MLK SOS

Beleaguered Martin Luther King Jr. Way lures patrons with a fabulous array of foodstuffs.

When I first rolled into Seattle last month, Martin Luther King Jr. Way almost did me in. The directions to my sister's Rainier Valley house instructed my friend Lisa and me to exit I-5 at MLK and head north until we could cut over to Rainier Avenue. Weaving through the orange traffic barrels at midnight, my car rattling as if it had Parkinson's, I felt like I was passing through the aftermath of cluster bombing. Just as I turned onto smoother pavement at Henderson Street, a white building with an aqua peaked roof came into view. "Vegetable Bin: Polynesian Deli," Lisa read. "Sounds like your kind of place." Well, I went back a week later, and it was: Ten-pound cans of corned beef on the shelves. Freezers stocked with frozen coconut milk and lamb neck bones. A deli selling Polynesian stews and breads. Over the course of the past four weeks, MLK Way has drawn me back over and over again. Up and down the four-mile strip that Sound Transit has demolished to make way for light rail, I've wandered agog through scores of markets and eaten at a dozen restaurants—and have barely explored what's there. Though many of the storefronts are nigh impossible to enter and half the restaurants feel forlorn, I've fallen in love with the strip. After Pike Place Market, MLK Way may be Seattle's most amazing restaurant row, a densely diverse culinary scene. Most of the 30-some restaurants there serve food made by new Americans for new Americans, with no pretense and few concessions to outsiders' tastes. Whether because of the chiles or the challenge, the strip is the first place to make me feel at home. What a month. I've admired the chaos from underneath the rainbow-striped umbrellas in front of the Tacos Patzcuaro truck (8303 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.) while snacking on pupusas revueltas—Salvadoran corn cakes stuffed with pork, beans, and cheese and topped with a kicky cabbage slaw. At Cafe Ibex (No. 3219), I've sipped Ethiopian honey wine and torn off chunks of spongy injera to dredge through curried lentils, braised vegetables, and a lovely doro wot—a brick-red chicken stew pulsing with peppers and spices. Other revelations: Chuy El Mexicano's(in King Plaza at MLK and Othello) torta (sandwich) of spicy pork, vegetables, and sour cream stuffed into a griddled French roll, as well as Rainier BBQ's(No. 6400) combo lunch of barbecued duck and crispy-skin pork over steamed rice, with lots of five-spice- flavored juices for dunking. My first meal on the street remains one of the month's highlights. Hoang Lan (No. 7119) is everything a noodle house should be: tiny and marginally clean, with Vietnamese variety shows on the television and a few families sitting around faux-wood tables intent on vacuuming noodles out of bowls of red broth. Almost everyone had ordered the house specialty, bun bo hue or Hue-style beef noodle soup, and it was the best version I've yet eaten outside Vietnam. I dumped everything on the plate that came with my noodles—shredded cabbage and bean sprouts, three kinds of aromatic herbs—into the bowl, squeezed every drop of the lime over the top, and stirred in a spoonful of the house-made chile sauce. Then, as the vegetables and herbs melted down, I started slurping rice noodles and nibbling on lacy slices of steamed pork, jiggly cubes of congealed blood, long-braised beef, pork liver, and a pork hock for good luck. My latest meal was another. Joy Palace (No. 6030), the newest restaurant on MLK Way, has only been open a few months, but it has caught the attention of Chinese and Vietnamese foodies. By noon on Sunday, the Cantonese-style seafood restaurant was doing a rollicking dim sum business, every table for eight occupied, every dumpling cart rolling around the room, every waiter buzzing with adrenaline. I had a great brunch there that began in steamed tofu-skin rolls and ended in warm pineapple-custard buns, and floated out on a wash of tea. But my favorite place in the world right now has to be Tammy's Deli (No. 7101, Suite 108), which makes passable banh mi sandwiches, 6-foot-tall wedding cakes, and tropical-fruit shakes with tapioca pearls. Over the past few weeks, I've been making my way through Tammy's ever-rotating panoply of prepackaged items, from the sour-sausage spring rolls to a hundred gelatinous sweets dyed a hundred different colors. Tammy's is on the first floor of King Plaza, a Vietnamese mini-mall on the corner of Myrtle Street, where I've also sampled chicken pho and cold noodles at Pho My Chau (No. 7101, Suite 201) and have crafted rice-paper rolls out of grilled pork and fried squid, herbs, and lettuce at Minh's Restaurant (No. 7101, Suite 112). So much remains to try, starting with the kabob-and-gyros shops, one of which I've heard sells marvelous Somali curries. The brand-new Salima (No. 6727) advertises Malaysian and Muslim Vietnamese cuisine; at Quan Mien Que (No. 5718), diners grill their own meat and braise seafood and vegetables in a lemongrass-scented, sweet-tart broth. Check your shock absorbers before beginning your explorations. Sound Transit's media rep, Jeff Patrick, says that the agency is launching into eight months of intense repaving. Don't let that stop you. Treat the boulevard as your personal obstacle course. You may never know which driveway will be blocked. You may have to wheedle your server into steering you away from "safe" food toward the restaurant's true specialties. You may occasionally spend more than $10 a person. The MLK merchants may need your business, but you? You need their food. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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