Thursday, May 26, 2005

Smokin Pete's BBQ

I lived in the East End of London in the early nineties. When I looked at the flat I was intrigued by the neighborhood. It was a block off a main road (Bow Road) and in the middle of a bunch of Tower Blocks (i.e. subsidized housing). I later found out that the area was one of those obliterated by German bombing in WWII, hence the "opportunity" for building. In between the main road and my flat was a public walkway and retail corner. Since I didn't have a car, I was pleased to see signs for a baker, greengrocer, butcher, pub and a newsagent. Unfortunately after I moved in, I found that the signs were all of what was left of these establishments - except for the newsagent and pub. Apparently the reason for the continuing existence of the newsagent and pub was that they supplied the three main things needed in London: cigarettes, tabloids and beer.

Now, this wasn't a "High Street" which in England means a strip of heightened commercial activity, and High Streets still thrive today. Instead it was just a little locus of retail that could satisfy a lot of shopping needs. The specialized shops (baker, greengrocer, butcher) probably were driven out of business by the Tesco a few blocks away which could offer things at lower prices, which meant a lot in the economically disadvantaged area I was in. But I missed the opportunity to have a neighborhood baker, butcher etc. to get my daily food. I thought that was one of the perks of living in a cosmopolitan city - you didn't have to depend on a car to get your groceries from an impersonal supermarket chain.

Now I live in Ballard. There is a bakery within walking distance (Larsen's Danish Bakery), a greengrocer (Top Banana at 65th and 15th) and until last year there was a butcher within four blocks of my house, the Butcher Shoppe. We never got in the habit of frequenting them, we would make the trip down there if we needed a special cut or something we didn't get on our weekly shopping trips. They were more expensive than most stores and their hours couldn't compete with the chains of course. But they were part of our community and their family and home was supported by the commerce done in their shop. Where do the profits of Safeway and QFC primarily end up? Not in Ballard. Sure the chains employ people but I posit that the sense of local community is better served when these people look at their boss and owners as being part of their neighborhoods rather than a national corporation. So I am ashamed of not supporting our local Butcher Shoppe.

However, in their place is a new locally owned restaurant - Smokin' Pete's BBQ. It was an ingenious makeover. They hardly did much surface renovation, you can really tell that it used to be a butcher's shop. But you don't go to BBQ places to get all fancy, the sauce tends to dull your patent leather shoes and sparkling painted fingernails and gets on your Rolex. When they opened they pushed the international theme pretty strongly and that must not have been terribly popular because when we visited there wasn't much of a global flavor on the menu.

We walked there on a Friday night and got a table by the front window from where I saw a car mightily attempt, but ultimately fail, to try to kill somebody as they turned the corner from 20th to 65th at 40 or so mph. Unfortunately, no pedestrian or child was there to make his day. Our day was made though by the food. We got the two person combo plate and everything on there was divinely smoked and tender. The brisket was the best, followed by the ribs and chicken. The meat is not dressed with sauce - they are smoked dry. To get your BBQ sauce fix, there are ketchup bottles filled with Hot, Normal, Thai and Carolina Sour sauces. What I ended up with was a mixture of the Hot and Carolina Sour sauces - they were outstanding together. The cornbread, potato salad and greens were very good as well.

Unlike the Butcher Shoppe, they are doing a booming business - I really hope they make it. We will certainly be back often.

3 Cellphones
2 Blue Wigs (!)
2 Hipster
2 Hard Hats

(Very equal opportunity! But geared towards the Yuppie crowd I think)

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Maritime Pacific Brewery and Jolly Roger Pub

After a week of interviewing teaching job candidates and field trips and who knows what else, my wife said, "Wherever we're going this week, I need a beer. Or two." Finding a beer in Ballard has never been hard. Usually Rainier would be the choice of the hard working Scandinavians on the waterfront working the mills and the boats. Well, the Rainier brewery south of Seattle turned into a coffee roaster and is now being made into artist's studios. Similarly, the beer in Seattle is no longer predominantly American lager like Rainier. The microbrewery movement started in the Northwest and Ballard was the birthplace of Redhook (Ballard Bitter, ya sure ya betcha).

