Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Urban Eating: Seattle, Tacoma, and Suisun City

There are many different directions in which I could take this blog.  My only constraint is my perceived covenant with you, my readers.  And I figure that as long as I remain on topics that affect urban life, I’m within that covenant.  So, today I choose to talk about urban restaurants.

My definition of an urban restaurant is highly personal, but I think it’s reasonable.

First and most importantly, chains need not apply.  I’m willing to consider restaurants with two or three locations.  An owner with a sound vision can operate a few nearby locations without defaulting to a corporate mindset.  But Applebee’s, no matter how well a franchise might physically adapt to an urban setting, will never be an “urban” restaurant.  An Applebee’s would be beholden to a vision from corporate headquarters in Kansas, not its urban location.

Second, the location must be walkable urban, meeting three criteria: little or no parking on the street side of the restaurant, good sidewalks or other pedestrian accommodations, and a location close to transit or within a short walking distance of homes.

Third, the restaurant must have character.  I don’t much care what kind of character, but it should be the kind of place that isn’t easily forgotten.

With those criteria in place, I have three places to share.  Two would require airfare for most readers, but one requires only a short detour when you’re next heading to Sacramento.

Voula’s Offshore Café is in a gritty, water-oriented industrial district of Seattle.  I-5 is on an overpass far overhead.  But at ground level, the key feature is the waterway connecting Portage Bay and Lake Union, part of the water landscape that defines Seattle.  Early development of hydroplanes happened in this neighborhood.  And, for many years, Pocock racing shells were made only a few feet away.

Today, marine businesses continue to be the primary employers.  And marine employees seem to be among Voula’s primary customers.  But an older residential neighborhood begins only a few blocks to the north.  And even closer is the Burke-Gilman Trail, a well-used bicycle-pedestrian trail, making Voula’s a convenient stop during weekend rides.

Voula is Greek and the hospitality reflects that heritage, but the menu is broader, including standard American diner fare and nods to the Pacific Northwest.  The salmon smoking in the parking lot reflects the latter.

The interior reflect Voula’s status as a neighborhood hangout, clean but not fussy.  Heavy, solid furnishings.  And a corner dedicated to the rowers who use Pocock shells.

The food matches the décor.  Nothing pretty, but well-prepared, simply-presented hearty fare.  My breakfast choice was the Greek Hobo, a scramble of eggs, potatoes, onions, mushrooms, and Greek sausage, topped with feta cheese.

The sausage was marvelous, with a good texture, firm but not overly coarse, and light seasoning.  But what made the dish was the gentle touch with the eggs.  Only enough egg was used to bind the other ingredients together.  It wasn’t an egg dish.  It was a potato and sausage dish that held together well.  It was also a meal that I could have again and again.

I was also tempted by the Chinese pancake, which you can watch on the video clip on Voula’s webpage.  Maybe next time. 
My only regret is that I now know that Voula’s opened its doors in 1984, three years before I moved from Seattle.  And it’s on a street that I often drove back then.  Had I found it back in 1984, I might never have moved away.

I was in the Northwest escorting my mother on a baseball roadtrip.  She’s a season-ticket holder for the Sacramento River Cats.  Beginning six years ago, she and I have taken annual roadtrips with the ballclub, giving her a chance to see her team in visiting uniforms.  We’ve gone to Portland, Albuquerque, Memphis, Nashville, and elsewhere.

I mention this because a feature of the each trip has been a meal with the ballclub’s radio broadcaster, Johnny Doskow, who has become a friend.  Doskow has been broadcasting in the Pacific Coast League for nearly fifteen years, which has given him the opportunity to find the best restaurants throughout much of the country.  Mother’s in Portland, Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis, Pancake Pantry in Nashville.  All were Doskow’s recommendations and all were good food.

In Tacoma, his recommendation was Southern Kitchen, a restaurant about a mile uphill from downtown Tacoma and nicely settled within the older residential grid of the city.

Not surprisingly, the cuisine was southern.  Perhaps more surprisingly, it was good southern food despite being about as far from the South as one could be in the U.S. without venturing to Alaska or Hawaii.

At the server’s recommendation, I went with the chicken-fried steak.  It wasn’t a regular breakfast choice for me, but I’m glad that I took the advice.  Nicely crispy, with a well-made gravy, and paired with a couple of eggs that were exactly as requested.  The only weak note was the grits and that was my fault.  I think I should like grits so keep ordering them.  But I’ve yet to find grits appealing and should just go with the potatoes.

In addition to good recommendations, the server also brought life to the meal with attentive service and a good line of patter.  When I asked for the check, “Skitzo” offered a sorrowful look and explained that he was no longer allowed to handle cash “after that $2,000 went mysteriously missing.”  When I went to the register to pay, Skitzo was there to take my money, explaining that he was “just  messing” with me.

Overall, solid food in a comfortable, enjoyable setting.  Highly recommended.

Lastly, I’ve twice mentioned Bab’s Delta Diner in this blog.  But I hadn’t yet found the right opportunity to eat there.  Recently, I was finally able to drop by Suisun City while it was open.  It was worth the effort.

Architecturally, Bab’s Delta Diner is a bit of a puzzle.  The exterior shell is consistent with the downtown redevelopment, a competent structure that seems recently built and fits with the waterfront theme of the redevelopment.  But step through the door and it feels like a diner of fifty years ago.  I don’t mean that in a negative sense, only that the layout seems a bit random and the furnishings are worn in the right spots.  It feels comfortable in a well-worn shoe kind of way.

And the food is consistent with that feeling.  Nothing very fancy, just good solid diner fare.  I had Rod’s Special, corned beef hash topped with cheddar cheese and a pair of poached eggs.  Normally I’d worry that the cheddar cheese would overpower the hash, but it was a full-bodied flavorful hash that allowed the cheese to be an effective complement.  And the eggs were done perfectly.

I arrived late in the Delta Diner’s business day.  People were still coming in the door, but the place was gradually emptying as the 2:00pm closing time approached.  As a result, the diner was overstaffed, with the young waitstaff clustered near the register, slightly giddy with the approach of a Saturday evening.

The young man who waited on me, a white teenager with a buzz cut, was in an effusive mood, quickly dubbing me “Buddy” and waiting on me with an alacrity that verged on haste.  I had to catch the silverware before it slid off the counter.  When he called the middle-aged African-American man next to me “Brother”, I found it a bit close to the edge, but no one took offense.

While I ate, the Olympic 10,000 meters was playing on a television, although the race length wasn’t being shown on the screen.   It was interesting to watch the waitstaff try to figure out the length, given the elapsed race time and the number of laps being run.

After long consideration, one decided that it was 100 meters (huh?).  Another went with 6 miles (close but the Olympics went metric before any of them were born).  A third came up with 9,000 meters (not a traditional race length).  They finally settled on 10,000 meters, but only after the high school teachers in the diner were hanging their heads in shame.

It was fun to watch the youthful exuberance.  Some patrons might have found it a distraction, but I enjoyed remembering the days of my youth.  And it reminded me that a primary reason for urbanism is leaving a more sustainable world for the next generation.  Even if they think that it takes nearly thirty minutes to cover 100 meters.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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