning a dinner date, please, could we maybe possibly go to the Olive Garden in Virginia? The what? The place with the never ending bowl of limp overdressed salad and spongy baguettes? Where you can practically still see the tin foil on the entrees from where they peeled off the top of the frozen dinner? Surely they were jesting.

They were dead serious. After that first terrifying request, I was more jaded to the rest, but faithfully, I would honor my friends’ wishes because I was sure they’d honor mine when I wanted to partake of Ella’s wood fired pizza, pick through a still-hot plate of real paella at my favorite tapas bar, or break through steamed crabs at Eat First in Chinatown. Hindsight shows that I was the more flexible among most of my friends, but I always thought it was amazing that with such good, affordable options in the city they wanted to hop into my SUV and get some pre-cooked crap at Ruby’s or worse, Old Country Buffet. After eating there a couple of times, I begged not to have to go there anymore. That stuff was just toxic to me. I think I’ve had nightmares about their pink-frosted sponge cake and overcooked buffalo wings.

Here in Walla Walla, we don’t have any chain restaurants. In the next town over there’s an Applebee’s, which I’ve never been to, and probably never will, even if I wind up living here for 20 years. (Note to the universe: that is not your cue to get me to live here for 20 years, okay? Thank you.)

But nobody, and I mean nobody, has suggested I eat there, or said anything approximating a request to go there for some patty melt action. I’m just disappointed that if we have to have a chain restaurant, it couldn’t be a Friendly’s. I feel like Wallyworld would benefit hugely from the massive pile of fried clam strips and overflowing peanut butter cup sundae. Okay, maybe not in the same meal. But they don’t know what they’re missing.

So I’m wondering why the urban crowd and not the rural folks want these establishments as a dining option. Maybe the cityfolk were once suburbanites. Thus they find some level of comfort in say, thinking they know what to expect in terms of the culinary fare. Or being on what they consider the pedestal of city glitterati entitles them to “slum it” with the 4-person family set at the local bedroom community’s Chili’s. After all, nothing says “mall experience” more than a little P.F. Chang’s. And the only mall in DC is the blocks-long lawn between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. I’ve actually seen tweens grumble to their parents, all of them tourists, upset that the District mall isn’t what they had in mind. Those are shopping malls, children. This is why your teachers want you to have reading comprehension.

Walla Wallans are an adaptable, resourceful lot. You want Indian cuisine? Make friends with Shampa and her family and get an invite for dal and lamb curry. (I can attest it is very good.) Or buy a cookbook and spend some money ordering ingredients online. Or, go to Trader Joe’s 4 hours away and buy 63 of the vacuum packed lentil and chick pea side dishes for use over the long winter, because spicy lentils are like summer fruit around here.

If you want Thai, well, there are two, count em, two, Thai restaurants. One was just redesigned after the landlord and divorcing owners had a falling out, but after all the brou ha ha, there appears to be nothing different about the new place, even with the new owner. I hear they replaced the chairs. Red vinyl, make way for . . . black vinyl!

The other Thai restaurant is in the next town over. An extreme amount of kitch went into the decor, which showcases a couple of kinds of linoleum flooring, some discolored tableclothes set protectively under plexiglass, a whole host of plastic sculpture designed to inform patrons about the wonders of Thailand, and many mismatched Asian-inspired drawings on the wall. It is owned and run by a white man and his Thai bride, the former of whom runs the front of the house, and the latter of whom does the cooking. When they’re having a bad night together her food gets increasingly spicy, which is perhaps her strategy for getting out of the restaurant business. A culinary cry for help, as it were. But really this tendency means two things:

1. get there early

2. really early, as they close at 8PM.

