Seattle Cheap Eats, A to Z
Dives, diners, delis, pop-ups, greasy spoons, holes-in-the-wall—and a few thrilling finds we guarantee you’ve never heard of.
AASADA Carne asada, that is. Particularly one that harkens back to the days when food trucks were frill-free affairs, before we started expecting them to produce crepes, Native American frybread, and jambalaya. El Camión (elcamionseattle.com), one of the city’s earliest mobile kitchens, is a throwback to the days when street food was just another way of saying “tacos.” The truck still tempts lunchers to the parking lot of a North End Home Depot, as well as newer Ballard and SoDo outposts. The bait: An unassuming list of tacos that will rock your world. Double-stacked corn tortillas filled with carne asada or beef cheeks, whitefish, or pork—run you from $1.45 to $2; both the menu and the half dozen salsas encourage mixing and matching.
BBIG BEEFY BURGERS In a burg where burger brilliance has long been determined by the fixins—see Dick’s, Burgermaster, Red Mill—a new standard has arisen: the beef. At the no-frills West Seattle lunchtime courtyard Inner Sanctum of the Temple of Porcine Love (swinerymeats.com) —trust us, the name will make sense once you’re eating—grass-fed, grass-finished, antibiotic-free beef makes impossibly flavorful burgers, especially when embellished with smoked sea salt or fresh bacon from the adjoining butcher shop, the Swinery. An outpost of the 8 Oz. Burger Bar (8ozburgerbar.com) chain extends the boutique carnage onto Capitol Hill, where herkin’ half-pounders are crafted of a sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck blend—that is, the ones that aren’t made of grass-fed beef or Snake River Farms Wagyu—and accompanied by insanely flavorful Kennebec potato fries. If these joints seem pricey for burger bars—Inner Sanctum $7 to $9; 8 Oz. $11 to $15—just think of them as cheapskate steak houses.
CCOCHINITA PIBIL In its five-month life, Fonda la Catrina (fondalacatrina.com) has become the toast of cheap-eatin’ Georgetown for its dazzling sense of place and its original take on a taco. Exhibit A: The cochinita pibil, the traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish, is a delectable plate of three corn tortillas filled with tart, Cara Cara orange–kissed Carlton Farms pork, frisky with habanero pepper and achiote seed and pickled onion. Nobody’s street food—tortas are on Macrina bread, tamales and posole are crafted of grass-fed, hormone-free meats—Catrina boasts a culinary reach that’s up there with its breezy, whitewashed, citizen-of-the-world ambience. Sipping margs on the back patio will get you somewhere with a date.
DDELICATESSEN Inside Dot’s Delicatessen (dotsdelicatessen.com), the friendliest little butcher shop in Fremont, is charcuterie for the rest of us—no highfalutin’ attitude here; just authentic, blue-ribbon franks and steaks and pastrami and more, crafted in-house into outlandishly tasty hot dogs on fresh herb-flecked rolls, $14 steak frites with, oh mercy, peanut-oil fries, and mile-high Reubens to make you take the Lord’s name in vain, loudly. Miles James is the meat maestro in this 18-seat house, and he’s as personable as he is skilled—entertainingly narrating a meat-grinding moment while grilling a New York steak and popping a Mexican Coke. Leave without some of his pate and you are a fool.
EETHIOPIAN Only slightly larger than Altaye Ethiopian Restaurant (206-353-5157) proprietor Titi’s smile, this dive along a particularly international stretch of Rainier Beach is tiny but significant. Here Titi cooks the doro tibs (chicken stew) and split red lentils and beef kitfo (raw beef with pepper) the way her mother, a restaurateur herself, did in southern Ethiopia. Her mother must be one amazing cook. Particularly notable are the chili-fired tibs—some of the most nuanced in a region of wonderful Ethiopian food—and the Altaye sampler platter, a $13 spread of enough vegetables and stewy meats and injera bread to stuff two and fill the fridge.
