Inside a quirky split-level space, formerly home to a teahouse, Brian Madayag melds the cuisines he and his cooking cohort grew up with, which range from Hawaiian to Filipino to a playful fusion of the two. Upstairs: a handful of tables, a bar serving tiki drinks, and a mural of a tentacled octopus. Downstairs: a long table, tons of games. You might start with a Filipino-style ceviche, a tombo tuna kilawen with fish sauce and calamansi, served with big rounds of airy shrimp chips. For something heartier he’s co-opted his Aunt Belen’s pork adobo recipe, a sure departure from tradition, here made with apple cider vinegar, braised pork shoulder, and pineapple served with white rice.
Inside a parking lot–adjacent cafe, encircled by bland hospital buildings, clinics, and accounting firms, dwells a most Hawaiian snack. A dense brick of slightly sweet marinated rice, a thin slab of teriyaki spam, all bound by a belt of nori, make up the musubi, an island staple that marries Japanese onigiri, or rice balls, with the salty meat miracle that is Spam. Owners Jamie Cancel and Brandon Sumailo opened Cafe Kai along sleepy Wheaton Way in 2016, where the Oahu natives serve the Hawaiian comfort foods they know best. Sticking to traditional flavors they grew up with, the menu includes a classic iteration of teriyaki Spam and gets more inventive with combos like Spam, bacon, and egg or Spam, bacon, and avocado—the Hawaiian avocado toast of musubi. Then there’s an extra two-piece musubi wherein kalua pork is sandwiched by two decks of rice and topped with furikake, a savory Japanese seasoning. The caffeinated beverages, much to the relief of harried nurses, remain.
Down in Georgetown, on a quiet street off Sixth Ave, lies this cafe that, ever so briefly, transports you to a warmer and decidedly laid-back place. Hawaiian reggae music gently booms out of the speakers inside its recently expanded space, where a case full of cakes and pies of all sorts, both whole and by the slice, make you think dessert for lunch is gravely underrated. Nab something like a slice of their passion fruit cake or coconut cream pie, or go the full-on pastry route with custard-filled Long Johns, aka America’s eclairs, and a lineup of malasadas—a holeless, Portuguese-style yeasted doughnut, will come coated in sugar, dusted in cinnamon sugar, or filled with various custards. And one is rarely, if ever, enough.
Long before Marination made Spam musubi and loco mocos cool again, before poke joints spread vaguely aloha vibes across the city, there was Kona Kitchen. At Maple Leaf’s fusty treasure of a Hawaiian diner, multiple dining rooms tricked out in grandma-meets-surfboard decor offsets warm service and seriously great kalua pig and fried chicken and classic breakfast, served all day.
Chef Mark Fuller transformed his high-end, award-winning Spring Hill Restaurant into the more affordable, more Hawaiian Ma‘ono. The mood now is lighter, as if the West Seattle storefront is suddenly more comfortable in its skin. The menu’s down-market superstars, such as the beef burger and the saimin noodle bowl (with the richest smoked pork and ham broth in town), feel like the heart of the menu, with plates of Hawaiian fusion in the form of a burger with kimchi-imbued cheese on King’s Hawaiian sweet buns or Spam musubi. But here, best is the succulent chicken for which they changed the concept: Every night (reserve early!) about 30 all-natural birds are brined, soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour, battered, floured yet again, fried in soybean oil—and, yes, fried one more time. The result is, well, perfect.
First there was the award-winning truck introducing us to Marination’s signature collisions of Korean and Hawaiian flavors. Then came the brick-and-mortar takeout, Marination Station—with another, simply Marination, now a lunchtime staple at Sixth and Virginia downtown. But the city’s favorite is Marination Ma Kai, just off the foot ferry on the West Seattle shore, which peddles pork katsu sandwiches, Spam sliders, fish-and-chips, Hawaiian shave ice, and booze—with a side of full-frontal Seattle skyline on the house.
At first glance, the former auto body shop with the raw-timbered, barrel-vaulted ceilings telegraphs old-school Americana—diner counter with barstools, TVs with the game on, ample, shaded patio, a free parking lot in downtown Columbia City—but a look at the menu shows the kitchen is actually a lab for inventive Asian fusion, heavy on the aloha. This is by far the most restauranty of the laudable, local Marination chain, with a menu spanning dishes from spicy salmon poke to intelligent comfort foods like, sigh, fries topped with kalua pork, kimchi mayo, and a fried egg. Open breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and the fried balls of yeasted dough known as malasadas, thank heaven, are available at all of ’em.