Fortunately there is a microbrewery within walking distance of us - the Maritime Pacific Brewery and Pub. From the sidewalk you can see the holy beer making vats with the sacred machinery to fill them. I knew it would be just what my wife needed. We knew it was a small place so we got their before six on a Saturday. From the door we saw a table in the corner that was just vacated. But in our first step over the bar's threshold we were assaulted by a wave of sound. Somehow the noise does not escape to the outside or it is drowned out by 15th Ave. above and Leary Way outside. In any case, it took us by surprise. We figured that it was a positive feedback effect. One group starts out talking a little loud, the next group has to raise their voices, and so on until the beer and the addition of more people to the mix creates a cacophony.

We sat at the table and we were at least assured that anything we talked about was going to be unheard by anyone else. At last, we could finalize our plans to lead Ballard out of the tyranny of Seattle after one hundred years without anybody overhearing our seditious talk! And what better place to do this than the Jolly Roger Pub (the name of the pub at the Maritime Pacific Brewery.)

Okay, we really didn't talk about seceding from Seattle. But we did have some mighty good beer. My wife's hefeweizen got the highest marks in her book - I have a feeling we will be having some more of that in the near future. I had the flagship red ale and a pilsener which were very good and fresh. Unfortunately, I couldn't have a bitter ale because they had run out. The night before the crew was supposed to have stocked up some kegs for the next day. As this was the Jolly Roger Pub, I guess the pirates couldn't be bothered after a night of ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.

The food at the Jolly Roger Pub has been pirated from a much higher class diner than you would have expected. Instead of just sandwiches and finger food, there are a lot of fish dishes and other unexpected entrees like Lamb Medallions. My wife had Catfish and jalapeno hush puppies and I had a Shrimp and Scallop creole kind of stew. They both were very delicious and more importantly, went excellently with the beer.

We never really heard any distinct conversations in the din, but once my wife made out that the very animated gentlemen at the bar were having a discussion about Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law. Not what we expected at all. The clientele at the time we went was an odd mixture of working class and yuppie. There may have been a Scandinavian fisherman at the bar. Not too many hipsters or Old Ballard.

3 Cellphones
3 Hard Hats
1 Ironic Wool Cap
0 Blue Wigs


At first I was afraid, I was petrified

We wanted Chinese food. There are three places to get Chinese food in Ballard. One we won't mention as it scares my wife, one is a favorite of the very big and the very thin (yes, this is a puzzle - what kind of restaurant would be a darling for both gluttons and bulimics?), and the last is a Ballard institution. One might be wary of Ballard institutions as they might be a little petrified in their ways.

Kept thinkin' I could never live without you by my side;

But every place worthy of respect has to have a decent Chinese restaurant. You could be in the middle of the desert in Utah and you probably could still find a decent Chinese restaurant. In fact we were in the middle of Alberta two years ago, right across the border from Glacier National Park and we found a decent Chinese place. Is Ballard worthy of respect in having a decent Chinese restaurant?

But then I spent so many nights
Thinkin' how you did me wrong

The first time we went to Louie's was with my wife's father. He is the least adventurous eater alive. A lifetime supply of Beef and Bud Lite could be on the proverbial Desert Island and he would be happy as a clam. And Louie's does not require adventure when eating their meals. They are more Hunan and Mandarin in their menu and my wife and I really love Szechuan with their spices and peppers. Louie's struck us that first time as really, really bland and safe. We never really made a point to go back.

And I grew strong
And so you're back from outer space

Restaurants come and go with depressing frequency. The ones that go probably go because they have one or more things wrong in their operations - the food is not that good, the location is wrong, the kind of cuisine is wrong for where they are, the manager lets the service and morale of the place go to hell, etc. The ones that last know how to keep all the plates up in the air. There has to be a reason why Louie's has lasted so long. So after years of ignoring them, we decided to give them another try.