FFISH AND CHIPS How are we supposed to choose among the three best fried fish joints in town? By scoring ’em in a dead heat. Truth is, each has something unique to commend it. Wallingford’s Pacific Inn Pub (206-547-2967), a storied Stone Way pub with plenty of suds and genuine geezer cred, fries its wild Alaskan cod in panko, then undercharges for it at three crispy pieces with a mess of fries for $8.99. The old Totem House (redmillburgers.com/redmilltotemhouse.htm) in Ballard has its own long reputation for fried fish, only now done to the exacting specs of its new Red Mill owners, who drape the hand-cut cod in a cornmeal-matzoh flour—craggy, greaseless, redolent of Old Bay and thyme—then fry it in supremely flavorful peanut oil, for eating in at one of a few tables or, better, carrying across the street to the ship canal locks for a grassy picnic. Finally, Capitol Hill’s fish of choice comes from a joint wedged into the Pike/Pine thicket, Pike Street Fish Fry (206-329-7453), where hipsters line up into the wee hours for the freshest halibut, catfish, cod—even oysters—cloaked in an angelically fluffy golden batter, then fried to greaseless perfection. Served up with your choice of madcap dips—we prefer the chili mayo—and a terrific view of your car getting a ticket.
GGREASY SPOONS Heartwarming is the dive that makes shiny new Seattle feel gritty and old school; throw in terrific underpriced grub and you’re practically in West Philly. At the wood-paneled Loretta’s Northwesterner (lorettasnorthwesterner.com) in South Park, the beer’s dirt cheap, the vintage Airstream out back is yours for the sittin’, big cheeseburgers start at $3—and the only inauthenticity is that they’re worth eating. Over at The 5 Point Cafe (the5pointcafe.com) near Seattle Center (motto: “Alcoholics Serving Alcoholics Since 1929”), the huge menu stars chicken-fried steak—$11.50 worth of savory breading, real meat, and sausage gravy to feed you for three days—which the hipsters, families, suits, and derelicts eat in affable community, 24-7. The homemade pie may be the best in town. Like all greasy spoons worth their sodium—both places serve breakfast.
HHOT POTS Hot pot is a rare bargain meal that’s not designed to eat on the move, or after a night at the bars. Swishing thinly cut meats and other accompaniments through bubbling broth is interactive, demands focus, and comes with an element of strategy. At Gourmet Noodle Bowl (206-264-8899), offering hot pot seems a mere formality, since servers wouldn’t be able to hear you decline over the clinking of metal chopsticks as the roomful of diners dredge newly cooked meats out of steaming broth. The Chinese restaurant’s $15.95-per-person cost is similar to other establishments, except it includes more meat than you could possibly eat—but somehow you do. The standard dinner includes chicken and pork, along with rib eye and other usual suspects (tofu, udon noodles, greens). For a Japanese version, Shabu Chic (shabuchic.com) does individual pots and burners. The menu is small, but meat eaters need only concern themselves with the rib eye and its companion spicy miso broth.
IINVENTOR OF TERIYAKI His name is Toshihiro Kasahara, he gave Seattle its first teriyaki joint in 1976, he addicted the city, he franchised the concept, he triggered a trillion competitors and in 2003 he disappeared from the business. Since December the man that invented Seattle’s signature fast food is back, quietly running his sole property, Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill (toshisgrill.com), in the cleanest, brightest little storefront in Renton. You’ll note the difference right away: no cloying teriyaki syrup on overcooked chicken—but flame-grilled-to-order (it takes a minute) strips of moist bird, with a thin sweet sauce bright with ginger, a side of very good cole slaw, and Toshi’s old trademark: a football-shaped mound of rice. Nothing on the seven-item menu tops $6.35 (here portions are sane, not supersize like in most teriyaki joints).
JJAPANESE HOT DOGS The Pacific Northwest’s contributions to the nation’s culinary canon consist mostly of pristine ingredients…and teriyaki. One gloriously outlandish exception: hot dogs with Japanese-inspired toppings. The concept may have originated in Vancouver, but 140 miles to the south, Gourmet Dog Japon (@gourmetdogjapon) piles its beef franks with riotous combinations like bonito flakes, Kewpie mayo, pickled ginger, and grilled cabbage, while Tokyo Dog (tokyodog.com) food truck uses smoked-cheese bratwurst as a jumping-off point for grilled onions, bacon bits, furikake, Japanese mayonnaise, and tonkatsu sauce. These combinations may sound gimmicky, or even gross, but the best versions elevate the humble hot dog to something complex, artful, and usually $7 or less.