Another saying around town is “Never eat Chinese food in Walla Walla if you can help it.” No really, that’s a saying around town. While Susanne’s brother was a fan of a local Chinese restaurant, we didn’t find it particularly inspiring. I hate when food only can remind you of better food you’re not currently eating. That’s this place. Milk toast, mediocre, not gut-or-anus-clenching bad, but just kind of bland and not worth the money you just spent on it. There’s also an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, but I’ve already admitted to my buffet misgivings. By the way, Walla Walla does have an American/Italian all-you-can-eat buffet; one day when we didn’t realize what it was (we were thinking they had pizza), we walked in and were astounded to see a warning sign at the front door, which read:

THIS ESTABLISHMENT USES SULFIDES FOR PRESERVATIVES. ASK YOUR WAITER FOR INFORMATION IF YOU HAVE ALLERGIES.

Oh, waiter, can you tell me which of these buffet items will kill me?

We turned around and left. And craving pizza.

Eugenology

artichokesEvery 6 weeks or so, it seems, we take a weekend or trip outside the confines of Walla Walla—this time it was to Eugene, Oregon, where one of Susanne’s oldest friends lives. We were ready for fun, good conversation, and even the potential of hunting in the woods for chanterelles.

I’ve never mentioned it before, but there’s a part of I-84 that weirds me out a little. A miles-long tree farm. It’s not that I don’t support the tree growth—I definitely do. It’s not that it take 10 minutes, at 70 miles an hour, to get past all of the trees, since I’ve driven by thousand acre woods many times before. It’s the regularity of the planting, the perfect squared distance between each tree, so that they’re plotted out on a grid, should you have the opportunity to see them from above. They look like alien-planted trees. As a person who grew up near several wooded areas, it seems weird to me that to ride my bike through these woods, I’d have to go in a straight line. That’s just . . . somehow harrowing. Driving past, the trees all start to drag on my peripheral vision. Row after row after row after row, they all point at the sky in brown-gray lines that start to resemble actual aliens. And then my head turns, just a little, because now I’m half-sucked into my deciduous voyeurism, and I notice that every so often, the space between rows is marred by one or a few fallen trees. Imperfection in the grid! Whew! And then I can get back to driving.

It’s possible I’ve lost my mind.

Anyway, we made it past the mindtrap of I-84 and continued on into first Portland, turning left to pass the state capitol, and then tucked into Eugene about an hour after dusk. It was difficult, in the dark, to get a sense of Eugene, especially from the highway, but it seemed to be the same splayed out street and residential design of Portland. Heck, it has a Trader Joe’s. Any city with a Trader Joe’s is A-OK in my book.

Susanne’s friend and her husband were happy to see us, but this moment of welcome was quickly supplanted by the greeting from their kitten, Ruby, who cantered over to us and began thoroughly sniffing our feet, ankles, and baggage. I half-wondered if she wasn’t one of the new covert drug-sniffing cats of the National Security Agency. Okay, okay, there are no such drug-sniffing cats. But heck, there could be. So she rubbed herself on us as we sat down to relax, which made me wonder: after 6.5 hours of sitting down driving, why am I sitting down to relax?

It was great to catch up; we discussed dining options and agreed to venture to Ratatouille for dinner. I kept waiting for a cute animated mouse to bring me soup, but it never happened. The all-vegetarian fare was enjoyed by all of us, 3 of whom are ex-vegetarians. I was annoyed at their idea of hummus, however. Just because chick peas are pureed and in a bowl doesn’t mean you can call it hummus—while these were supposed to be takes on the traditional preparation, they were a bit too far gone for me to hold them in the same category as hummus anymore. Or perhaps merging cilantro and garbanzo beans is good in its own right, but when I think hummus, I don’t think, “let’s have some cilantro!”