I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key

Did they care that we had forsaken them for so long? No, because they had a secret. It seems every Ballardite of a certain age eats at Louie's. There are no hipsters at Louie's, just hips that are too close to being broken. By all rights they had the right to tell us to get out of there - they don't need us yuppie scum.

If I'd've known for just one second you'd be back to bother me
Go on now, go walk out the door
Just turn around now
'cause you're not welcome anymore.

If this was a Belltown fancy-pants hipster place, we would have been ignored for fifteen minutes and then begrudgingly sat down between the kitchen and the bathroom, right by a huge table of brain-dead drunks screeching into their cellphones and posing as God's gifts to all lesser creatures.

Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Did I crumble
Did you think I'd lay down and die?

Not Louie's. They accepted us graciously, forgetting all about the times we haven't eaten there. We were given a table against the back wall and immediately waited on.

Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh as long as I know how to love I know I'll stay alive
I've got all my life to live,
I've got all my love to give and I'll survive.
I will survive!

Louie's has survived because they know how to treat their customers right. Our waiter was impeccably polite and professional. Our water was continuously filled and we never had to wait for anything. This added to the enjoyment of our food. We did get the one chile dish on the menu - and it was appropriately hot and spicy. The chow mein and other stir fry dishes were very tasty even if they weren't spicy.

And so you feel like droppin' in
And just expect me to be free,
Now I'm savin' all my lovin' for someone who's lovin' me

I think we will drop in again, there is nothing like really being appreciated in a restaurant with good food. And while they aren't free, they are very, very reasonably priced (one would say cheap!). Hence the popularity for those on a fixed income. Besides us, there wasn't much of a yuppie contingent, no hipsters - just a lot of old time Ballard people enjoying their night out.

4 Blue Wigs
2 Hard Hats
1 Cellphone
0 Ironic Wool Caps

Sam's Sushi

We ordered a file cabinet from Don Willis' Real Wood Furniture. The store has relatively inexpensive stuff that is well put together and it saves a trip to IKEA. Even though IKEA would make more sense in Ballard as it is Scandinavian and all. In any case, my wife and I wanted a place nearby to park the pickup and then walk to eat and then get the cabinet. We decided on trying something totally out of character for us.

One hundred years ago while Ballard was being built, I'm sure it never would not have been odd to anybody there that one of the stores right off the main street was selling raw fish. In fact the area was called Salmon Bay even back then. The park a block away from us is called Salmon Bay park and it is older than the streets and houses that grew around it. The housing development that built up around our house was called Salmon Bay as well. The boats coming from their ocean trips into Ballard undoubtedly had tons of raw fish. However, I don't think any of those people of Ballard long ago would have used a very sharp knife, cut out some flesh just so, plop it on a plate and eat it. Cold and uncooked. Not to say there was no use for cold and uncooked fish, because there was. I believe it was called bait.

Sophistication in those long ago days required that things had to be endlessly modified and frilled up. French cuisine was in its prime and the more steps of sauteing, baking, roasting, flambeing and dressing up with sauces made the finished dish more chic. Sophistication now is concerned with the simple. IKEA makes furniture without the slightest nod to frivolous decoration, just clean and modern lines. I think the same thing has occurred with the western full-hog (or full-fish?) fascination with sushi. What could be more elegant than expensive fish, uncooked and plated with an eye towards balance and design? And in terms of class, how much more can you differentiate yourself from the raw and unwashed hoi-polloi by eating the raw and uncooked when the raw and unwashed eat Jack-in-the-Box instead of a Bento Box? The noble savage used to eat roots and vegetables, now the urban vegan sophisticate does. The turn of the past century Scandinavian packed their cod with lye and soaked it for months - the turn of the present century Ballardite eats their fish that had been swimming just hours ago.

