Discovering Seattle’s Soul in its Small Eateries

Pacific Northwest magazine

Sunday, March 7, 2010

By Hugo Kugiya

TO PREPARE and serve food is the most intimate of everyday gestures, a simple kindness extended by a stranger, a notice of affection from an acquaintance, proof of love expressed by someone close to you. To be fed, even in a restaurant when it is a transaction, feels like being loved.

I have always been a good eater. I do not mind bones or fat or gristle. Spicy, sour, bitter, fermented, raw, slippery, slimy, crunchy, chewy, I like it all. I have seconds. I have thirds. I do not gain weight, even now in middle age.

Eating is also often the way I measure my surroundings. If you gave me just one day to visit Cairo or Hong Kong or any other place I’ve never seen, I would be happy doing nothing more than eating. A meal tells a story about the people who eat it or make it, and the place it comes from. It can speak of deprivation, bounty, journey and conquest.

I travel so I can eat. I have long associated one with the other. Eating is its own form of exploration for me, a practice I was able to put to good use when, about 10 years ago, I moved to New York, where every spare moment was an opportunity to discover a new corner, a new smell, a new food.

I also frequently traveled for work. Before it became an industry of guerrillas and castaways, I was employed full-​​time to cover news all over the country and occasionally out of it, a professional wanderer. I reported from metropolises and the empty countryside and many places that are neither, tasting the local food, of course, whenever time allowed.

A few years ago, I moved back for good to Seattle, where so much seemed the same. I left when the city’s cultural and commercial ascension was well under way and returned with the process having matured in predictable ways. More outsiders had arrived, but they did not change the city as much as the city changed them. The Seattle personality — obstinate, independent, intensely quiet, subtly creative, darkly cheerful, prone to feelings of escape — was intact and absorbing converts every week.

I missed the feeling of being new to a place, when even a mundane errand to buy bananas or get a haircut can feel like a quest.

I suspect my predilection for new starts was formed years ago. Between fifth and seventh grade, I attended six different schools in two different states and three different countries. While I did not wish for those circumstances, they immunized me against the anxiety associated with geographic change, convinced me of its virtues, obliged me to be curious and adaptable.

Perhaps that is why, when I am lost, I tend to feel found. And why I set out to eat as a way of exploring a place I thought I already knew — to renew my vows with my old city and possibly discover layers of it that either did not then exist or I had overlooked.

My effort was modest. I stayed away from the Central District, where I lived in the 1990s. I passed on the Rainier Valley and, with one exception, the Chinatown International District, because they are such familiar ground from Seattle Part I, as I have come to call it. I did not get very far south or east.

I also stayed away from the studied and celebrated places Seattle is so full of these days, with their locally sourced, organically raised, ethnically inspired dishes, because they are what I expected to find. I stayed away from Italian food and Thai food and Vietnamese pho, because all are so ubiquitous in Seattle.

With these conditions, I looked for traditional food, borrowed from other places and transplanted here. The food did not have to be elaborate, but it had to somehow make me see this place fresh, as a stranger might.

What I found was more than good food. Eating was merely the reward for the search. It took me to unlikely places mostly invisible to me in the past, and introduced me to many outsiders the city has more or less welcomed, and in my case, welcomed back.

WHILE SMALL towns magnify your personal relationships, cities dilute them, forcing you to work harder at the good ones but allowing you to more easily shed the bad ones, even if it is the one you have with yourself. Small towns hold you to your blueprint; cities allow you to re-​​imagine yourself.

I tend to read the greatness of cities by their ability to thrive under increasing chaos, to support disparate, numerous interests and accommodate both the harmony and conflict they create.

Translated to eating, good food often comes out of chaos and tension. Out of forced proximity and indifference, happy accidents happen: Latin-​​Chinese restaurants in New York, Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles, a Hawaiian-​​accented version of the same at the Marination truck in Seattle.

I have lived in only the corners of the country — Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, South Florida, New York — places that serve as gateways for new people and ideas. In New York and L.A., immigrants adopt neighborhoods wholesale. In Seattle, outsiders, fewer in number, might gather around a single block or storefront.

I started at such a place, close to my home near Green Lake, at a beloved neighborhood institution called Paseo. Its “Cuban” roast pork sandwiches are so popular the restaurant often runs out of bread. It was delicious but more like a Vietnamese banh mi than a traditional Cuban sandwich, a hearty meal for a hardworking communist, made with pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard.

The conceit of Paseo is that latte sippers on their lunch break from Adobe headquarters might not get excited about a ham sandwich. So Paseo, in leaping for something foreign and exotic, landed on something refined, comfortable and accomplished, three words that just as well describe Seattle.

In the end, I resented the sandwich as much as I enjoyed it; this creation from a city that outwardly celebrates diversity but, I believe, often does not seem to wish to pay its true price.

SEATTLE, A FORWARD-​​LOOKING city in a New World country, serves plenty of well-​​prepared, creative food, but not very much traditional food. Here, most traditions have to be imported, then somehow nurtured without the benefit of large numbers, sometimes in a Chevy panel truck parked on a gravel lot.

That is where, 50 blocks north of Paseo, Pedro Vargas, a drummer raised in Bahia Honda, Cuba, serves the real Cuban sandwich. He came to Seattle years ago to perform at Jazz Alley, staying because he fell in love with a local woman. His truck, Paladar Cubano, parked at North 90th Street and Aurora Avenue North, offers just two entrees, roast pork and ropa vieja (shredded beef), both served with Moros y Cristianos (rice and black beans). The menu lists two other side dishes, tostones (fried mashed plantains) and fried yuca.

Vargas is one of many immigrant business owners who set up on the old Highway 99, a road I had given little thought to the first time I lived here. It turns out that some of the best places to eat these days are on this strip.