Dinner was tasty, and I appreciated that anyone would focus on creative vegetable dishes without a ton of accompanying pretense. What I was going to find out shortly, in fact, was that Eugene really doesn’t have much pretension, if it has any at all. We went next to Off the Waffle, a fairly new establishment that was just voted Eugene’s Best New Restaurant. Once again, category names don’t mean much, as Off the Waffle is a restaurant like one’s neighborhood chocolate shop is a restaurant, but I recognized I need to adopt more of the west coast laid back attitude. And I’m certainly not saying they weren’t the most ridiculously tasty waffles I’ve ever eaten. It was a quirky little storefront on the ground floor of a house, with a variety of savory and sweet versions of the Belgian liege waffle, a yeasted batter that they make with pearl sugar so they come out of the press puffy and caramelized. We sat on an old leather sectional sofa and ate out of our 100% recycled paper containers like jackals over a fresh kill. On all sides of us were the brown bags the owners use for the plain waffles—people walk in and out all day, ordering plain waffles to take home or to work, clutching the warm waffles and crinkling the bags in joy. But the bags on the wall are for decoration, each with the scribblings of some customer who was pleased enough to leave a happy, if not idiosynratic, note on the wall. It was like sitting in a room of non sequitors.

At that point, we were stuffed, so we trundled back to Susanne’s friends’ home, where the kitten was extremely pleased to see the return of her four scratching posts. And then there was Saturday.

In tandem

I woke up from a dream a couple of nights ago in which I was riding the front half of a two-person bicycle down a hill in the rain on a busy city street. I think we’ll call that a stress dream. But the only way I could have imagined this as a dream was as the regurgitation of an actual memory of going down a rainy hill on a two-person cycle with my other half screaming in fear the whole time. Steering was a nightmare. There was this sense that even if you wanted to stop or slow down, your partner wasn’t with you on that, and you were just about to hurtle out of control. It’s one thing to learn how to ride a bike, but it’s quite another to cause muscle memory confusion because half of the muscles riding the contraption aren’t yours and so the bike is constantly making unanticipated moves.

I suppose that gets better with practice, for those intrepid individuals who can push past the first wall of terror and shock. I am not so strong. We rolled the bike back next to the garage at my sister’s old house in Connecticut and sat down on the lawn until the shaking stopped.

But I acknowledge that some things get better with time. Walla Walla, for its own efforts, is mildly more fun to live in during springtime than in the nadir of winter. I am reminded, by the colorful daffodils and tulips that have pushed out of the ground on people’s lawns and in downtown, that we are an oasis in the desert. I am hearing now about things that were either held back from me because of my temporary disability, or because I am getting to know people better: there’s a fun group who go bowling every Thursday night, there’s another gang who started a Stitch ‘n Bitch on Wednesdays, there’s a shepherding dog trial event coming up in May, and a hot air balloon race in a few weeks, east of town, I think.

One of the things we have been able to do through my varying stages of not having a left ACL, having a dead person’s ACL replacement, and having a rehabilitated knee, is hit the restaurants. It is with this gratitude that I can write a bit about one notable venue, Pho Sho.

Cute name aside, Pho Sho has a small but strong menu of salads, rice and spring rolls, and, of course, pho. The pho tai, a rare beef pho, is the most delightful. Spicing is minimal and left up to the customers, via a series of chili and spice jars out on the tables, and folks should take advantage of them. Spring rolls are fresh—I often crave the peanut sauce that accompanies them. Entrees are priced in the high $8-to high $9 range, and I have wondered exactly why the price points are so tight but different, but that doesn’t really matter if you’re not going to own your own restaurant, I suppose. The chicken pho is less expressive but still well seasoned. Pho, though, really works better with beef. If you’re going to go veg, you’ll be happy that the vegetarian pho comes with amazingly crunchy cubes of fried tofu. 

The place is well lit, and the minimal decoration lets you appreciate the clean lines of the room and the heavy wooden tables. The communal table in the middle of the room is a great way to meet new neighbors, which translated into, in this small city, creating new friends to see the next time you sit down here to eat. A very satisfying, interesting meal, expect to pay about $30 for two big bowl of pho, an appetizer, and a pot of green tea.

Noodley legends

We like to ask for advice; there are columns in the paper, thousands of Web forums and chat rooms on every conceivable subject from pork rinds to rare, incurable diseases. Perhaps it’s part of the human condition to ask our neighbors about things we haven’t directly experienced. It creates community, sometimes, not just in a virtual Web browser window, but when we create support groups, go on themed vacations, join a club—we do a lot of advice giving and requesting, and then, if we get our first-hand moment ourselves, can appreciate how far away the advice of someone else’s experience was from our own.