So with all this in mind, we went to Sam's Sushi. I'm glad it wasn't Sven's Sushi - we would have had thirteen different ways of looking at Lutefisk. I got there just before six on a Friday night and was promptly shown to a window seat. A few other tables were occupied but the chefs were pretty much idling, looking at me and the rest of the diners. And why is he called a "sushi chef"? Isn't he a "sushi cutter" or a "sushi slicer" since he doesn't actually cook sushi?

The word quickly got out though that I had chosen my weekly Ballard Bite. Within ten minutes every table was taken and there was a line forming. I felt like a rich man at a two-up with an empty seat at the window. I had no idea that I had such a following. I was instructed to get an appetizer of edamame if I got there first. So I got the edamame and some hot sake. Hot sake smells remarkably like warm armpits. Maybe it is distilled from sumo wrestlers, who knows. It was tasty and packed a kick in any case.

Oh, if my college friends in Iowa could have seen me. Here I was at a sushi place eating boiled soybeans. I was known as Mr. Cheese Dog (amongst many, many other nicknames) because that was the piece de resistance of my culinary skills. One slice american cheese, one Wrangler hot dog, one bun and 45 seconds later in the microwave my dinner was done. In Iowa, like Japan, you are surrounded by a sea. A sea of corn and soybeans rather than saltwater. However, the corn and soybeans were almost exclusively fed to the cows and pigs. If we were more Japanese in Iowa, perhaps we would have come up with edamame on our own and made succulent sushi out of praire dogs and redwing blackbirds. But, alas, we are more German in Iowa and we ended up with pot roast and potato salad and Jello (made with gelatine, and you know what that is made of...).

My wife finally came and we popped the edamame like popcorn. Before we went she thought that she could do the raw fish thing, but she chickened out. Well, not exactly "chickened", but "Spider and Dynamite rolled" out. I - who once got food poisoning from fish lips in a Chinese restaurant in Soho, London - was up for the challenge. I ordered Sam's Plate, consisting of tuna, salmon, tai, albacore, shrimp, hamoichi, hokki, tako and an avocado roll. We also got Gyoza and Miso soup after the edamame. The Gyoza are little potstickers and the salty sauce with them was wonderful. There was something missing in the miso soup.

Unfortunately, the fish that I ended up with in Sam's Plate were in the Tastiness Protection Program. I could only identify the tuna and the salmon by their color. Okay, the shrimp was easy too. But I honestly couldn't taste any real difference between the pieces of fish. They were all cool and kinda firm but easily eaten. I just don't see the big deal. However, the wasabi and pickled ginger are always awesome.

As far as the clientele of Sam's Sushi - it was skewed towards the yuppie/hipster end of the Ballard demographic. Ironic black horn-rimmed glasses would definitely fit in nicely. There were no signs of old Scandinavians - which is just as well, the notion of eating a fish that is less than a day old may have offended their sensibilities.

4 Cellphones
2 Ironic Wool Caps
0 Hard Hats
0 Blue Wigs

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hattie's Hat

We decided to put a purplish paint trim in our bathroom. The old trim is a dull beige and after living in a rental house that was the epicenter of beigeness (I swear the lightbulbs emitted beige wavelengthes of light...) we have sworn to expunge beige from our midst. That was two years ago. We finally took down the masking tape from the half finished first coat a few months ago. One day we will finish the job.

Our household is a living graveyard of never-started, half-finished, or just-one-more-thing projects. Dominating our living room is an armoire that came with the house in lieu of the seller's knocking $2000 off the asking price. We only asked for $2000 off because we were under the impression that you do those kinda things. Note the "you", because we never do those kinda things. Because when you do those kinda things, you get stuck with an armoire. Okay, maybe *you* don't, but *we* do. I don't wish anyone to be stuck with an armoire. It has the same dimensions as the monolith in 2001-A Space Odyssey, which could explain some of its staying power. But however I wish supernatural or alien causes to be the case, the continued existence of the armoire in our lives is due to the fact that we can never get anything done that involves any complications.

