You Ordered What?
A brief guide to getting the wrong thing at the right place.
Let’s talk about the garden salad at Dot’s Delicatessen.
The newish Fremont deli hawks all things meaty, from quivering headcheese to high-piled Reubens. No sane person goes to Dot’s for salad. But get one—as, say, an addendum to bratwurst snuggled into a bed of caramelized onions and piled high with kraut—and you’ll find your summer fantasy. Huge hunks of icy, crisp lettuce are haphazardly combined with the day’s best vegetables, and doused with just enough simple, strong vinaigrette to make your taste buds sing. It’s salad at its most basic, and because it cuts through all that meatiness with the cleanliness of a sharp sabre, no one should visit Dot’s without ordering one to share.
That’s right. Garden salad. At a deli.
The standard rule in dining is that you order a restaurant’s specialty. If you’re at a waterfront fish joint, you don’t order the pork cutlet. The victims of this tenuous logic are hundreds of fantastic restaurant dishes that, like the salad at Dot’s, are ignored—simply for being what they are.
Dot’s Deli’s steak frites are great, too. But my favorite version comes from Copper Gate, a Scandinavian bar in Ballard best known for meatballs and aquavit (and Swedish pin-ups). Fried to a deep, juicy brown and dusted with dill, the fries beat any French spot in the city, and the steak is always perfect—that is, as long as you’re cool with pairing your meat with a good Scandinavian beer.
At so many great Seattle restaurants, chefs are tackling vegetarian side dishes with as much care and creativity as traditional meaty entrees. Case in point: Steelhead Diner has a meatless, vegetable chili that would make most Midwesterners cringe. Stuffed with root vegetables, fresh tomatoes and peppers, spiced with freshly ground chili powder from the Pike Place Market, and topped with a mixture of sour cream and pico de gallo, its flavor is deeper than a swimming pool. I usually skip the fish and chips and dive into the chili.
The vegetables are also good at Ethan Stowell’s Tavolàta, only there, they come in the form of an appetizer called, oh-so-creatively, chickpea salad. It’s made with a lemony combination of chickpeas, blanched celery, torn parsley and plumped golden raisins, all swathed in grassy olive oil. It’s meant as a prelude to the pastas that bring Tavolàta its accolades, but I order the salad twice and skip the noodles.
If I want noodles, I go to Salumi—known for its sandwiches, of course, piled with cured meat studded with fennel, laced with orange or spiked with wine. I order whatever’s on the pasta specials board. If you hit the day just right, you’ll arrive when they’re serving Armandino’s spaghetti, slathered with a red sauce made with olive oil, guanciale, wine, tomato paste and… well, not much more. It’s sweeter than most red sauces, unabashedly porky and deeply satisfying. Equally hearty is their pork stew, served over polenta and also considered a “pasta” special. I can’t tell you what will be on the blackboard on any given day—not because I’m trying to be coy, but because it’s never the same. Whatever it is, it’s dependably soul-quenching and hearty. The pasta special wins, every time.
Sometimes, a restaurant’s added bites don’t require skipping its main attraction. I don’t go to the University District’s Saigon Deli for the cheap banh mí sandwiches, vermicelli or steaming pho (whose broth beats both Than Bros.’ and Pho Bac’s). I eat those things, but I go for the free yogurt. At the end of each meal, a server—if you’re lucky, an elderly woman who hobbles over with a sour expression on her face—plunks down a clear Dixie cup stabbed with a plastic spoon. Inside there’s a four-bite treat, which she makes daily from sweetened condensed milk. Jiggly, light and sweet (but lacking any trace of vanilla), yogurt has never tasted so good.
Also residing in the Unlikely Desserts category is Duke’s Chowder House. People go to Duke’s for its namesake. They go for a spot on the chain’s various sunny decks across the city. If they’re feeling adventurous, they order fish tacos (ask for the blue-corn tortillas) or maybe a cheeseburger. Tragically, they don’t go for Duke’s Butterfinger pie—a tall, fat slice of rich, graham-crusted vanilla ice cream pie, studded heavily with flecks of Butterfinger candy and served in a pool of fudge and caramel. It speaks to your inner 11-year-old in a way you previously thought impossible.
I’m not suggesting you ignore the old adage about eating only what a restaurant is known for. I’m saying that when someone suggests trying something different, you should listen.
4262 Fremont Ave. N
95 Pine St.
2323 2nd Ave.
309 3rd Ave. S
4142 Brooklyn Ave. NE
Duke’s Chowder House
901 Fairview Ave. N and various locations
Pictured above: Steelhead Diner's vegetarian chili. Photo by Nate Watters.