Red Mill Totem House Wows Ballard

By Kathryn Robinson December 23, 2011 Published in the January 2012 issue of Seattle Met


Eighteen years ago when co-owner Babe Shepherd opened the original Red Mill Burgers on Phinney Ridge, she worked with her former boss Tom Douglas to get the onion ring breading just right. This much cumin, that much cornmeal, peanut oil for frying. The results were crisp, zingy, and startlingly greaseless. Best onion rings in the city, easy.

Years passed, Shepherd and her co-owner brothers replicated Phinney Ridge in Interbay—then last year when the old Totem House Seafood and Chowder across from the Locks went on the market, they snatched it up and remodeled down to the studs, opening last October as Red Mill Totem House. Yep, that’s the old totem pole out front.

So how does the new joint stand up against its siblings? Let’s see…long menu of chicken, veggie, and beef patty burgers? Check. American-cheese-topped burgers that once dazzled but may not hold up so well anymore against some of Seattle’s newer burger joints? Check. Tidy spot too small for its following? Check. No credit cards, no cellphones, no Mondays? Check. Addictive smoky Mill Sauce? Check. Wicked-compelling mountain of pepper bacon beside the grill? Check check check!

But the new Red Mill is noteworthy for its departure into this address’s historic territory. To develop the breading for Red Mill’s first foray into fish-and-chips, Shepherd took once again to her test kitchen. “I didn’t want the fish to taste like the onion rings, and I wanted the fish to speak for itself, so I went online and looked up every fish breading I could find,” she says. “No one had spices in there! But I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this!’”

Boy, did she. Order the fish-and-chips and you’ll get hunks of hand-cut wild Alaskan cod—hot, fresh, flaky—encased in a cornmeal-Matzoh flour coating that’s craggy and greaseless and thick, involving Old Bay, whole thyme, and the rest of the recipe she’d have to kill me to give me. Finished in Red Mill’s signature peanut oil, Babe Shepherd has developed quite simply the finest fried fish in town. Like I said, the onion rings should’ve been our first clue.

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