KKOREAN-HAWAIIAN FUSION It’s the age-old Seattle success story—Korean-Hawaiian fusion taco truck entrepreneurs go brick-and-mortar and win acclaim—and the result is big culinary intrigue at little (as in nothing over $7.50) prices. Sure, at Marination Station (marinationmobile.com/station), you could comfort yourself with the Spam sliders—here, Spam is food—but by some krazy koincidence the “K” foods shine brightest: fierce kimchi fried rice crowned with a sunny egg, smoky shreds of kalua pork on sweet Hawaiian rolls with slaw and sauce, and best of all, aromatic kalbi beef tacos with fresh crunchy vegetables. The Capitol Hill space is tiny, packed, and closes at 8.
LLITERALLY A CLOSET This Madison Street counter is where the term hole-in-the-wall was invented. Little Uncle (littleuncleseattle.com) is the project of chefs Wiley Frank and his wife Poncharee Kounpungchart, who celebrate her Thai heritage with sauteed-to-order servings of pad Thai ($8.80), accoutered with fresh vegetables and organic eggs; braised beef cheeks with pickles and fried garlic in soft steamed buns, kind of like Thai hum bao tacos ($3.30 each); and more, off a short rotating menu. The couple packages dishes in waxed paper if you take them to go—which you must in this nearly table-free zone. Just don’t go far; the noodles will get gummy. Parking is nonexistent, so call in your order first and bring your driver.
MMONDAY NIGHT POP-UPS Pssst: A growing number of, uh, noncheap Seattle restaurants go all economical on Monday nights, when the restaurant is closed but a guest chef transforms the space into an ethnic joint. The formidable Sitka and Spruce (sitkaandspruce.com) is our best-known exemplar, its James Beard Award–winning proprietor handing over the reins to Mexico native Alvaro Candela-Najera to produce his milk-soaked beef belly and al pastor tacos and more, at prices around $10. Other restaurants with affordable pop-ups have included the usually Italian Perché No Pasta and Vino (perchenopastaandvino.com), which has dedicated the last Monday of each month to Malaysian street food (cooked by Perché No’s owner); and the usually Spanish Olivar (olivarrestaurant.com), where the last Monday of the month has featured Harvest Vine line cook Irbille Donia’s Filipino cuisine, at prices mostly under $15. Schedules, plans, prices, and even days of the week vary crazily; pop-ups are, after all, the phenomenon Twitter built. Consult accordingly.
NNOODLE BOWLS The U:Don (freshudon.com) noodle shop on the Ave is constantly full of college students, but the menu most definitely appeals to diners who aren’t part of the shower caddy set. The owner took a page from Chipotle’s playbook, sending customers down an assembly-line kitchen counter to decree which sauce, broth, and toppings will dress up the thick housemade noodles. The end result can range from a heat-packing curry broth to chilled noodles, simply sauced and topped with a runny-yolked egg. Bowls cost between $5 and $8, and in the realm of cheap eats, U:Don’s menu is surprisingly light and healthy, if you manage to restrain yourself from the self-serve station of fried chicken and tempura vegetables, though this approach is not recommended.
OOMG BIBIMBAP As Korean food continues its steady march toward Next Big Thing, Bellevue’s Oma Bap (omabap.com) provides a shiny fast-food template for How It’s Done. In this sparkling spot along Bellevue Way, diners choose among meats to top the spicy veg-rice-egg dish known as bibimbap, the noodle-vegetable bowls called jap chae—even the fusion innovations loaded with cilantro and kimchi and fire that they call Korean tacos. (They’re inspired.)
