Having spent the last 14 years of my life in Arizona—except for a brief stay in Bonn, where I got caught up in the high-stakes world of German fetish porn—I'd grown used to a certain way of life. In Phoenix (median July temperature: 164 degrees), this consists mainly of long, uninterrupted stretches of drinking, sweating, swearing, and moaning about the heat. It's a cycle broken only by the occasional trip to one of the city's many fine Mexican eateries.
I knew a much different fate awaited me as I made my move to the Northwest. I'd been given fair warning: Seattle's overcast skies and lackluster Mex cuisine were going to test my sunny, burrito-loving mettle.
After beating the pavement for several days in and around Queen Anne and Capitol Hill searching for an apartment, a friend tipped me to a mutual acquaintance looking for a roommate. A nice guy, he said, with a terrific house in a relatively undiscovered part of town called South Park.
It seemed odd that even a neophyte like me had heard of every conceivable Seattle neighborhood—from Beacon Hill to Wallingford—but nary a word about South Park. I soon realized I wasn't alone. My co-workers stared blankly at the very mention of this mysterious section of the city. Those who had passed through regarded the area as something of a blip, lost in a labyrinth of industrial flatlands. True enough, but as I was to find out, South Park was a place with its own set of unique charms.
The residential profile was as expected: a multicultural mix of mostly working-class families living in rows of old A-frames, many dating back to the early 20th century (the A-frames, that is).
But to my great relief, I found arguably the best Mexican joint in all of King County mere blocks away from my home. It's a little taqueria called Muy Macho (8515 14th S., 763-3484), specializing in Baja-styled treats. For those unfamiliar with the nuances of south-of-the-border dining, just imagine a good, authentic version of Taco Del Mar. Fortune also smiled with the discovery (right across the street) of Napoli Pizzeria (8600 14th S., 768-9615). Though it's been closed for renovation recently, this authentic mom-and-pop operation turns out the finest pies around—with apologies to Georgetown's Stella. And if a continental menu is more your mood, there's always the County Line Restaurant (8456 Dallas S., 762-7370), which also doubles as the vibrant epicenter of local nightlife.
But entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes in South Park. The neighborhood is very near a small stretch of Native American land where both gambling and the sale of fireworks are very legal and very thriving businesses. Although I've yet to explore the less-than-inviting Rascals Casino (conveniently located next to a McDonald's), I was to learn much about the latter as the Fourth of July approached.
I should've figured we were in store for a noisy holiday week when I spied a preschool-age kid walking by our house carrying a grocery bag of fireworks roughly three times his body weight. Starting somewhere around June 30, my roommate and I were bombarded by a relentless assault of M-80s, cherry bombs, black cats, snap-crackers, ping-pong smokers, and every other type of ludicrously monikered mortar. After the third night of uninterrupted explosions, something snapped and I began having Vietnam flashbacks: the eerie sounds of Charlie in the jungle night; deadly firefights in the Ben Hai River valley; bloody hand-to-hand combat with the man in the black pajamas. Night four found me in my underwear, drunk, listening to the Doors, trying tai chi moves, and punching out a mirror. (This was all quite confusing, as I'd never even been to a Vietnamese restaurant, much less fought in Kaison.)
When our neighbors' Tet Offensive finally died down, I ventured out to seek solace in the one local spot that can always been counted on for a nice bit of quiet conversation—Randy's all-night restaurant (10016 E. Marginal Way S., 763-9333).
Randy's is just outside of what's technically considered South Park, but spiritually it's very much in the heart of the neighborhood. Walk in and your neck cranes trying to take in the squadron of large model airplanes hanging from the rafters, as well as the inimitable decor, a garish orange-and-purple mishmash, apparently dating back to the Nixon administration. While the food is solid, hits-the-spot greasy-spoon fare, the diner's clientele is the main attraction. The place is a longtime hangout for various aviation types (Boeing and the Museum of Flight are just down the road) as well as traveling truckers and graveyard shifters, who all gather to share their stories—both boring and rivetingly bizarre—over coffee and cake. Having spent many an after-hour there, a late night at Randy's is best described as a cross between the banality of a Hopper painting and the slashed-eyeball surrealism of a Bu� film.
And while everyone else is busy embracing the city's wine bars and bistros, I'll take that and South Park, the last Seattle frontier truly worth exploring.