"That's a small plate?" our dinner companions exclaim the first time we take them to La Cocina & Cantina (432 Broadway E, 323-1675) on Capitol Hill and order a regular-sized nachos frijoles for an appetizer. Yes, indeedy. La Cocina's nachos are something else: volume-wise, nobody else comes near 'em. The chips are light and slightly salty, and taste fine with the red and green salsas you're served upon seating. But hold onto them, because you'll need them to rescue all the toppings from a frijoles plate: If you don't eat the whole thing in 15 minutes (and we've yet to meet the person who can), the chips at the bottom turn to mud underneath the endless layers of cheese, beans (black or refried), and diced tomatoes. Who said dot-com mania was the city's only excess?
Best fast food
Why order a Big Mac when you can have a Vietnamese sandwich, or banh mi, for no more than $1.50? These fresh-tasting sandwiches start with crusty, fresh bread, often made on the premises in a tradition left over from French colonialism. In the middle is your choice of pork or chicken, with pickled vegetables and cilantro. What's more, they usually take about two minutes to prepare. You can get them in joints all over the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill. We like a particular little hole in the wall called Eden Bakery and Deli (4860 Beacon S, 725-4263), where we have our sandwiches (a whopping $1.35 each) with guava juice and homemade French pastries, and where we usually buy a baguette to go.
Best way with fish
How does Monsoon (615 19th E, 325-2111) do it? It's not just the unlikely combinations of spices that somehow always work or the pristine ingredients. It's the perfection of the cooking, not just sometimes, not just most of the time—but always. How does baking halibut in a clay pot give it that phenomenally delicate crust? How does a banana-leaf wrapping transform salmon into maritime manna? Other people make spring rolls out of fresh crab and shrimp: How come only Monsoon's are nuggets of ambrosia? Who thought up combining scallops with yam crisps, and why does such an off-the-wall pairing work? The staff seem easygoing, neither obsessive nor secretive about the miracles emerging from the kitchen, one after another. Black magic seems the only explanation. Which is fine with us, so long as we can go on ordering that Chilean sea bass with 16 spices.
Best cold/flu cure
The thing you want most in the cold-and-flu season is the thing you can't have: soothing, throat-coating, creamy soup. Chicken noodle is fine (at least the first few dozen times you see it), but it doesn't feel as good as the cow-positive sort. Avgolemono ("egg-and-lemon") soup is to Greek comfort cuisine what chicken broth is to American. The trick is in the egg handling: Done right, a hearty avgolemono is less egg-flower and more cream-of, without that troublesome dairy. Better than your average Greek restaurant at providing ricey-eggy-lemony goodness is Fremont stalwart Costas Opa (3400 Fremont N, 633-4141), which makes a light, tangy version. (The very best bowl, of course, is the one you convince your significant other to drive forth and fetch for you, you being too sick to travel and all.)
Best tartar sauce
Smear it over yer chips, yer fishes, and anything else handy on yer plate at the Elysian Brewery (1221 E Pike, 860-1920) and... mmmm. Oh, boy. Sakes alive, this is some good, good shit. This is no milquetoast offering from a Heinz bottle, no pedestrian coupling of Miracle Whip and pickle relish. What can you say about perfection? First of all, it's white, which is a good color for tartar sauce. It's spicy, with lots of nice horseradish. It's rich, robust, and exploding. Other than that, holy moly! Order it for your French fries, on your salad, for your soup, and then dump it in your beer. Do they bottle this stuff? Can I buy it by the gallon? Does it double for skin cream? Will a dab behind the ear drive the ladies crazy? Would I ever leave the apartment had I access to a stash of such tartar goodness?
Best corned beef hash
Hash browns and toast, while tolerable, don't have much taste. Which leaves us with the perfect breakfast item: corned beef hash. All right, so a lot of people might want to play the "but I don't like corned beef" card. But it doesn't matter what you think, because if you're truly Irish, you like corned beef. So for all you corned beef nonconverts, let me point you in the direction of the hash emporium this side of County Cork: Glo's on Capitol Hill (1621 E Olive Wy, 324-2577), where it ain't dumped out of a can. Glo's takes the time to chop up meaty cubes of the spicy, red carnivore's delight into a fresh bed of potato shreds, sending you off on your journeys with a green-kilted spring in your step.
