Now that we have moved away it feels more acceptable to write about our two favorite Seattle restaurants, since our experiences of them are not exactly the material of rave reviews. And yet we loved both of these places, one from each of the neighborhoods we lived in.
Our first year in Seattle we lived in the second story of an old brick building at the corner of Cherry and Thirtieth. It’s a historically black neighborhood that has recently seen an influx of African immigrants. There were, I think, six Ethiopian restaurants in six blocks of Cherry street. They varied minimally in decor and menu, and some were accompanied by small convenience stores. For the most part these convenience stores were patronized exclusively by Ethiopians so we got looks any time we ventured in. We were excited to sample the restaurants since we like east African food, but I was hesitant because it seemed too hard to try to explain my dietary restrictions to someone with limited English. This was a legitimate issue because the main starch served is injera, a spongy sourdough flat bread, that usually contains wheat flour.
One of the restaurants and convenience stores happened to be on the ground floor of our own building. The store, called Amy’s Merkato, had just one row of shelving, stocked with such essentials as fava beans, mango juice and toilet paper. In the window there were intricately decorated metal teapots for sale. On a shelf to one side were baggies of mysterious powders, unidentified spices, all labeled only in a foreign script. There was also freshly made baklava on a tray at the counter, which Mike bought on occasion.
The adjacent restaurant was a small, bare-walled room with a few tables and a mounted big screen TV. No photos on the walls, no menus, and in fact, no sign out front. Mike felt the need to name the place so it became his namesake, between the two of us, anyway. Any time we walked into the store whoever was working would get the only person who seemed to speak enough English to help us: a large, friendly man with a mustache. He asked us what we wanted, describing the options, and was a little baffled by our vegetarianism. “You just want veggie combo? That’s it?”
Meat actually seemed to be their specialty. And he was the butcher. Every so often he’d put on his white butcher coat and direct an order of meat delivered from the street back to the kitchen. I once looked down from our apartment window above and saw a man carry what looked like half a cow, raw, in a large plastic tub, into the building. We also guessed that they supplied meat and injera to some of the other Ethiopian restaurants. We’d see the women carrying out large plastic bags filled with injera rounds and placing them in the trunk of a Camry.
Aside from when an order of meat came in, the butcher didn’t seem to do much work. The women did all of the cooking. We mostly saw him sitting among the empty tables watching TV, chatting with a visitor or smoking cigarettes outside. The restaurant was usually empty, except for the occasions when a bunch of the Ethiopian cabbies all came to Mike’s Ethiopian for lunch, four or more of their yellow cabs parked on Cherry Street.
Since this was “our” Ethiopian restaurant we decided to try talking to the guy about making gluten-free injera for me. Injera is typically made from teff flour, which is gluten-free, but in the U.S. people use a mixture of flours including wheat, making it a no-go for me. When we explained this problem, the butcher was very willing to accommodate, we just had to give a day or two notice, since the dough needs to ferment. After this we had a wonderful arrangement where we would go downstairs, put in a request for gluten-free injera and a day or two later come down for dinner. The butcher already knew our order – “veggie combo.” He would say something to the women working in the kitchen and then go sit in the sparse dining room and watch the large screen TV.
Mike and I would sit, usually the only customers in the room, trying to converse over the distraction of the TV, which was typically tuned to some old cable show we weren’t interested in. Anyone else who came in conversed solely in a language of Ethiopia, I have no idea even which one. It felt a little like we were squatting in an immigrants’ living room. It wasn’t like a regular restaurant where you’d expect standards of service, so it wasn’t a big deal that it took a while for one of the women to come out of the kitchen and bring us waters and maybe napkins. Maybe forks too, but you’re supposed to just eat with your hands.
The food was worth it. A soft, spongey round of injera, big as the serving tray, topped with neat piles of spicy red lentils, mild yellow split peas, chopped greens, potatoes and cabbage, and lettuce salad with onion slices and vinaigrette. Filling comfort food meets excellent nutrition. There were always leftovers and since we lived right above we just ran up and got tupperware from our cupboard. When we were done we’d find the butcher and pay. The pricing was a bit inconsistent (considering we always ordered the exact same thing), but always cheap for the amount of food.