Poke is like the Lisa Frank of bowls: an Instagram-worthy rainbow of colors from pink salmon, verdant layers of lettuce and seaweed salad, and bright-orange fish roe. And 45th Stop N Shop and Poke Bar was one of the first to bring the picture-ready bowls to Seattle. Its Wallingford minimart-slash-poke-deli setup has Hawaiian style all over it: Reminiscent of small, roadside general stores on the islands, co-owner John Chung sells poke bowls alongside aspirin, travel-sized condoms, and rolls of toilet paper. It still draws long lines through the shop, but now the Amazon masses and other South Lake Union lunchgoers can get their share of poke at a new location double the size of the original. The menu remains much the same at the latter, except no poke burritos but there is a new kimchi edamame. Also new here: booze!
Seen one poke shop in this town, you’ve seen the other 500, right? Not so—this Belltown spot lets you assemble a bowl with uncommon add-ins like octopus, pickled radish, or crispy lotus root. Staff suggestions keep all these choices from becoming overwhelming, and you walk away with a healthyish lunch that bursts with color and texture.
The Le brothers embraced poke as an offshoot of their family’s commercial tuna fishing business in Hawaii. Now they marinate, lightly, salads of raw tuna, salmon, and octopus in a corner space facing Hing Hay Park. It’s destination-worthy fare, even in a town overrun with poke shops. Especially when you factor in the mason jars of pineapple Dole Whip (which, P.S., is also available at Tom Douglas's Assembly Hall).
Part of Seattle’s second wave of food trucks to go brick and mortar, the teal and pink pokemobile backed by prominent Hawaii chef Sam Choy has now spawned four restaurants in two states, including a brand new location along Kirkland's waterfront. The original, cleanly appointed outpost on Rainier Ave serves a bevy of marinated raw fish salads—on rice, over greens, and stuffed in wraps or even tacos. Otherwise, this chill counter-service spot tends toward the meaty, scooping rice and mac salad alongside teriyaki short ribs, pork belly, and garlicky fried chicken. Poke purists can sneer all they want at the happy hour poke nachos, or reconstructed musubi that resemble gonzo flair–drenched Americanized sushi rolls—but they’re damn good fun with a cold beer.
Some seriously delightful expats from Mutual Fish and City Fish opened a seafood market in a nondescript building at 23rd and Jackson that is so much more than just a seafood market. The deli counter serves up multiple iterations of absurdly fresh poke, a mac salad made with smoked salmon, fresh uni and oysters, smoked salmon belly, shrimp cocktail, and the perfect handful of beers to wash it all down. One of the Central District’s favorite destinations for a convivial lunch is also an after-work godsend for picking up dinner.
For more than a decade, Island Soul has melded Caribbean flavors with creole cookery—washed down with a healthy dose of rum—along Columbia City’s shop-lined thoroughfare. Crackle into a plate of tostones, plantain chips with sweet red onions, which taste wickedly fried but are actually roasted in garlicked oil. End to end the long menu is just terrific—from the jerk chicken, suffused with smoke and jumping off the bone; to the fried snapper, lavished with a powerful escovitch sauce full of onions and peppers; to a platter of curried goat, packing a perfect little sting; to the sweet, moist coconut corn bread. It’s soul food gone Caribbean with flavors every bit as bright and vivid as the sunshiny place and its friendly welcome. Desserts redefine decadence.
Painted bright yellow inside, with greenery atop repurposed rum barrels, this shack exudes the smoky aroma of an island-style cookout. Belltown suddenly feels much more Caribbean, thanks to chef Trey Lamont. Let Jerk Shack transport you to a warmer world—with warm service—in which two can share a half jerk-spiced fried chicken rustically served on a wood slab with medallions of crispy plantain. Extend this tropical retreat with rum punch. Even better if the rum’s sipped out back, under the sun, in the fenced-in patio.
Along Market Ave, the historically Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard gets a taste of island life at this Puerto Rican restaurant and rum bar. It's one of the few places in the whole region slinging cuisine that hails from the Caribbean island—savory, deep-fried plantains (tostones), layered Puerto Rican–style lasagna known as pastelón that's filled with sweet plantains, mozzarella, and slow-roasted pork or beef. Order a round of rummy mojitos and La Isla is an antidote for a dreary Seattle day.
