I DON’T BELIEVE I’ve had duck in nachos before, but it takes them to a whole new level,” observed the Teenage Foodie, arranging bits of green olive and red pepper and cheese-drizzled duck onto a phyllolike chip. “I admire the Mediterranean interpretation.” Admirable it was, not to mention unexpected in a joint called Skillet Diner.
From its perky presence on the edge of Pike/Pine, with its spring green banquettes and shiny chrome and white subway tile, a visitor from a faraway galaxy might be forgiven for expecting chicken potpie and corned beef hash and waffles on its paper place mat menus.
And those things are all there. Except that the chicken is free range, the corned beef hash “deconstructed” with fennel and fingerling potatoes, and the waffles crowned with maple-braised pork belly. As most everyone from this galaxy knows, Skillet Diner is the enterprise of a guy who has redefined comfort food in all manner of progressive Seattle ways by peddling burgers, pork belly waffles, and the best poutine in town out of a roving Airstream trailer for the last four years.
Back then, the year Twitter took off, Skillet Street Food beamed its first GPS signal out of its first parking lot and became the original non–taco truck in Seattle. Owner and chef Josh Henderson had graduated from New York’s Culinary Institute of America, but rejected the standard line cook route in favor of cooking out of a tricked-out truck for crews on photo shoots. Why not apply that mobile concept to the dining public at large?
Skillet Street Food was an instant success, drawing to the Airstream’s order window the kind of lines astronauts can see from space. Sure it was a short menu based on burgers and fries, but the burgers were grass-fed, built on brioche buns, and topped with cambozola cheese and bacon jam. Plus, finding Skillet’s daily location via GPS and tweet lent insider cachet. Customers came for the novelty. They came back for the bacon jam.
Call it Henderson’s cash sow (he calls it his kid’s college education): Skillet Bacon Spread is a concoction of bacon, onions, Balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, and spices that Henderson invented, Martha Stewart discovered, and he and a partner now retail across the universe. Skillet’s reputation and range soon outgrew the Airstream’s capacity. Henderson longed for more refrigeration. Booze would be nice and maybe the sort of menu items that break compostable knives. He opened—then closed—a walk-up window in the International District, then flirted with a few other spaces before he found the corner of 14th and Union, where he opened Skillet Diner in May.
The room is sunny with a clean retro sparkle—just like an Airstream—filled with earnest plaid-clad hipsters delivering swift service across the demographic world party that is Capitol Hill. Pierced people and pensioners and boy couples and young families pack into booths or line up at the diner counter or the bar, sipping drinks out of Mason jars and watching the grill jockeys burn off their arm hair and bark “Runner!” when an order’s up.
Diner tropes notwithstanding, when the first thing you spy upon entering a diner is a chef studiously zesting a lemon, you know there’s gastronomy afoot. Salads are buoyant—enlivened with imported anchovies, Grana Padano cheese—and ruffled with kale. Fresh fruit drinks feature flavors like grapefruit-pineapple-orange, speckled with floating confetti of apple and basil.
A plate of Southern fried chicken contained three meaty Draper Valley pieces, swaddled in fluffy breading robust with fennel seeds and a dozen other spices, then expertly cooked, drizzled with honey, and presented with potato salad. (Portions are enormous across the board.) Meat loaf arrived as a thick slice of artisan Duroc pork and local beef, edged with bacon, over mashed potatoes and fresh charry asparagus. A generous loop of rich gravy artily encircled the plate. The flavor was bravely porcine, as is so much else in this bacon jam emporium. The dish was terrific.
Diner tropes notwithstanding, there’s serious gastronomy afoot.
What these dishes have in common is the courage of their flavor convictions. That courage is Skillet Diner’s calling card, as rare in the populist diner world as it is admirable since vivid flavors are bound to offend as many palates as they satisfy. Not every diner will take to the robust wintry (cinnamon, clove, and the like) curing spices on the housemade pig-jowl bacon called guanciale, but there they are, powerfully flavoring the Barry Sandwich breakfast biscuit along with eggs and cheese. That willingness to veer away from lowest-common-denominator approval ratings, as in those masterful duck nachos, is a mark of culinary cojones.
So it was doubly sad when the biscuits were dry and flavorless, and the cheese was—gaah!—American. (In my view, good food is good food, regardless of pedigree. American cheese—bland, processed—is not good food.) Inexplicably, American cheese reared its plasticky head all over the joint, gluing Painted Hills beef to its bun in an otherwise solid Basic burger; compromising perfectly blameless cheddar and brie by its very presence in a grilled cheese sandwich on brioche bread with bacon jam.
“You know, the flavor is brielike but the silky texture’s pure American,” the teenage connoisseur pointed out, licking a piquant drip of bacon jam from her wrist. Desserts were by this time strewn across our table—a pot of lush lemon curd with shortbread, a sensational apple pie for two served in a cast-iron skillet with a trellis crust buttery as a good tarte Tatin—but she kept coming back to the grilled cheese sandwich.
“Maybe American cheese isn’t so terrible after all,” she finally pronounced, crunching into the toasted brioche and pulling back strings of melted goo. Seattle’s got plenty of restaurants catering to foodies—but if there’s a joint in town that better satisfies the “comfort foodie,” this critic doesn’t know it.