Best roast turkey sandwich
In the past, we've gone on about the Seinfeldian virtues of the Classic Deli (822 First, 622-7102) and their giant chef's salad. But this unassuming, cafeteria-style lunch spot is also home to the best roast turkey sandwich around. For $4.99, they'll pile your choice of bread high with gobs of turkey meat, just like you'd picked it off the bone after Thanksgiving. It's not pressed, smoked, or cured; it's not the kind of limp, pallid, bleached fowl you often find nestled between two slices of Wonder Bread at other joints. This is the real, fresh, juicy stuff. Ask for whatever mixture you like: white, dark, cranberry sauce optional. We prefer two slices of sourdough, mayo, a hint of lettuce, and nothing but dark. Bring it on.
Best funky roadside espresso stand
Going into a semi-catatonic state and imbibing caffeine are not complementary activities, as the folks at Java Mama's Espresso (9714 NE Juanita Dr, Kirkland, 425-820-5282) know. They offer tons of syrup flavors, as opposed to the lackluster, minimalist options at most coffee chains (really, how many times can you order a shot of vanilla?). They make sno-cones instead of "blended juiced tea," and they're small enough that one broken machine can force them to close early. Were it merely for these features, however, this little stand across the street from Juanita Beach Park would be nothing special. But, dammit, Java Mama's is fun! Old records and Elvis and Marilyn pics adorn their bright pink exterior, and signs posted by the street offer discounts to those who can successfully answer the day's ridiculous question: "What was the name of Oscar the Grouch's worm? 50 off." "Wearing a wig? $1 off." What they may lack in gourmet, chain-store-polished appeal, they make up for with a healthy sense of cheer.
Best shrimp Caesar
There's a reason the longest (and fastest moving) line at Jackrabbit (999 Third, 292-6922), is the salad line: It features fresh, custom-tossed salads made while you wait by an efficient and quick-wristed staff. You can design your own combination or go with one of the delicious regulars, like the Yucatan Taco salad. But for our money, the Caesar ($3.95), with a goodly portion of shrimp added on top ($1.25 extra), is a great lunch value;the small size is a meal in itself. Caesar salads with a little protein added have become a lunch staple, but they're often bland or skimpy. Not so at Jackrabbit, which packs a ton of flavor into a small to-go container. This "gourmet cafeteria" won our "Best Lunch Hour Spot" in '98, and is still a great one, combining quick service, yuppie tastes, and hearty portions. It's the perfect dot-commissary.
Best vegan restaurant
The first thing that knocks you out about Araya (4732 University Wy NE, 524-4332), a little Thai gem on the Ave, is its decor. Some 26 Buddha-type figures decorate the room's far end, and the other walls are covered with tapestries, photos, and figurines that evoke the same thrift-store-house-of-worship vibe. And worship you might, because as befits their location in the middle of the University District, they offer two things no college student can resist: volume and thrift. Order even a simple dish (the pineapple fried rice, say) and be prepared to take half of it home—and for a fraction as much as you'd usually pay for a meal of similar proportions. Even better, prepare to look forward to those leftovers, particularly if you order anything with sauce, something Araya excels at. Though a couple of menu items contain milk products, most don't. And we haven't even mentioned the lunch buffet, served from 11:30 to 3:30 every day except Sunday. But now you know.
Best Middle Eastern food downtown
Enter Zaina (108 Cherry, 624-5687) and taste Jerusalem. Owners Shaher and Maha Abuelkhair use fresh ingredients, develop fine recipes, and pay attention to details. They've transformed this cafeteria luncheonette into a feast of flavors. Take the humble hummus sandwich ($3.99), for instance. First they grill the pita bread, giving it a rich, smoky flavor; the hummus is a fine balance of the earthy chickpea, lemon zest, garlic, and sesame tahini. Watch closely as the sandwich is assembled before your eyes, sprinkled and drizzled with the likes of paprika, parsley, olive oil, olives, lettuce, and tomatoes. The result? Even Edward Said might succumb to Orientalism after eating one of these divine morsels. Standards of Middle Eastern cuisine as America knows it are well represented, too: creamy lentil soup, stuffed grape leaves, and falafel. And they're just as good.