Imagine if every hole-in-the-wall with a patio offered food as flat-out stunning as chef Manu Alfau’s tribute to his Dominican heritage: yam and smoked gouda empanadas with sofrito, sloppy baguette sandwiches packed with salted green tomatoes, a puerco asado plate whose rice and beans could proudly stand alone.
At the newer Wallingford iteration of the cheerful U District classic, the jerk chicken sandwich reigns supreme. A round of fried coconut bread provides the fragrant and bewitchingly crunchy wrap for fire-breathing morsels of moist white and dark meat in jerk spices, gussied with cabbage and peppers. Insanely flavorful.
The closure of this legendary sandwich shop in Fremont prompted its fans to shed actual tears and leave flowers at its flaming-hued front door. Until a longtime Paseo fan purchased the restaurant at a bankruptcy auction and hired some former employees to reverse engineer the menu, including the famed Caribbean Roast sandwich—a gloriously sloppy spectacle of roast pork, aioli, and grilled onions. The reborn Paseo now has two outposts around town, accepts credit cards, and is open on Sundays. The lines: long as ever, but fairly speedy.
The sons of the original Paseo founder opened Un Bien with their dad’s recipes—which makes this Caribbean roast sandwich the legendarily messy original: pork shoulder, caramelized onions, pickled jalapenos, all on an aioli’d Macrina roll. A blast to eat, especially with a cob of slathered grilled corn—but have multiple napkins handy. Two locations bookend Ballard.
It was open for a decade in Queen Anne next door to its cocktail lounge sibling Tini Bigs. But in 2017, this long-standing tiki-karaoke bar—that would sling tropical drinks 365 days a year regardless of any chilly weather outside its doors—opened in its new home on Capitol Hill. Off East Olive Way, this den of Polynesian kitsch serves up island-themed bites and tiki cocktails fuel karaoke vocalists who sip on mai tais and daiquiris between renditions of REM’s “Creep” or “Hot in Herre” by Nelly.
Ballard, with its maritime heritage and preponderance of craft cocktails, might be the missing link between Seattle and tiki. Here, some of the guys behind Ocho and Hazlewood have opened Hotel Albatross, where Edison bulbs dangle over bartenders affixing tiny umbrellas on orders of pineapply puka punch and the vibe is part Canon, part Cast Away. The bar food hops from puffy tacos to pork belly pinch buns and even a rare sighting of Burmese-style fermented tea leaf salad—any country with a tradewind and a spice profile is fair game. Original rum creations and drinks from America’s earliest tiki days are resurrected with perfect balance.
This cocktail bar sibling to No Anchor and Rob Roy puts a modern spin on tiki, via sleek midcentury decor and a drink list that mixes classics (zombies, mai tais) with modern creations inspired by tropical flavors. The food menu is heavy on crudo, fancy chips and dip, and dishes inspired by whatever spot on the globe currently holds court on the drink menu—every six months, Navy Strength celebrates the flavor profiles of a new country.
The palm-thatched, bamboo-adorned evolution of the No Bones About It vegan food truck has morphed into a fully formed coastal-inspired plant-based restaurant in Ballard. Seattle has its fair share of dreary weather to be sure, so No Bones Beach Club was born, a bastion of tiki-inspired cocktails and an oasis of paradise. Truly, it doesn’t get more offbeat than “vegan tiki bar.” Surfboards hang on the walls, Blue Crush plays on the TV over the bar, and just about every table has a towering plate of nachos, with cashew and smoked poblano faux queso as a decadent stand-in for the real thing. It’s food even an omnivore can love, and you’d have to be made of stone to resist a boat drink (painkillers, mai tais, a creamy coconut mojito) bedecked with a paper umbrella.
Tango’s rum-focused sibling bar exudes a languorous Havana vibe and fashions its signature spirit into a festive tiki drink, four perfectly balanced types of daiquiri on shaved ice, or something deep, dark, and moody as Papa Hemingway on a bad bender. Latin-tinged bar food includes spicy-sweet wings that are smoked, then fried, and tacos with sophisticated fillings like sauteed summer squash and pork dusted with peppery achiote. Save room for a sipping rum to finish off the night; a seat at the bar doubles as a fascinating seminar in the spirit’s regional nuances.