And therein lies the rub. For one person’s touted recommendation is another person’s bout with mediocrity. Or there could be, in the case of a restaurant suggestion, a complete incompatibility between palates. It’s really a taste comparison; if we like the same 5 movies, maybe we’ll both hate the 6th. Your advice to go to so-and-so place for dinner might be anathema to me if I think that spiced crickets sounds disgusting but is your favorite appetizer. And then you might gently remind me that some of what I eat, such as corndogs, also can be just plain awful.* So one should have confidence in the taste buds of their friends.

What to make of the good friend with whom you’ve never actually compared culinary affections? It’s just a leap of faith that nobody would recommend a truly terrible venue and that there will probably be something on the menu that appeals. And that’s the pessimist’s approach. For those of us who are more risk-tolerant and/or optimistic, it’s a chance to venture into unknown territory and perhaps experience something new.

 

Legendary Noodle Restaurant

Legendary Noodle Restaurant

It was with this boldly go where we hadn’t gone before mentality that we ventured into the Legendary Noodle Restaurant in Vancouver, a favorite of our friend, Dex. She eats there often. We looked at fully four different kinds of noodle preparations. We started off sharing some steamed meat dumplings, which were fine if not a little pedestrian. Our food came quickly, which I’ve learned in the Northwest is a bit of an uncommon occurrence. Susanne had a noodle soup with beef, almost like a pho, and I had some noodles with beef, mung beans, and a light spice that was just hot enough to linger while not causing massive sinus activity. It was a little place, likeable in that hole-in-the-wall way. 

It was also conveniently located directly across the street from a patisserie. Unfortunately, we were too stuffed to put any more edibles into our stomachs. Fortunately, our friend’s housemate was having a gallery show that night, so the three of us walked around the corner to see her art. She was focused on painting animation-like pictures of Catholic schoolgirls. They looked very sulky. Some of them were against white, unpainted backgrounds. Some were sitting in trees. Many were set in dreary wooded locations. In a room in the back there was a silent auction with older pictures, namely giant robots in dreary wooded locations. I sensed a trend. 

After looking at the art for a while, we headed over to Sweet Revenge for tea and dessert. It was cramped, like visiting your Aunt Nellie who hasn’t thrown out the daily newspaper for 36 years and who has a penchant for collecting antique furniture. We found the remaining 4 square feet of space in the room and sat down at a low table that came up to our knees. I wondered aloud if this was the tea room for Liliputian royalty. 

Menus were carefully presented to us, lest the waiters knock something over. They were small men who looked like they had previously worked as circus contortionists, and they fitted their bodies around the furniture as they served the patrons, bending in strange ways like Keanu Reeves dodging bullets, but nary did they spill a drop of the drinks.

 

table of treats at Sweet Revenge

table of treats at Sweet Revenge

The cakes were very good, although one was a little on the dry side. A man at the next table (read, five inches away from me) asked which cake on our table was the favorite, so we pointed it out to him. There were six people at his table, Japanese tourists, and they were very excited to have cake recommendations from total strangers. How did he know I wasn’t a total smartass who had just told him to try the cake with the pickle juice in it? Such trust! It must have been because we were in Canada, and what Canadian would steer a tourist wrong like that? He’d never have had such faith in me if we were in Atlanta, I bet.

We finished our dessert and hugged our friend goodbye—but only for the moment, because we ran into her two days later in Vancouver’s Chinatown. I would have said small world, but well, I didn’t think it would have drawn the laugh. One must be selective about such things.

*For the record, I do not eat corn dogs.

Merriweather Blue and the not-so-long journey

Walla Walla is a stop on Lewis and Clark’s exploration across the North American continent, as is evidenced by the seemingly thousands of highway signs dedicated to preserving their memory. Because we had very recently purchased a new car just before our wedding and cross-country move, we needed to come up with a name for it, and well, Lewis and Clark now live on in our household, for we decided upon Merriweather Blue for the car. 