Best pasta counter
Nothing beats Trattoria Mitchelli's (84 Yesler Wy, 623-3883) counter offerings. Five days, five different sauces, five different pasta shapes, just $5.95 (including tax and tip, at the counter only). The Trat starts with quality pasta and knows how to handle it. They cook the radiatore (or penne or fettuccine or . . .) long enough so it goes down smoothly and short enough that it retains its flavor. Next they add the sauce. Nothing indicates what an Italian joint can do better than the basic marinara sauce. The Trat's marinara showcases plump, ripe tomatoes and surrounds them with sweet onions, pungent garlic, and intoxicating herbs. Top it off with quality parmigiano, and you have your money's worth. Plus, you get to sit at the long, semi-circular counter and pretend you're in little Italy without actually having to go to New York.
Best ramen selection
Think ramen's just for poor college students? Think again. Go to Uwajimaya (519 Sixth S, 624-6248; 15555 NE 24th, Bellevue, 425-747-9012), and you'll find more than 100 varieties from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Thailand. These aren't the generic eight-for-a-dollar bricks you get at Safeway. Fancier ramen contain packages of oyster sauce, soy sauce, or red pepper oil. Some ramen noodles are thick like udon, and contain dried tofu and seaweed. You get what you pay for: Better ramen goes for anywhere from 60 cents to $2.49—and packaging and presentation are part of the price. There's Kung Fu Ramen for the athlete; there's a Korean brand called Dosirac, with a picture of a smiling nurse on the front; there's even a Pok魯n ramen that rings in at a not-so-cheap $1.99.
Best Italian deli
We're using the word "deli" loosely because it's hard to categorize Salumeria on Hudson (4918 Rainier S, 760-7741); the Columbia City establishment does so many things well. First of all, it stocks exquisite Italian goodies—meats, cheeses, olives, wines, biscotti, and more. This is the place to come when you're making carbonara or want to put together killer antipasti for a dinner party. Or, if you want to soak up the sunny, informal yet elegant atmosphere of the place, you can eat on the premises for lunch or dinner. Naturally, the antipasti shines, and the recently revamped menu features some fine items, including oxtail stew and polenta smothered with red peppers. But we have a fondness for the perfectly prepared, simple pastas that they began serving when they opened their doors last year, and the accommodating staff will usually make them if requested. To top if off, Salumeria offers cooking classes and Saturday afternoon wine tastings, and prices are very reasonable.
Best place to rethink your idea of Mexican food
Agua Verde Caf頨1303 NE Boat, 545-8570) serves tacos like you've probably never had them: soft tortillas filled with choice ingredients like portobello mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and grilled halibut. Forget refried beans; the sides here range from creamy chile potatoes to cranberry slaw. Everything tastes light, healthy, and fresh. OK, maybe it's not authentic Mexican, but we could care less when we're sitting in Agua Verde's brightly painted rooms, feeling the breeze from broad, open windows that look out on Lake Union.
These are tough times for the doughy rings. In the last couple months, local favorite Spot Bagel bit the dust and mediocre franchise Zi Pani shuttered its dozen Seattle outlets. That leaves just a few local bakers vying for the cream cheese crown. Our choice is Pike Place Bagel Bakery (1525 First, 521-9431), next to the Sanitary Market. Here the offerings are dense, chewy, and flavorful, with a touch of crust. The Power Logs—multigrain bricks with raisins and walnuts—are a particular favorite of the bike messenger set. One caveat, though: The turnover rate at this place is high and quality control can be low. If you must have a bagel you can count on, you may have to keep looking.
Best tavern pizza
Mention the word "tavern pizza" to your garden-variety Seattleite and two words come to mind: Northlake Tavern. The problem with this analogy is that, as undeniably superb as Northlake's hearty pie is, the joint ain't really a tavern—it's a pizzeria, something that its full name, "Northlake Tavern & Pizzeria" clarifies. But before you write off Seattle tavs' ability to turn out 'za beyond what you find on the frozen-food aisle, hustle north of the UW to Wedgwood for a taste of the Fiddler's Inn's (9219 35th NE, 525-0752) garden-fresh pies. Don't bother going if you're in a hurry—the Fid's kitchen is disproportionately tiny, often causing hour-and-a-half backups on the mozzarella cook-off. But if you're in the mood for a microbrew (or six), fresh tomatoes, andouille sausage, and co-owner Ken Caldwell's Dead show war stories, the Fid's the place for the purist who considers beer and pizza to be husband and wife.
