In the hiearchy of U.S. food kingdoms, just where does Seattle fall?
The first tier is easy…New York, New York. For folks in the U.S, it’s the holy land of foodies, the mecca of all things culinary.
Second Tier is a more difficult to peg down. San Fran and New Orleans both make it by sheer quality. Chicago for diversity.
Thrid tier? Even harder to distinguish. I’d put Las Vegas, L.A., D.C on third tier, only for their restaurant scenes. Maybe Philly for the same reason. I’d even agree to Memphis on a third tier as a “must see” for barbeque.
But where to put Seattle? I’d put Seattle down for the third tier as well, but not for the reasons one may think.
It’s certainly not for its high end restaurants. Oh there are a handful of good ones here, don’t get me wrong. But other cities have more…Dallas comes to the top of my head.
No, what makes Seattle an essentially foodie haven comes down to two distinct reasons:
- - Its markets
- - Its street food
The Market part is easy to figure out, as we have one of the best open air markets in the country – Pike Place Market. One of these days I’m going to write a love song to the Market, I promise. But it’s not just Pike Place.
Commercially, we have places like Larry’s Market,Uwijimaya (http://www.uwajimaya.com/), PCC Markets, Central Market as well as two (soon to be three) Whole Foods locations and two Trader Joes. Then we have the little guys, the halal groceries on Aurora and Vietnamese shopkeepers on Jackson. What Seattle has is a vast diversity of tastes available to those who are willing to look for them.
Case in point, I can leave my seat right now, and come back two hours later with ostrich meat, BBQ’d chcken feet, fresh geoduck clams, freshly harvested honey, stinkfruit, queso fresco, and freshly ground ceylon cinnamon.
These, my friends, are what you call “options”. Options that people in other cities do not have available. We have fresh seafood here AND fresh farm foods. We have European cuisines AND Pan-Asian. What we don’t have here is the desire to elaborate upon these resources. This leads me to street food and the restaurant culture here.
Let me be very clear here: There are a handful of people doing truly wonderful and tasty stuff with food here. We have restaurants here that you will leave feeling inspired and struck with awe. The problem is, there’s only between 5-12 of them (depending on who you talk to). The rest of the high end restaurants are only treading on paths already trodden upon by chefs in New York or San Francisco.
Here’s the kicker tho’: the marketplace in Seattle is okay with that.
The question is…why? It’s not that the marketplace is ignorant. All you need to do is look at what restaurants aren’t here to understand that the people have some semblance of taste. What’s missing in the Seattle Metro area? Fast Food, and franchised sit down places. I live in the downtown area and I can count the amount of McDonald’s that I am aware of on one hand. The Burger Kings have recently closed up three shops, and I haven’t seen a Wendy’s since I moved here. The same lack of restaurants is in place for restaurants such as TGIFriday’s, Outback Steakhouse, or Olive Garden. These places are few and far between.
Instead, Seattle turns to places that sell Street Food. Street Food, for those of you wondering what it is, is a PC term for food that sells cheaply and quickly, but has yet to be co-opted by franchises. For example, think sandwiches.
Here in Seattle, I can get a really decent Philly Cheesesteak. I can also get a really good Hum Bow (essentially a chinese sandwich where the bun is steamed rather than baked). Bahn Mi? Hell yes. This culture of the sandwich is so prevelant here that we have chefs opening a subway sandwich shop.
But it’s not just sandwiches that can be defined as street food. Sushi, chicken teriyaki, Thai food, Tandori, even privately owned taquerias all do well here in some way or form. Then there’s the entire International District which is teeming with authentic Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines at prices that are more than simply reasonable.
All this, with wineries close by and a freakishly obsessive addiction to coffee. This is primarily what the Seattle food scene is all about. Why aren’t there more 4 star restaurants here? Because we don’t need them. Not when you can have ostrich meat, sushi, BBQ’d chcken feet, fresh geoduck clams, phad thai, freshly harvested honey, highly rated wine, dim sum, fresh coffee, queso fresco, chicken teriyaki and freshly ground ceylon cinnamon all at your fingertips.