We are simple people, really. We go to work, we fix our meals, we play with our cats, we read, we watch videos, she gardens, I run. What we don't do is take pictures of our furniture, write up some kind of ad and post things on ebay or craigs list. We don't call up the paper and post ads. That kind of stuff is boring and means that other people called strangers will call you up and want to interact with you. Which is the crux of the matter. Being an introvert is never having to say.....well, anything really. One day, I have a premonition that an unlucky acquaintance of ours will answer the door and instead of greeting a person, there will be a very nice, walnut veneered, two-door, mother-of-pearl handled, chippendale-footed armoire with mirror and extending coat racks ready to be adopted into our acquaintance's family.

Last year we got a new roof. It took us a year to actually call and coordinate with roofers before the job got done. Well, except that it isn't done. Unbeknownst to us, the roofers needed to put flashing under the siding of our house where the porch roofs meet the house. (Why is it "roofs" instead of "rooves"? More than one hoof becomes hooves. Hmmmm.) That means we needed to get somebody to lift up the siding or replace it where it had rotted. Simple? We thought so. We had a guy who we took a home repair class from who we trusted and worked with wood. Our house is 100 years old and had the original cedar siding - we wanted someone who can appreciated all that.

To make a long story short, he seemed to think that my wife and I were going to do the work of taking down all the siding above the porch roof while he came afterwards to put in the new wood or put the old siding back. I don't know why we ever thought this was a good plan. After telling us to rent a scaffold ($125 a week) and then becoming unavailable for two weeks before he could show us what to do and then becoming baffled when the siding was not what he thought it was and after I had already broke a very large soffit board, and then telling us that he couldn't put in the new boards for six weeks (!!!!), we gave up. Someone who could think a house could just stand without siding (this old house had no under-siding - just the frame) for almost two months is not someone we wanted to work with.

So that is where we are more than a year after the roof was put in. We slowly found some names of people who might work and actually called some. Our original contractor thought he would have to custom work the siding because of the original wood's age, which made us think we had to look for woodworking people instead of siders. But then I went online to research siding and found a local lumberyard that may have the kind of siding we need.

In our household, we commonly need sugar to make the medicine go down. Whilst we don't have the services of Mary Poppins, (oh, but that we did have Mary Poppins...sigh...) we do have a wide variety of brunch places to go to in Ballard. In order to get my wife and I to the lumberyard, the carrot was that we would first have brunch to make the ordeal a lot easier. For it is well known in scientific circles that a belly full of fried potatoes and porcine products will make dealing with anybody easier. We had seen some good writeups for Hattie's Hat and decided to go there.

Ballard on Saturday morning at 8:30 is a ghost town. We were the only ones on Ballard Avenue as we walked to Hattie's Hat. But Hattie's Hat opens at 9am so we had some time to kill. Luckily there was a train pulling cars back and forth at the sand and gravel place on Shilshole Ave. The train has its own dedicated track as it goes back and forth trading cars underneath a large silo. Amazingly, it kept our attention for a good amount of time, an indicator that I hadn't had enough coffee yet. The engineer certainly had a good time tooting the horn - we think he was compensating for the deficiencies of his fine little railroad.

So at 9am we made it back and went into the bar. Bars at 9am are like churches, full of silence, light and sacred anticipation, but with better booze and officiants. We saw Tom Waits talking to Charles Bukowski at the bar. Okay, not really. And what is it with "transgressive" literature that makes heroes out of people like Bukowski because he was an alcoholic who lived in dives? I've never understood it because it is so easy to just take a little 90 degree stance to normality and wait for people to be impressed. Actually, Hattie's Hat is not really the kind of place where Bukowski would be drinking at 9am, but it is old and doesn't have yuppie adornments.

