ACCORDING TO THE last available census, the population of King County has become fully 15 percent foreign born—the largest number in nearly a century. A person can learn that fact, but she won’t truly know it until hers has been the only Anglo face in a South End Salvadorean bakery, or the only English tongue in a packed Factoria dim sum parlor, or until she has shared a bowl of pelmeni in East Bellevue with a Russian grandmother whose vigorous nodding and rolled-back eyes deliver a restaurant review in any language.
The fact is, King County’s 268,000 immigrants have sprinkled bold new flavors across the metropolis; flavors Seattle natives like myself wouldn’t have dreamed of back when Chinese food was the far shore of exotic and we went to Chinatown to get it. Now we’re not so surprised to find delicious Afghan qorma in the suburbs or wonderful Cambodian sour duck soup in a strip mall or to learn, as we did a few months back, that Seattle had become one of the few districts in the country to add ethnic entrées— Vietnamese banh mi, Somali spaghetti—to its school lunch menus. Anyone who’s been through White Center lately or Bellevue’s Crossroads Mall or the uncharted northerly reaches of Aurora Avenue North—or the International District formerly known as Chinatown—knows that where emigrants roam, extraordinary food will follow.
So we contacted King County’s demographer, Chandler Felt, who gave us the most recent (2000 census) numbers for each foreign-born population. Then we asked them where they eat, from the Ethiopian cabbies downtown to the Vietnamese Radio Shack jockeys in Rainier Valley, from the Russian shopgirls of Bellevue Square to a lovely British expat we’re pretty sure would have to kill us if he told us exactly what he was doing in Asia for so many years. They told us their favorites; we chose one of each to share with you, and listed the size of the foreignborn population alongside. A number-one list for each cuisine? C’mon, could you name your favorite child? Think of them instead as the ethnic restaurants we just adore.
FOREIGN-BORN POP. 29,285
5431 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle WA
The brick walls of old Ballard meet the terra cotta tiles of old Mexico in the single most teeming, table-turning, earsplitting, salsa-sloshing sensation in town. While you’re waiting for your table—it’s not a matter of if in this reservation-free zone—thank the Dominguez family, who emigrated from Oaxaca and brought their home-cooking matriarch with them. There she is now behind the salsa bar, making mole in the open kitchen. It’s a lush, sweeter-than-standard rendition and an intricate complement to the pork and tortillas in the Number 18. Another stunner is the entomatad a plate, in which marinated paper-thin strips of grilled beef arrive with folded corn tortillas in one of the finest tomatillo sauces north of the border. From the wall of arty light-box photographs to the SRO bar in back, the place couldn’t be more Ballard—which renders its deeply authentic food and dirt-cheap down-to-earth humor all the more revelatory. Closed Sunday.
FOREIGN-BORN POP. 26,813
12450 SE 38th St, Bellevue
Top Gun’s fervid popularity is best expressed by the proliferation of “No restaurant parking!” signs in its shared Factoria parking lot. Its authenticity is verified by the burble of Cantonese one hears throughout the vast dining and banquet rooms, reflecting that almost twice the percentage of Chinese-born live in Bellevue than in Seattle. Happily its welcome exceeds that provided by the really depressed lingcod in the lobby’s live tank—and its food almost always exceeds expectations. The storied draws are the daily dim sum (weekdays 11AM–3PM, weekends 10–3)—featuring pot stickers of deserved renown—and the seafood, whether the fat, sweet honey-walnut prawns at one end of the adventure scale or the steamed whole sea creatures at the other. The special assorted hot pot, crammed to the brim of its big clay bowl with beautiful shrimp, scallops, squid and abalone, is a fragrant masterpiece.
FOREIGN-BORN POP. 25,911
1036 S Jackson St, Seattle
It had to happen. Many local Vietnamese eateries serve good food at miraculous prices, but their decor varies from plain to shabby to lurid. Now one cooks it even better and presents it prettily in a beautiful, low-lit, exotic-Deco space, complete with miraculous prices. Tamarind Tree does the classics right: steaming noodle soups, suitably seared satay morsels and half chickens, chicken as well as the usual beef in fragrant la lot leaves. The rice-paper wrap-up platter trimmings are generous, the side sauces suitably pungent. And the capacious menu is seeded with novelties: In the Tamarind Tree Rolls, crispy fried cracker and tofu give an enlivening edge to the fresh, bland goi cu’on. Squid stuffed with pork and mushroom, like giant chicken hearts, deliver an overpowering earthy rush. “Yellow fish,” crispy bite-size chunks dredged in turmeric, are a beer treat looking for a tropical beach. The kumquat martini is the standout sip. With all the care lavished on food, presentation and decor, it’s almost reassuring that the cheerful servers always seem to forget one item. Otherwise Tamarind Tree might be too perfect.