PPIZZA How do you define cheap pizza? If it involves an 18-inch housemade Italian sausage, chopped garlic, mozzarella, and Mama Lil’s Peppers pie on a thin and golden-bubbled crust to feed four ravenous folks for $19—then make straight for Proletariat Pizza (proletariatpizza.com) in the heart of White Center, where a young family can dine for the price of a single Andrew Jackson. If cheap for you evokes something a little closer to, say, a hot mess of bacon cheeseburger toppings—ground beef, cheddar, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes; mustard optional—piled high atop 14 inches of golden puffy crust, delivered from a fun-loving, coupon-happy West Seattle takeout joint for $16.99…then your choice might be the fanatically beloved Red Star Pizza (redstarpizza.com), whose pies price out at about $4 per eater. As for those times when only Madison Park–level cheap will do, the tiny, triangular Independent (theindiepizzeria.com) is your spot for generous personal size pies, burnished with smoke and topped with beauties like crimini mushrooms and Genoa salami, for under $13 per person. Beer (off a great list) is extra.
Q’Q If sparkly, immaculate surroundings signify soulless BBQ, then it’s easy to understand why the ribs at the Barbeque Pit (206-724-0005) are downright thrilling. Dining niceties may be nonexistent here, but the personality of the owner, known as Pookey, is everywhere. His sagelike presence and funktastic music collection put this nine-month-old establishment on the fast track to Central District icon status. He tends the titular pit, a cavernous indirectly heated brick number that’s been in the building for decades, and serves spare ribs that are ribboned with fat, smoked until the meat easily parts ways with the bone, and slathered in sweet sauce. These practices violate some barbecue dictates from various regions in the South, but after one bite it’s really hard to muster any indignation. Your mouth will be too full anyway. Ribs like this demand time and effort, so the fact that a half pound runs you $8.50 (a dinner with two sides is $12.50) feels like a cheap eats miracle.
RROADHOUSE RED Why yes, cowboy, there is a bona fide roadhouse within Seattle city limits—and the bikers and beer guzzlers and barmaids and hillbilly headbangers who fill Slim’s Last Chance Chili Shack and Watering Hole (slimslastchance.com) couldn’t believe it when Bon Appétit sashayed in to pronounce its chili one of the 10 best bowls in the land. We believe it. The Texas Red ($8.75) is a fathomless bowl of feisty all-meat chili, by far the best in town, with such relentless intensity of flavor a cup ($5.75) might really do you. It’s not hot so much as it is spicy, and tastes particularly right lavished across jalapeno mac and cheese. A grassy lawn out the side door turns this screaming stretch of urban Georgetown into a little patch of back 40.
SSMOKY ROASTED CHICKEN We’ve not tasted finer roast chicken than the marinated, rotisseried bird at the tidy Peruvian San Fernando Roasted Chicken (206-331-3763) outlets in Lynnwood and the Rainier Valley. Smoky flavor suffuses the meat, from savory crackling skin all the way through (moist!) breast. Get a half ($9) or quarter ($7), served with forgettable fries and a dear little iceberg salad. Or dine the way the Peruvians do on salchipappas (beef franks sliced over papas fritas) and an Inka Cola (“Tastes like bubble gum!”). The long menu reflects Peruvian cuisine’s diversity of influences—spaghetti with soy sauce anyone?—and devotion to all things starch, corn to rice to cassava to beans to potatoes.
TTACOS That cliche that Seattle has no authentic Mexican food is now officially ridiculous: Tacos Chukís (206-328-4447), hidden in the upstairs warrens of the Broadway Alley building, drags eaters by the taste buds on a cheapo’s tour of Mexico City. Yes there are $3.70 baby burritos and $4.20 quesadillas in this slight and sunny second-floor slot (the latter, crafted of flour tortillas and carne asada, boast more mere aroma than your typical quesadilla has flavor)—but your first order of business has to be the two-buck tacos, swaddled in their corn cradles with plenty of cilantro, onion, salsa, and guacamole. And meat, like the deeply marinated adobada pork—carved off a vertical rotisserie and served with a slice of caramelized pineapple—which doesn’t wear its tingly, fiery flavor so much as exhale it. If there is a single more compelling taco in this city—bring it.