Best Greek salad
The best thing about enjoying a really great salad is that you can pretty much trick yourself into thinking that you're being healthy. The ever-spiraling popularity of the perpetually bland Caesar has all but squeezed the Greek salad out of the spotlight. What say we usher it back in? Look no further than Olympia Pizza and Spaghetti House (1500 Queen Anne N, 285-5550; 4501 Interlake N, 633-3655; 516 15th E, 329-4500), where the Greek bonanza is perfectly doused with a tangy olive oil-and-vinegar dressing and includes a hefty assortment of kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, pepperoncinis, feta, onions, and artichokes. The experience of having a large (it comes in small or large) placed in front of you is similar to encountering a well-spread table on Thanksgiving; you don't think you can eat it all, but you sure do want to. The pizza at Olympia is cheesy and dense, so instead of ordering a pie and carrying the weight of a bloated belly around, opt for a scrumptious salad. You'll never walk away hungry.
Best chain milk shake
Like a liquid My Little Pony, the Burgermaster blackberry shake (various locations) is pretty, purple, sweet, and fun to play with. Tasty and lumpy, this shake rocks our world. While the other shakes in the Burgermaster lineup are entirely creamy— including fellow berry flavor strawberry— the blackberry shake includes REAL BLACKBERRIES. That's right, actual fruit in a fruit-flavored item. When matched with a fabulously greasy grilled cheese sandwich or the traditional Burgermaster, this shake tastes divine (it even tastes great with that strangely runny grilled Swiss and crab sandwich). Even those of you with shake-hoovering tendencies (you know who you are) could well be pleasantly surprised by how long this shake lasts. Does this phenomenon occur because blackberry chunk size occasionally exceeds the straw's width? That's our only hypothesis, because the blackberry shake (like our old friends Moondancer and Morning Glory) seems to possess magical properties.
Best places for off-price chocolate
Look, when you're stuffing yourself in a late-night, TV-lit chocolate binge, does it really matter whether the bittersweet-covered hazelnuts have a perfectly even glaze on them or the truffles are exactly round? Of course not. That's why, when taste and value are the issue, you turn to the off-price outlet of local confection master Dilettante. You can find slightly flawed, or slightly out-of-date, drag饳 for a bargain price at Chocolate Bloopers (2822 Rainier S, 723-3246), located at Dilettante's Rainier Valley factory. Molds, truffles, fruit jellies, and sauces are available for cheap at Cherry Seconds (2300 E Cherry, 328-1955), behind a discreet storefront at the company's Central District plant. At last visit, the Central outfit had a 50-pound chocolate Santa Claus available for $190. (That's half-off!) But you might prefer to stick with more manageable purchases, such as three pounds of truffles for $9.50.
Best excellent coffee surprise
When the late, lamented Espresso Roma on Broadway closed its doors, it was hard times indeed for the crowd of street kids, junkies, and low-key Capitol Hill freaks who made up most of its clientele. Fortunately for them, a new cafe had just opened blocks away, the religious-kitsch themed Coffee Messiah (1554 E Olive Wy, 860-7377), whose dark interiors proved equally useful for those with a gloomy perspective on life or those needing to nurse a vicious hangover. But your more upscale customer who makes their way into the place will inevitably be impressed by two things: the bathroom, which features a "disco for a quarter" (and believe me, the accompanying light and music show is definitely worth your 25 cents), and the excellent coffee. Yes, despite its decidedly street-level atmosphere, Coffee Messiah features, under its own label, the outstanding coffee of Olympia's own Batdorf & Bronson coffee, specifically their "Dancing Goats" blend.
Best so-late-it's-early comfort food
Night owls know that different times of night require different types of food. On a weekend night at 1am, you're still looking fine, your mascara hasn't migrated yet, so you head out in search of stiff drinks and overpriced appetizers with bizarre ingredients. By 3 or 4 in the morning, however, you've had enough pretension and have even come to terms with the fact that you prefer 7-Eleven nachos to just about anything with chutney or fennel. So you hit the local mini-mart for Baby Ruths and fake cheese. If you're still up by 6 or 7, the rules change again. Your head's starting to pound, your stomach's growling, and your hair looks rattier than the homeless guy you just passed. The only thing you can do is pop some ibuprofen and drive east, toward the Issaquah Caf頨1580 NW Gilman Blvd, Issaquah, 425-391-9690). Opening at 6 every day except Sunday, the Issaquah Caf頩s there when you need it, with the ultimate relaxing atmosphere—friendly servers, quiet background tunes, and old-timer clientele. Pleasant without feeling totally geriatric, the Issaquah Caf頡lso cooks up some awesome down-home food. The Monte Cristo sandwich is utter perfection, accompanied by the most amazing strawberry sauce we've ever had. Pancakes and waffles come generously golden and fluffy. Unlike the other places you've seen that evening, the bathrooms here are sparkling clean. Talk quietly with your friends, gaze tiredly at the old '50s ads mounted on the wall at your booth, and get ready for yet another cycle of an already endless day.
