When it comes to tracking food trends, the "retro" column in my ledger filled up years ago. Blame it on meatloaf: Back in the 1980s, the upscale-diner fad heated up and chefs like Alfred Portale and Bradley Ogden bistro-ized comfort food, launching a succession of hits that continues to this day. Meatloaf was their first big success, then fruit crisp, and, in the early '90s, mashed potatoes. Just as the last recession was hitting, Daniel Boulud tucked short ribs, foie gras, and truffles into a hamburger and sold it to stockbrokers for three figures--the most scandalous of a long chain of foofy-hamburger incidents that brought slidermania to Seattle.By now the process is rote: Classically trained chef takes a 1950s American staple, and by virtue of his stunning culinary technique causes erudite diners to slump over their plates, gawping. Proust is invoked. The media trumpets the rebirth of the corn dog/mac 'n' cheese. Every chef in town begins competing with the originator to introduce truffle oil or yuzu to their version. After many years, Parade magazine prints recipes for that "hot new food, if you can believe it." The cycle of disparagement and reclamation begins anew.A pair of Seattleites are taking a slightly different approach. Yes, at Pike Street Fish Fry they're re-envisioning a classic and tweaking it with good cooking and even better ingredients. But they're attempting to do it in the same building as Neumo's, which doesn't attract quite the same Friday-night diners as Chez Shea.Michael Hebb and lead cook Monica Dimas (Campagne, Le Pichet) are trying to fancify fish and chips in a way that remains palatable to downscale diners and ironical hipsters. It's a slightly different target audience for Hebb (he's dropped the -eroy from his name, which he'd added when married to his now-ex, Naomi Pomeroy), whose One Pot roving dinners sell out to people who refer to the owners of Union and Sitka & Spruce by their first names. This isn't typical Seattle "I'm going to pretend like I'm a chef/rockstar of the people" posery—it's the business plan that their restaurant succeeds or fails by. Hebb and Dimas are betting that the lowbrow aura of jalapeño poppers and deep-fried Snickers bars will cling to Pike Street's tempura green beans like cholesterol to the walls of Larry the Cable Guy's arteries.From an upmarket perspective—if I can presume to call myself upmarket, given the crater-riddled car I drive—they seem to succeed, thanks to the lightness of their touch, ridding the fish and chips of batter thick enough to count as the day's entire serving of carbs. Last month's asparagus have segued into this month's more seasonally appropriate green beans—both, when tempura-ized, sporting frilly crusts translucent enough to let the bright-green color show through. Ling cod, almost as lightly battered as the beans, falls apart in your fingers, the batter is so light and the fish so moist. And the whole smelt—two bites' worth of fish when eaten tail to head—is perfectly fried. Herbed-up fish balls are dense fritters of meat rather than the spongy kind you've had at Vietnamese restaurants, and they take to the tartar sauce like an onion flower to ranch dressing. An extra $1 will turn any item into a sandwich.You get your choice of one homemade sauce with six or eight chunks of fried fish: lemon aioli or classic tartar sauce for the classicists, smoked-paprika mayo or a parsley-caper salsa verde for the more adventurous, and an off-balance curry ketchup that needs tweaking. The prize, tucked into every fried-fish order—the one that's been awing local food geeks—is a classic element of the Italian fritto misto: millimeter-thick lemon cross-slices, battered and fried, their tartness undiminished.The grilled skewers of tombo tuna or pink-centered and cumin-rubbed steak, while good, end up paling in comparison to the fish, just as a bowl of ripe fruit for dessert often looks like the sensible choice but will always lose out to a chocolate-hazelnut torte. (That said, take any chance you get to devour the tender octopus tentacles, coiled on their skewers, with tendrils crisped on the grill.)Hebb and his partners, the owners of Via Tribunali and Neumo's, couldn't resist tossing in a little high design: Paneling the low ceiling with wood and adding inset lights. Installing SRO counters in the main room. Serving the food in oval ceramic dishes and sauces in clear, squat glasses. Printing the menu in all lowercase letters.What keeps the place anchored in populism aren't just the prices—sure, an order of cod costs more than two slices of cheese from Mama's, but still less than $10—is the fact that you can't construct a dinner there, no matter if you try. The only vegetables Dimas serves are either pickled (the cabbage slaw served with some of the fish, too vinegary for my tastes) or deep-fried. Order too many fried foods in one go, and you end up feeling uncomfortable, both mentally and physically. The Fish Fry's really built for snacks. You stand around and drink your microbrew, you nosh on grilled-steak skewers and fries, and then you get back to whatever nonsense you were doing before you decided you needed to eat.I wouldn't have imagined that the deep-fat fryer would have such power to bring together both ends of America's culinary spectrum. But proof wandered in after me on my first visit, three of them with scraggly mustaches and basketball T-shirts down to their knees. While my friends and I were concentrating on tasting the seasoning in the slaw and thinking up smart comments to report to one another, they hoisted the paper cups that their fried-fish sandwiches had been stuffed into and gulped down the contents without a fork. I twirled an asparagus spear through my smoked-paprika mayo and watched them dig in.Price Check
Pike Street Fish Fry 925 E. Pike St., pikestreetfishfry.blogspot.com. CAPITOL HILL Open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner and late night, 7 days a week.
Green beans $5
Ling cod $7
Fish balls $5
Steak skewer $7 firstname.lastname@example.org