The dining area is in a smallish room at the back of the place, past the restrooms and kitchen where you can see a bucketful of potatoes on the grill ready to become hashbrowns. We were the first ones there - apparently even before the hostess, so we sat ourselves. Eventually the hostess did come and gave us menus. Since I'm writing this about a month afterwards, I can't say what was on the menu beyond the normal eggs, bacon, omelettes and whatnot. I can say that my wife got biscuits and gravy. This is because my wife only gets biscuits and gravy if available. And if it isn't available then we usually don't go to the restaurant for breakfast. She pronounced the biscuits and gravy about the best she's had in Seattle.

I do remember the jam. I had raspberry jam on my sourdough toast and it was really tasty - unlike the Smuckers jello crap you usually get.

We finished the meal and went to the lumberyard. They had our siding in fir but not in cedar. While we don't know what wood our siding is, it was mighty relieving to know that we won't have to custom mill our wood by hand. I believe it was because of the Hattie Hat breakfast.

3 Hard Hats
2 Ironic Wool Caps
1 Cellphone
0 Blue Wigs


For a long time, eating in Ballard, Washington meant one of three things - diner food, tavern food, or lutefisk. In other words, the establishments were there for no fuss breakfast/lunch eaters, drinkers or Norwegians. Not that there were strict divisions for in many places you could find plenty of Norwegians drinking their breakfast...

But Ballard has changed. There was a joke that for every tavern built in the town, a church was built to "counteract" it. In fact, during the early days of the last century, there were probably four main industries in Ballard: lumber, maritime (fishing and ship build/repair), drinking and religion. Now the four main industries in Ballard seem to be eating and drinking, tourist/baby boomer lifestyle crap, medicine and the maritime industries that are still hanging on. The last three industries exemplify the three main components of the present culture in Ballard.

Ballard was a working class town until very recently. Being very close to the industrial waterfront and also because of its Scandinavian heritage, it never really became hoity-toity or gentrified like other neighborhoods of Seattle. That is rapidly changing as local industries are closing, the Fisherman's Terminal is allowing pleasure-craft moorages (!) and the demand for yuppie pleasure spots is transforming the storefronts of Old Ballard. However, there are still plenty of the Old Ballardites around - and who help make the medicine industry of Ballard particularly strong. They also somehow keep all the Scandinavian food shops in business - though how someone could make a living selling lye processed cod is beyond me...

The other two components of Ballard are the industries that are still there and the new influx of baby boomers/yuppies. The old time industries and their workers keep the old time taverns and saloons in business while the baby boomers/yuppies keep the wine bar and latest foodie restaurants in business. You can have the quintessential smoky tavern with pickled eggs and pickled customers across the street from a schmancy wine bar. I have a feeling that either establishment is not poaching the clientele from the other...

(There is also a subculture of hippie/hipsters that is kinda perpendicular to everything else - they have their tatoo parlors, chai tea and coffee lounges, t-shirt shops, record stores etc., but they have probably lost out to the yuppies in overall influence - but what do I know, I'm a baby boomer not a hipster - i.e. I don't have any ironic clothing, eyewear or headwear - honestly, what is the deal with wearing ugly wool hats all year round? Though I have to admit I like the ironic wool hats better than the previous hipster head treatment plan consisting of dreadlocks that announced their presence both olfactorily and visually. But isn't it so typically bourgeouis for a yuppie to be so concerned about smell?)

So to get to the point already. One day I noticed after almost six years of living in Ballard that I had not visited most of the restaurants in Ballard. This is mainly because we make 95% of our meals and when we have gone out to eat, it is mostly where we have coupons from the Entertainment book or some other source. But lately we've tired of that strategy (and tired of the less than welcoming treatment at some of the restaurants in the Entertainment book.) I've always been a proponent of shopping local so this summer I will try to visit every restaurant within walking distance of my house. The limits are that they should be sit down restaurants, mainly serve food (which rules out a lot of taverns...), and locally owned (sorry Denny's!). Also, a certain Chinese restaurant where my wife witnessed two drunks stumbling out at 7am is not going to be visited.

As a self-obsessed blogger without a life (are there any other kinds?), I will write about each visit. I don't know what will come out of these writings but I'm sure they will not be reviews in any accepted sense of the word.