She’s been a reliable, fun vehicle to drive, with nice shocks and a comfortable interior. We enjoy trips in this car, possibly because Susanne used to drive a rather tippy Chevy Sprint, and I a Ford Escort that I pushed more than I drove. Everything is, after all, relative.

Pacific Ocean outside Vancouver

Pacific Ocean outside Vancouver

 

We piled into Merriweather B. in the middle of Seattle and made our way to the north of the city. Driving by Everett, Washington, was fun because I kept pointing out the amenities of the city as if they were my own. “Look, I have a middle school,” I would announce, pointing at some random building. “Oh, I’m working hard on road improvements using my citizen’s taxes,” I would say. Yes, it got old fast. But Everett was larger than I thought it would be, a proper suburb with all the sprawlish trappings therein.

Washington State pushed up upward into more rugged mountainous terrain and we started seeing snippets of snow alongside the road. Finally we came upon the border, and I mistakenly got in a lane that said, “Nexus Only.” Unfortunately for us, once I realized my error I could no longer leave the lane, lest I drive over orange divider cones and alert the Royal Mounted Police force/Border Patrol/Customs officials to my dalience from the rules. I sheepishly pulled up to the window, our passports in hand.

“I’m sorry, I think I got into the wrong lane. I don’t know what Nexus means.”

She looked at our credentials, very displeased with me.

“What are you doing in Canada,” she asked, tersely.

“We’re going to a conference,” I answered.

“Where?” She sounded like she was sitting on a chair of needles.

“Vancouver.” Hopefully she had heard of it. 

“And what is your business there?”

Was this a trick question? I thought it was a trick question. I looked at Susanne imploringly.

“We’re going to a conference,” she said. 

Say what? That’s what I said! Susanne didn’t know anything more than what I knew! Oh, crap. I count on her to have the right answers to this crap.

“What kind of conference,” was her next question.

I debated, in three nanoseconds, whether to say it was a conference for people who dress up as furry creatures in order to get aroused, then thought better of it.

“Political science,” answered Susanne, and the border guard frowned. Clearly we should have gone with furries.

She handed us back our passports and looked at me, with daggers shining in her eyes, saying, “A word of advice, if you don’t know what something is, don’t get in that lane.”

Well now, that’s extrapolatable to everything else. What a brilliant pearl of wisdom. I nodded, secretly cursing her in my mind, and we drove into Canada. With border patrol agents like her, I thought, Canada better start planning on spending more marketing money to keep its image as a country of nice people, Susanne notwithstanding.

Thirty kilometres outside Vancouver the sun ducked behind clouds, not to be seen for three more days. We made our way to the Hyatt downtown, and checked in to a fancy room devoid of anything complementary. Even the Wi-Fi cost $16 a day. It was like spending time with cheap, rich people, when you bring a nice bottle of wine over to their place and they keep it and open up some crap they bought at Costco instead, and you think to yourself, well, this is why they’re wealthy and I’m not. Yeah, it was kind of like that. But it had a nice view of the street below, and I think Vancouver is the only place on planet Earth where you have mountains and the Pacific across from each other like that. Well, maybe Japan is like that, since it’s been formed by volcanoes. But Vancouver is the first place I’ve ever seen with that kind of terrain, and I found it endlessly fascinating.

Our first evening in town we opted for Ethiopian for dinner, so we checked out Addis Cafe about 20 blocks away. Our Googled directions took us through a neighborhood that is called “Canada’s skid row.” This is funny for several reasons, including the following:

1. Canada has only one skid row.

2. It is this one.

3. Canadians know this because they’ve asked around.

4. Nobody has realized that “skid row” as a concept is like, 70 years old. We call them “crack neighborhoods” now.

While it seemed a bit rough around the edges, I am here to reassure every Vancouverian that really, it’s not a bad neighborhood. But okay, you wouldn’t want to hang around on the corner bleeding $50 bills.

