Sawyer's oxtail nachos.

Image: Lauren Segal

Chef Mitch Mayers harbors a particular fondness for the customer who proclaimed Sawyer’s jojos even better than the ones his mom used to fry up at her job at a gas station.

It isn’t a surprise, exactly, that Mayers’s food exceeds something sold in the company of Tic Tacs and chew. After all, his cavernous Ballard restaurant treats thick potato wedges with care usually reserved for fried chicken. They’re brined, then dredged twice in a flour seasoned with a score of spices that recall how Cool Ranch Doritos might taste in your dreams. They arrive in a haphazard golden stack, crisped and cragged carbscapes with soft, yielding centers, scattered atop buttermilk ranch like an upended game of Jenga.

But this dark-eyed chef with a certain compact intensity set out to make food that’s “reminiscent of something.” His menu—from the spot prawns atop cubes of watermelon to bone marrow matzo ball soup, even choco tacos—is almost an autobiography told via share plates.

Mayers's much-ballyhooed choco tacos.

Image: Lauren Segal

Before he struck out on his own—before he refashioned a long-ago sawmill off Ballard Ave into a haven of angular industrial fixtures, whitewashed walls, and cozy lamp-lit booths—Mayers headed the kitchen at Lark. That’s a long way from his first food job, mixing cotton candy sugar at age 14 at the state fair for a family concessions business that stretches back three generations.

You can see the skills that propelled Mayers upward in one of the town’s eminent Northwest kitchens in Sawyer’s wild boar ribs: diminutive, tender, even better with a liberal coating of mustard barbecue sauce. Also in the halved artichokes, woodsy from the grill and blanketed with chopped hazelnuts and parmesan. His fair food background can be overt, too; elephant ears surface occasionally on the dessert menu, a brioche dough whose cinnamon-sugar dusting carries the subtle charge of allspice, clove, and even cardamom.

Playful food. Fancy food. A high-low supercut fueled by nimbly balanced cocktails in a room carefully layered in herringbone walls and storm-blue trim. Take Sawyer at face value and it’s still worth an immediate drive to Ballard. But there’s more to this place, a certain synergy between distinct halves of Mayers’s mind that transforms his plates into something more ingenious.

Sawyer’s bar, forever busy.

Image: Lauren Segal

Sawyer’s innocuous, buff-colored paper menus ignite a visceral response. Oh my god. I want. To eat. Everything. Which is no accident: Mayers’s career progressed from sugar-spinning to culinary school and Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, then the famously crowd-pleasing Hillstone restaurant chain. In 2014, he left a chef gig in Denver to work at Lark, and consult for his family on new concessions (like a stand called Bacon! Bacon!! Bacon!!!). Along the way, he gained an almost bionic insight into what people want to eat on outings given over entirely to fun and excess.

The best part of porchetta is the crispy skin; Sawyer’s version expands that crackled pleasure to the entire surface area of each slice. It’s straight-up technique, really—a deft use of cast iron and a 500-degree oven on already-rendered rotisserie pork. But the result feels like sleight of hand, meat suffused with the shattering charms of a really excellent croissant.

A mozzarella-stuffed flatbread Mayers tried at Chi Spacca in LA inspired one of Sawyer’s most mind-blowing bites. A seemingly benign round of whisper-thin, blistered dough plays Trojan horse for filling that seems, somehow, equal parts nacho cheese and cured meat. Mayers worked for ages to perfect the emulsified combo of pimento cheese and spreadable ’nduja sausage, two melty indulgences that risk grease overload in each other’s company. But showmanship stays in kitchen; on the menu, this monumental creation goes by the supremely forgettable moniker of “cheesy bread.”

Mayers’s fluency in cravings elevates his higher-end dishes, but the inverse is true as well. A deliberate series of techniques deliver those crispy jojos, and similar levels of labor refine oxtail nachos: The long, low fry keeps chips crispy long after they’re tossed, chilaquiles style, in salsa roja, then showered with rich braised meat, cotija, cilantro, and cheerful slivers of pickled red onion. The chef says the frenzy over his choco tacos caught him by surprise (also freakout-worthy: the dilly bars of cookie dough semifreddo). Never underestimate the nostalgia-summoning powers of housemade peanut butter ice cream with a ripple of toasted meringue stuffed inside graham cracker waffles. They’re pressed on an old-school waffle iron his grandfather once used at the fair.

Sawyer’s steam buns, porchetta platter, ricotta ringed in seasonal fruit, and massive jojos.

Image: Lauren Segal

After the cheesy bread, the artichoke leaves, the sauce-coated nachos, yearnings for a hot hand towel usually arrive just before dessert. Still, Mayers busts the cliche that chefs who open restaurants give less consideration to the front of house—tables have room to breathe, chairs are comfortable, servers pay close attention. And while it’s fun to spot carnie influences woven into the texture of such a confident, polished restaurant, Mayers says his family’s Jewish heritage is perhaps even more evocative than its history with the fair.

Inhale the aroma of Sawyer’s dungeness crab roll and you’ve leapt into his childhood memories of bagels with lox and schmear. An everything bagel’s worth of sesame seeds, garlic, and onion perfume—and coat—the sandwich roll, whose interior is less chewy bagel than world’s best hot dog bun. Inside, bright crab, taramasalata with a canny dash of actual cream cheese. On top, gravlax whose delicate cure nudges just a shade past sashimi. Matzo balls were never so decadent before Mayers added bone marrow. “It didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense” to serve them when Sawyer opened in the heat of August, he says, “but it meant a lot to me to have them here.” His solution was porchetta-level brilliant; dumpling-like balls float in a light, herbacious pho broth, a cultural union of comfort food.

Even those gas-station-superior jojos have meaning. Mayers’s mom procured these when he was home sick as a kid, along with a corn dog, as his “get better meal.” She bought hers at QFC.

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Sawyer

$$ American/New American 5309 22nd Ave NW

A cavernous 1920s-era sawmill building just off Ballard Ave is now home to oxtail nachos, crisped porchetta platters, nduja-spiked “cheesy bread” and other d...