Best lunch counter
We miss the Paul Bunyan Room at the Frederick & Nelson, which then metamorphosed into the Arcade Caf頳omewhere along the line. As much as we remember with an odd fondness the sweet pickles and egg salad on white, followed by a Frango frappe, we miss that feeling of our feet dangling from a stool. Though it's not in a department store, Matt's in the Market (94 Pike #32, 467-7909) does a lot to assuage our sense of loss. The food's a groovy, spicy, tangy, made-to-order assortment of fresh ingredients, from the greens to the fish to the reliably creative soups (all of which, no doubt, take full advantage of the Market's bounty below), and the wine stands by with cork ready to pull and pour. Unlike Freddie's diner-style counter of yesteryear, however, Matt and his crew perform gustatory miracles in an unimaginably small space, and everything's glistening by the time it arrives. Elbow your neighbors if you're lonely or soak in the tile counter and whatever CD happens to be playing. Of course, this is a popular spot, so you'll have to wait your turn for a coveted seat from which to dangle.
Best other use for a weed
Don't let the nettles get you down. Sting they will, but you too can have the ultimate revenge on Mother Nature, provided you're sitting down to sup at Le Gourmand (425 NW Market, 784-3463)—and it's the time of year when chef/owner Bruce Naftaly heads on over to Discovery Park to pluck from its blistering bounty and concoct his glorious nettle soup. Naftaly does more than de-sting these beasties; he actually coaxes flavor and texture out of them. This lovely, dark green velvet stuff will erase childhood memories of burning legs and painful rashes. We have a theory that if you partake in this magical brew, you may just find yourself immune to stinging forever after.
Best onion rings
Same as with their burgers, Daly's Drive-In (2713 Eastlake E, 322-1918) does a whopper of a job on their batter-fried onion rings. Best when dipped in some condiment, you'll never be satisfied with any others. They're huge! They're hot! They're gonna make you kiss the wrapping they come in, not to mention, if you're feeling charitable, the person who filled your order at this Eastlake institution. Don't be shy; invite a gaggle of friends, call ahead, and your crate o' rings will be ready for take-away madness, the likes of which you've never experienced. Riddle: What do you call two of these beauties that come batter-stuck together? Answer: A Daly double! (Not to be confused with the two-patty burger that goes by the same name, however.)
Best pub grub
We can't control ourselves. The Madrona Eatery & Alehouse (1138 34th, 323-7807) has lured us back many a time—for the microbrews, sure, but especially for the knockout food. (Notice the food comes first in this name? That's the first sign that you've hit the jackpot.) No fried mozzarella here, no heap o' greasy nachos, but terrific plates of pasta, fried chicken, pork chops, swordfish, halibut, and flank steak. Go ahead, play a video game, catch the score on one of the two tellies, chat the barkeep up, but for god's sake, stay for dinner. With daily Land and Sea specials, pizzas, sandwiches, soups, and salads, you will make this a regular pit stop. Like we said, if we could control our urges, we wouldn't.
Best crab cocktail
Who'da thunk it? They've been around forever, they're always open, and they're serving up this version of a crustacean like nobody's business. In a parfait glass, of course, but geez. 13 Coins (125 Boren N, 682-2513) has cornered the market on the classic crab concoction by sticking to the simplest and most effective formula: sauce! It's all about the sauce, which, like sunscreen, must be applied liberally. Who wants to eat naked, cold crab, anyway? The sauce is everywhere, and between the bits of celery and the squeeze of lemon, this starter course actually makes having to sit in the darkest corner of the bar worth it. Wash it all down with a Jim Beam, and presto! Your swivel chair awaits.
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