The eatery was small, a row house-style building that was clearly focused on the food and not the ambiance. We ordered a veggie combo with wot and a lamb entree, and were greeted with a  beautiful plate of injera and really well done toppings. The wot was spicy enough to make its presence known to one’s tongue, but without so much heat that it upstaged anything else on the plate. The cabbage was crisp, well spiced, and a great compliment to the lamb, which was tender, rich, and free from gristle, always a possibility with lamb butchering. We also enjoyed the lentils, and the freshly made cheese. We also were delighted to converse with the chef, who was eager and beyond pleased that we’d enjoyed her cooking. She and the waitress were the only employees to be found. I highly recommend Addis Cafe for anyone looking for a low-key, affordable, and excellent meal in Vancouver.

Next up: The Legendary Noodle House and desserts at Sweet Revenge

Snacking through the northwest

Susanne and I took an enjoyable, leisurely stroll through Seattle’s Pike Place Market on Monday, indifferent to the intermittent light rain. We stopped at a cheese producer—DeLaurenti—and watched the large bins of curds get hand-sifted by the staff. Tasting the freshly made cheddar resulted in happy gasps from each of us. Having wanted to try my hand at cheese making, I asked if they had any rennet, an amino acid used to make curds. They pointed us in the direction of the Creamery, a small store, obviously focused on dairy products. Four oversized ceramic cows and one sleeping store dog later, I had the rennet in hand.

We stopped by a pirouska storefront and shared an onion and mushroom breaded pastry, warm and delighful and useful for keeping our hands from freezing in the 40-degree weather. We looked at pottery, always a favorite of Susanne’s, homemade children’s hats, stopped to smell the flowers, looked at some pasta from Pappardelle’s to get ideas for new pasta to make at home, and listened to a  banjo player who was sharing a bit of soul just out of reach from the drizzle.

My knee finally started complaining after a couple of hours. We stopped for tea and crumpets—no, really, we did—and enjoyed some creamy Earl Grey. I have determined, sadly, that I just am not a fan on Yerba tea, finding that it’s too musty for my taste. I do, however, continue to enjoy the sound of the word Yerba. So I will have to like it from an intellectually removed distance. The crumpets were tasty—they’re a bit like the love child of an English muffin and a thick, buttermilk pancake. I had mine with butter, and Susanne chose honey. We thought we were pretty nifty folks until a woman walked by us with one covered in Nutella. Egads! Who knew such a thing existed? I attempted to make a move on her crumpet, but Susanne kept me in check. There’s probably a Crumpet Police force in existence somewhere. No laughing now, there are still places in the US where stealing a horse brings up the death penalty.

We ventured out, later that evening, to Quinn’s Pub in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle. For appetizers we shared some rather pedestrian pistachios and a nicely lime-and-olive-oil infused plate of green and black olives. Susanne and her friend Jesse each ordered a flank steak with frites, and I had fish and chips (same as the frites). The steaks were marvelous, a little over the top with the charring, but nicely tender inside, and paired well with a rich gravy and chewy, nobby little mushrooms. My fish was tender and delicious, but a bit too thickly battered, which quickly went from crispytown to mushville. I was content to eat the fish out of the batter. I was also surprised that the establishment doesn’t have tartar sauce.

After dinner we went to the Wild Rose, a women’s bar, for their weekly pub quiz game. I was a repeat customer back in DC, at Fado, where their trivia game brought something like 50 people in every Monday night. There’s something about sitting around a dark Irish pub with other frazzled government employees that equates to serious competition without the energy of turning foul. Here in Seattle the gang was much, much smaller, and the teams were limited to 4 people, max. Back in DC you’d get the whole of a division of say, the Census, and those folks were tough to beat. Crazy survey nerds!

After bombing out the first round of C-list celebrity photos, our team caught fire and won the contest, by a large margin. I really didn’t know what became of Danzig, though, and we missed that question in the round of “this place used to be this other name, what is it called now?” We walked away with $30. Not bad for a couple hours of answering questions!

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