UUNBELIEVABLY CHEAP MOLE Forgive the visual, but after much debate we’ve concluded that the mole negro from sister restaurants La Carta de Oaxaca (lacartadeoaxaca.com) and Mezcaleria Oaxaca (mezcaleriaoaxaca.com) is the Seattle sauce we’d most like to bathe in. You know, if anyone asked. Matriarch Gloria Perez’s velvety concoction of ground nuts and chilies and chocolate and a thousand or two bracing aromatics is such a nuanced composition of fires and sugars, it ought to be flung much farther and wider than it currently is in a couple of howling storefronts. But for now we’re just happy we can get it at either place, draped across plates of spoon-off-the-bone chicken with rice and corn tortillas, for a stunningly underpriced 10 bucks.
VVIETNAMESE We hereby proclaim Vietnamese Seattle’s best-all-around affordable ethnic restaurant food, and our proliferation of banh mi and pho shops are only part of why. Everyone loves—see, they’re all ahead of you in line—the classic Green Leaf (206-340-1388) (now in the ID and Belltown), mostly for its $6.95 shrimp-packed banh xeo pancakes, but also for its salads, vermicelli bowls, and aromatic pho. Our newer obsession is Ben Thanh (206-760-9263) in the Rainier Valley, a sprawling place filled with Vietnamese diners licking chicken feet (and frog legs, and “pork inner part”…) off their fingers. Less adventurous diners will have a better time with the masterful pho, or the careful, beautifully sauced broken rice dishes topped with charbroiled short ribs or prawns.
WWORLDLY PIE People walking down King Street crinkle their nose, confused. Yes, that’s pizza you smell in the heart of the International District. The slice-and-pie spot that reigned in 1990s Belltown has been reincarnated in this unexpected address. Everything at World Pizza (worldpizza.tumblr.com) is bright—the red walls, the orange pleather couch, the spicy pizza sauce, even the Sriracha bottles that nod to the neighborhood’s palate. The pies are all meatless with crackerlike herbed crusts—a vegetarian’s reward for walking by the roasted ducks hanging in the window at nearby Kau Kau—but the signature potato, rosemary, and Gorgonzola combo somehow channels the complexity of spicy salami in thick disks of roasted red potatoes. Order a $3 slice or commandeer one of the dark wooden booths in the back and take down a whole pie and a few pints of Manny’s.
XXL PORTIONS Sometimes you’ve just gotta have it—a six-egg omelet, a 10-patty burger, a burrito big as a baby. Nobody’s naming these beasts the finest this or most authentic that—anyone jonesing for a 10-patty cheeseburger probably isn’t stressing the whole grass-fed thing—so we sincerely hope nobody’s too put off by the, shall we say, laid-back service at the all-night diner Beth’s Cafe (bethscafe.com), where there’s also a 12-egg omelet, but it’s not truly cheap. Or the fact that those who successfully eat the big kahuna 12-patty burger at Burger Madness (burgermadness.com) get their picture plastered on the wall. Or that at Gordito’s (gorditoshealthymexicanfood.com), a $9 burrito grande really is the size of a newborn human. (Just for the record, those burritos are made with fresh produce, lardless beans, grilled meats, and vegetarian rice—for those times when only the healthiest overeating will do.)
YYELLOW CURRY So it’s cash-only and there’s always a line. At Thai Curry Simple (thaicurrysimple.com) you’re already getting away with murder paying no more than $6-ish for Thai street curries this authentic and complex. The expats who run this show (now in South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and the International District) make their own curry pastes from lemongrass and galangal imported from the Mother Country, and the discerning palates who pack the place can taste the difference. The yellow curry, often with tofu, appears in a rotation along with green curry and panang and massaman; don’t despair if your favorite isn’t on the card when you come. They’re all exceptional.
ZZIPPY’S It’s the ultimate retro dive—hand-lettered sign, Pac-Man and gumball machines, red glitter banquettes—in the grim little heart of White Center. But the real nostalgia at Zippy’s Giant Burgers (zippysgiantburgers.com) is the prices—$4.50 to $10—which completely belie “you get what you pay for” economics. Burger meat is hand-ground daily, packed into fat mounds, charbroiled to smoky excellence, topped with crunchy iceberg and onion and tomato and Thousand Island–y sauce, served on a Kaiser roll, and guaranteed to make you rethink your position on American cheese. (Pssst: Spend your calories on the hand-dipped shakes, not the average fries.)