As I drove over the South Park Bridge at lunch time on a sunny weekday afternoon, I wondered if this would be the moment that the poor old thing would collapse. You can practically hear the 79-year-old bridge groaning under the weight of cars and failed hopes, feel it wincing with each gust of wind. But my car, one of the 20,000 vehicles that cross the bridge daily, made it over just fine. Below, the murky brown Duwamish River welcomed me to this small, neglected neighborhood.
The South Park Bridge has been given a federal safety ranking of 4 out of 100, giving it the dubious distinction of being seven times more vulnerable to an earthquake collapse than the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The structural problems are so extensive that there are no feasible repair options, and King County does not have the money to build a new bridge (more on this in a moment).
The South Park Bridge is scheduled for closure on June 30, 2010. If that happens, it will mean the end of the primary and most convenient connector many South Park residents have to their jobs and to the rest of the city. It may also mean the closure of South Park businesses and restaurants.
South Park isn’t big. Its main drag, 14th Avenue South, is just six or so blocks of businesses that reflect the neighborhood’s mostly non-white, mostly lower-income population: A multilingual information and drop-in center, a money transfer shop with signs solely in Spanish, the Mexi-Mart Discount Grocery (and bakery and music and clothing and housewares store), the South Park Suds Laundromat, and the Sea Mar Community Health Care Clinic, which was started by Latino community leaders in 1978 to serve low-income, underserved, uninsured people.
Similarly, when it comes to food, South Park’s got the basics covered: two teriyaki spots (one where you can also get pho), five Mexican joints, a bar serving hamburgers and steaks, a pizza place, Subway, a taco truck.
My favorite place in South Park—one of my favorite places in all of Seattle, actually—is Muy Macho Taqueria (8515 14th Ave S, 763-3484). Muy Macho has everything going for it: The tacos are not only great, they’re only 99 cents each. The meat—from peppery, smoky carne asada to rich, melt-in-your-mouth cabeza to soft, luscious lengua—is crisped up nicely on the griddle, letting all the little fatty bits caramelize into crispy bombs of pure, concentrated flavor, before it meets warm corn tortillas and is topped off with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and white onion. If you order al pastor, you get to watch as the pork is shaved right off a spit in the open kitchen.
Muy Macho serves up three kinds of house-made salsa alongside its tacos: a bright and sour tamarind-based mild, a medium green with plenty of tomatillo and cilantro, and a hot, neon-orange salsa that’s got just enough sweetness to make it more addictive than painful.
Muy Macho is also one of the few places that serve homey, time and labor-intensive sopas—often just weekend offerings at Mexican restaurants—every day: Menudo ($7.00), a hangover-slaying spicy stew filled with soft, slippery, pleasantly chewy tripe, and birria ($7.99), tender, slow-cooked beef in a complex chile-based broth, simultaneously fiery, earthy, and a wee bit floral. But my heart belongs to Muy Macho’s pozole ($7.00), a huge, deep bowl of hominy and fist-sized chunks of pork and the occasional stray, softened bone floating in a mild but porky and flavorful red-chile broth, its top a slick of pure crimson oil. It comes with a shallow plastic molcajete filled with lime wedges, shredded cabbage, diced onion, and radishes, to cut the soup’s richness. A handful of these accompaniments, a dash of salt and a little Mexican oregano from the shakers on the table, and you’ve got one of the most satisfying, soothing meals on earth.
Another place Muy Macho shines is in their Oaxacan specialties. They serve a mean (and massive) tlayuda ($10.95), a thick corn tortilla smothered in beans stewed with lard, topped with your choice of meat, some ho-hum lettuce and tomato, and wonderfully gooey strands of mild, melty Oaxacan queso.
Amid a sea of comfort food, the tamales Oaxaquenos ($1.99 each), specifically the pollo en mole negro, are transcendent: the thinnest possible layer of sweet white masa is spread over fragrant banana leaves that, when steamed, impart a slightly grassy, earthy flavor. It adds another dimension to what lies inside: moist, shredded chicken in a thick paste that holds what seems like a hundred different tastes: cinnamon, salt, chocolate, nuts, chili, incredible.
Among the other Mexican options in South Park, standouts include fresh fruit jugos at Tortas y Jugos Viry (which also doubles as a video store), a sweet family-run place where you can get fresh pressed drinks like the Vampiro (celery, beet, apple, carrot) and the La Vida Loca (banana, papaya, strawberry, orange). Two blocks away at the taco truck Taqueria El Rincon (8819 14th Ave S, in the 76 parking lot), tacos will set you back just $1.29 (the al pastor, slightly sweeter than most, has a strange allure) and huge tortas with piles of meat, avocado and pickled jalapenos are just $4.75.
If you prefer your meat in the form of hamburgers and steaks, you can’t do much better than Loretta’s, open since February 2008 (8617 14th Ave S) and easily the neighborhood's living room. The obvious word that comes to mind with this place is cozy: It’s tiny, with low ceilings, piles of board games and old records, and wood for days. The place is lined with plenty of gorgeous repurposed fir, and the bar is made of antique bleacher board from Garfield High School. The Tavern Burger (just $3!) is a star here, bigger than a mini-burger but not quite full size, served with cheese and pickles, as is the Tavern Steak ($13), a solid tasty slab of beef cooked exactly as you like it.
This is the food in South Park: basic, comforting, solid, reliable. We’re not talking fine dining, we’re talking sustenance: Real-deal, everyday, affordable food that people would cook for themselves if they had the time. At lunchtime, South Park is hopping. It’s where workers at Boeing Field or the many nearby gear and machine manufacturing businesses come for lunch. And how do they get here? By crossing that rickety bridge. With the bridge gone, getting to South Park could take as much as a half-hour more, which means business is likely to dry up.
The Seattle City Council calls the South Park Bridge King County's problem, since the county owns it. And while the bridge itself is in King County, the land on either side is in Seattle. The county applied for nearly $99 million in federal stimulus funds to fully pay for bridge replacement, but it did not receive the money. An aide to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) says the bridge failed to get funding, in part, because most stimulus grants went to projects that were almost finished.
Instead, the city (which was competing for the same federal money) was awarded $30 million to help transform South Lake Union's Mercer Street into a landscaped, two-way boulevard. This is the neighborhood where next year Amazon.com will move into its new 1.7 million-square-foot Vulcan village. The $30 million is part of a larger $1.5 billion fund created by Senator Patty Murray to help state transportation projects.
So while lower-income workers in South Park lose their lunchtime haunts, the future South Lake Union employees of Amazon.com, PATH, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will get an assortment of high-end restaurants from Tom Douglas (who will open two restaurants inside a Vulcan building on the Amazon campus), as well as Mistral Kitchen and Flying Fish. I think I understand the meaning of power lunches now.
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