Every city has its Aurora. Unsightly and noisy, it’s home to rashes of billboards, fast-​​food restaurants, cheap motels, strip malls and downscale retailers. But because the barrier to entry is low, it welcomes the enterprises of all people and frequently immigrants who open their restaurants, many hidden in plain sight.

Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Ethiopians, Russians, Mexicans all have restaurants on Aurora. The Korean ones seem to prevail — curious, since Korean food is the one kind of Asian food that may never catch on with Americans. Korean restaurants do not try to cater to new audiences by diluting the cuisine, which is heavily fermented and strong in flavor. And while Chinese restaurants go with easy-​​to-​​remember names like Noble Palace or Moon Temple, Korean restaurants have, of all things, Korean names like Hosoonyi, Sam Oh Joung and Ka Won, my destination one cold, wet night.

Lynnwood looks like it could be any American suburb, with its wide streets, big parking lots and towering signs. But here among all that uniformity is the closest thing to a real Korean restaurant around here.

Ka Won is hidden behind a Grease Monkey shop in yet another strip mall, quite possibly the last bastion for mom-​​and-​​pop business. Through a window, Ka Won’s kitchen is visible, a sink full of cabbage leaves, a vat of boiling soup bones, stone pots on gas flames. Inside, the lighting is a bit austere, the décor a bit antiseptic, in a fashion typical of the Korean restaurants in Manhattan’s Koreatown. All the booths have tabletop, gas grills and overhead vents, as Koreans love to grill meat at the table. The menu is full of stews and soups, noodles, raw-​​oyster wraps, a seafood pancake, salt-​​broiled fish, sautéed octopus, all of which are served with a rotating assortment of cold appetizers, collectively called ban chan.

The chef, Tong San Park, works 12-​​hour shifts every day except Tuesday. He has lived in four American cities in nine years, and long ago gave up his dream of teaching Korean-​​Americans how to play the Korean drum called a janggu. So he did what he knew would pay. Drawing on what he learned cooking at his uncle’s restaurant in Seoul, he’s been making his living behind a stove for years, remaining relatively isolated in a small community of Korean expats. He speaks functional Spanish, the universal language of all American restaurant kitchens, but very little English.

Through an interpreter, he explained: “I don’t have any time to go to school to learn English.”

SOMETIMES THE hardest kind of food to get in America is American food. Ask an Asian-​​American with Southern roots. Trieu Dinh and his Houston-​​bred cousins recently opened the Crawfish King restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. Most of the faces in the restaurant are Asian. Many Vietnamese immigrants landed in the gulf, making a living fishing for shrimp because it is what they knew.

Once assimilated, they developed a taste for Cajun cooking. The food of the Southern, Coastal U.S. and of Southeast Asia share traits, the brightness of the spices and flavors, the liberal use of seafood and rice. But Dinh resists, almost resents, the label Asian Cajun to describe Crawfish King.

There is nothing Asian about our food,” he says. “It is authentic Cajun food. If you ate anywhere down South, the food would taste exactly like this.”

The restaurant accepts a shipment of crawfish almost every day, flown in from Louisiana. Hot-​​sauce bottles and fishing gear decorate the dining room; the sound system plays Zydeco music. Jambalaya, étouffée, gumbo, blue crab, oysters, clams, fried catfish are on the menu, along with all the fixings to complete a genuine Southern feast. The beautiful irony is that it took a group of immigrants to bring the authentic food of their adopted land to their new countrymen in a different corner of the country.

THE VARIETY of food available in Seattle is remarkable, a fact you do not appreciate until you go to another world capital like Vienna and try to find decent kimchee, or visit Seoul and try to find a burrito. Americans take variety for granted.

Increasingly, eating the best traditional food requires leaving the city center, out to its edges where the immigrant class can better afford to live, places like Tukwila, Kent and White Center. Built around a few walkable blocks, downtown White Center is a living diorama of the American melting pot most of us proudly proclaim but seldom step into.

There are Vietnamese noodle shops, a Cambodian deli, restaurants that serve halal meat and a Mexican restaurant that offers just about every edible part of a cow folded in a corn tortilla. This is one of the few neighborhoods in which you can easily purchase goat meat, seldom eaten by most Americans but consumed by the rest of the world more than any other kind of meat.

The local bowling alley, Magic Lanes, hosts Cambodian karaoke; the corner grocery stocks frog legs; the salon is run by Vietnamese; the bakery is Salvadoran; a Somali family runs a minimart between a taco truck and a pho counter. The butcher is Mexican and supplies the Mexican restaurant next door, both called El Paisano, and both owned by the Silva family, from Guadalajara and Michoacan.

One store, the Samway Market, attempts to cover the needs of everyone in its neighborhood. Owned by Savoun and Sam Yim from Cambodia, the store was an outdoor produce stand until three years ago when they tripled the space and added a full array of groceries and dry goods. Covered now, it is still unheated and open to the weather.

Freezers contain quail, duck heads, insect larvae, blood cake, shrimp paste. Near the cash registers, Chinese buns, Cambodian rice cakes and Vietnamese sandwiches are displayed next to tamales and mangos sprinkled with chili. The Yims’ son, Billy, works most days. He was born and raised in Louisiana, and speaks with a bayou drawl. He has learned friendly phrases in a half-​​dozen languages so he can properly address his customers.

I can speak a little,” Billy Yim says. “Just enough to make them smile.”

In American chain supermarkets, you often find 10 varieties of each item stacked beyond reach as if it was the national reserve. At Samway, there is a just a bit of this and bit of that, requiring close examination to determine its provenance, its story. The fruit is unfamiliar; packaging is confusing.

Getting lost here is easy. Seattle, beyond my notice, had grown the frame of a larger city. Unfamiliar, demanding of attention, at times unknowable, it feels like home.