When we moved to a different neighborhood we were sorry to leave Mike’s Ethiopian behind. Before we left we went to the store and bought a few of the unidentified spices to take with us. We tried asking the butcher what they were, but of course he didn’t know their English names, nor what to do with them, since he didn’t cook. For the most part we lucked out, except for one that seemed to be an enormous quantity of ground cloves.
In Wallingford we had an excellent selection of restaurants to choose from. No Ethiopian, but at least more variety. The one thing there was an over abundance of was sushi restaurants. There were four in about as many blocks and a new one opened just before we left. One was particularly popular and frequently had a crowd of people waiting outside its tiny seating area. We looked at the menu posted in the window and passed it by, as it had almost no vegetarian options. For that there was Kitaro, which advertised on its window signs, “Lots of vegan options.” We ate there once and knew we had found our sushi joint.
Kitaro also gives the feeling of being in someone else’s living room. Someone who delightfully does not conform to expectations. There was a bar, cluttered with stereotypical Japanese restaurant paraphernalia: the white cat statue that waves a raised paw back and forth, red Japanese lanterns and calligraphied calendars. There were also a few piles of high quality reading material, like National Geographic. But no one sat there and no one used the cooking equipment behind the bar. The real kitchen was in the back. You sat instead at the small tables, each with the obligatory stands advertising Japanese beer and sushi rolls that I presume were offered at this particular restaurant, but I don’t really know. It was not their menu, and we always ordered off their extensive vegan roll menu. But I am not yet finished describing the ambiance. At least one table always had a chess board set up, sometimes in the midst of a game. The front window was a jungle of potted plants and a bin full of plastic toy dinosaurs and children’s books sat in a back corner. Pleasant but bland wildlife paintings hung on the walls. And Delilah was always on the radio. The “Queen of Sappy Love Songs,” each one individually dedicated from right there in Washington.
It must have been the owner/waitress’s favorite station. I wish now that we actually knew her name. She and her husband, who was Japanese and spoke broken English, owned the place. He did all the cooking, and most days she did all the serving. I think they played chess together when there were no customers, which sadly, was not infrequent.
The woman, I’ll call her Linda, was great. She had short, mousy, graying hair, and crooked front teeth. She wore sensible sweaters, and leaned forward excitedly when she talked about nearly anything. After our first time there she got comfortable talking to us and she would come up to the table with our waters and say, “So I saw this great movie last night, called ‘King Corn’. I watched it with my husband and son, and there was really something for everyone. You know my husband’s English isn’t so good, but he got parts, and then there was this part that was so interesting and it really got a point across…..” So we would chat about these topics that came out of nowhere, until eventually she asked us if we were ready to order.
The food, again, was great. A vegetarian’s dream for sushi. Most sushi restaurant’s vegetarian options simply eliminate the raw fish, but don’t replace it with anything. There’s the cucumber roll and the avocado roll. Maybe a carrot or pickled radish roll. Those are your choices. But Kitaro actually combined vegetarian ingredients, and added tofu for protein, and unique flavors like olives and garlic to make a list of some 20 or 30 rolls to choose from. We would choose four to share. Some combination of shitake tofu, avocado, cucumber, olive and garlic, seaweed tofu, and eggplant, cucumber, ginger, garlic. They had wheat-free soy sauce for me, too. We would fill up on such nutritious food, and still feel wonderfully light on our walk home. “Why hadn’t any other sushi restaurant tried this?,” we wondered.
And why was Kitaro always empty? We were usually one of just two filled tables even on a Friday or Saturday night. Perhaps not everyone found the random decor and Delilah so charming. And with just one cook they were swamped if there was ever a table of more than four or perhaps three tables filled at once. They were very reasonably priced though – under $20 for both of us. We committed to keeping them open by eating there frequently and also going there for take out.
Linda was genuinely sad to see us go, when we told her we were leaving town. She had been telling us that day about feeding her dogs a vegetarian diet and how she used to play Lacrosse. And we were genuinely interested.