Catfish Corner Seeing as it's about the only restaurant in Seattle that specializes in catfish, and seeing how catfish is an item of far more succulence than, say, tofu, Catfish Corner has developed quite a loyal following since it first opened in 1985. If the establishment wanted to skate by on rep, it assuredly could, given this favorable set of circumstances. But thankfully it doesn't, as a buttery, moist baked Cajun catfish fillet with hush puppies and yams on the side reminded me one recent Wednesday. However predictable the fried stuff might be, any restaurant that makes its own tartar sauce, as Catfish Corner (and almost no one else in town) does, is clearly bent on innovation. MIKE SEELYServes: lunch, dinner. 2726 E. Cherry St., 323-4330. CENTRAL DISTRICT mo-catfish.com Circa Judged by vibe alone, Circa's one of the best pubs in Seattle: small enough that you never feel stranded in your booth, casual but not dumpy. It's the kind of place where if you ask the bartender for a food recommendation, a half-dozen regulars will lean over to tell you how much they love the bacon-wrapped meatloaf. The menu fits the space—bold, all-American, and 10 notches above the "bar food" that so often meets our low expectations. There's a mixed green salad tiled over in warm, pink-centered steak and a swaggering balsamic dressing, and a hummus plate that actually feels thought through. You can upscale your evening with a braised lamb shank showered in lemon zest and parsley, or you can stick to the Circa Burger. Made with Misty Isle beef and smoke-tinged from the grill, it's fine dining enough. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: lunch, dinner. 2605 California Ave. S.W., 923-1102. WEST SEATTLECurry Leaf Indian Cuisine You can get channa masala and Kashmiri naan at 20 mediocre restaurants in Seattle. This strip-mall restaurant in Factoria has them all beat. Nowhere else can you find its Keralan kappa with fish curry, fried cassava root served with a soupy, spice-reddened coconut-milk curry, or the restaurant's brick-red goat curry, which provides a body rush of spices. Choose the unfamiliar, since the cooks are much better at lacy, arm-sized dosa crepes than at tandoori chicken. Join the Microsofties for the lunch buffet, and you can make up your own thali, crumbling a papadum into white rice and dipping a ball of the combo into, say, a tangy yellow yogurt curry, scooping spoonfuls of lemon rice and dal together with dabs of eggplant curry and fresh pickle. Become a regular and they'll let you text in your takeout order. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: lunch buffet, dinner. 12821 S.E. 38th St., 425-746-1239. BELLEVUE www.curryleaf.usFareStart FareStart is what The Office's Michael Scott might term a win-win-win, with maybe a couple extra wins thrown in for good measure. Located on Westlake, just off the tracks of its karmic opposite, the less-for-more SLUT, this airy, light-filled restaurant provides tasty, healthy, affordable lunches, with the proceeds funding a job-training and placement program for its homeless and disadvantaged kitchen staff. Most items clock in under $8, prices rarely heard of at sit-down joints that aren't Broadway or University Way lunch dives. The vegan Field Roast is a crunchy wonder, the seared salmon sandwich a moist delight. The tofu nuggets—accompanied by a sweet-and-sour sauce introduced, said our waiter, by a Vietnamese kitchen staffer—are a credit to both tofu and nuggets. Also check out the guest-cheffed prix-fixe dinners every Thursday night. DAMON AGNOSServes: lunch, dinner. 700 Virginia St., 443-1233. DOWNTOWN farestart.orgFlying Squirrel Pizza Co. Flying Squirrel has rocketed to the top of the list of Seattle's pizza places, and in the middle of a pizza glut the likes of which the city has never seen. Part of it is location: Friends who live in Columbia City already have the restaurant's hours memorized, and control their obsession by taking alternate routes home. With its red walls, uneven furniture, and vintage-store paintings, Flying Squirrel looks like it belongs in the U District. Owner-pizzaiolo Bill Coury sources ingredients from local producers when possible—Zoe's Meats, Molly Moon ice cream—and can put together a froufrou pie with goat cheese, zucchini, and roasted red peppers to meet the demands of the most discerning PCC customer. But with every pie, Coury keeps in mind that toppings, no matter how organic, play second fiddle to the crust. He's got a good one: solid enough to support sauce and a few toppings without caving at the center, solid enough to crease and crack when you pick up a wedge, and still bubbly and airy around the lip. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 4920 S. Genesee St., 721-7620. COLUMBIA CITY flyingsquirrelpizza.comJade Garden There's always a bustling crowd of mostly Chinese families waiting for dim sum at this I.D. institution. But the line moves quickly, and once at a table, you'll know why they keep coming. The egg custard tarts are small but unforgettable, a warm, creamy center surrounded by delicate pastry. Not to be missed, either, are the shrimp and chive cakes: plump, pan-fried shrimp mixed with herbs and enveloped in a crisp skin dusted with sesame seeds. All the other standards are there too—the soft buns filled with barbecued pork known as hum bao, the pork dumplings called shu mei, the eggplants split and bursting with shrimp—along with plates of noodles that come in handy for children who don't yet appreciate the pleasure of dim sum. It was at Jade Garden that my little girl finally declared: "I like Chinese food!" NINA SHAPIROServes: dim sum, dinner. 424 Seventh Ave. S., 622-8181. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICTKingfish Cafe Leslie and Lori Coaston have appeared on the cover of this paper, as well as the sides of Metro buses, in the 13 years since they opened this joint. Their culinary celebrity has cooled, the novelty of a Deep South enclave on Cap Hill has diminished, yet Kingfish remains the reliable linchpin of the 19th Avenue food strip. Crucially, the sisters haven't heedlessly taken the place up-market. Dishes like the fried green tomatoes (to start), griddled catfish, or mac and cheese aren't supposed to be expensive. In our current recession, it's worth remembering that the traditional cuisine of the South—especially in African-American homes—grew out of humble, cheap, local ingredients. You can find Alaskan king crab crabcakes at thrice the price elsewhere in Seattle, but I prefer Kingfish's house crab-catfish concoction. Likewise, we've been too spoiled by airfreighted fresh Copper River salmon, making the blackened Atlantic farm salmon a refreshingly against-the-grain mode of preparation. Save us from this fish being treated as sacrament; it's just food. If you insist on Southern airs, you can always order a mint julep from the bar. Otherwise, the Coaston sisters (both locals) and chef Kenyatta Carter continue their common-sense approach to dining. And for Sunday brunch, the grits and buttermilk flapjacks couldn't be fancy if they tried. BRIAN MILLERServes: brunch, lunch, dinner. 602 19th Ave. E., 320-8757. CAPITOL HILL thekingfishcafe.comOddfellows Cafe & Bar Oddfellows Cafe & Bar, the joint venture of nightlife queen Linda Derschang and Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Cafe, is a dining hall for the Capitol Hill of today. Decorated in washes of nostalgia—gray-blue walls, scuffed wood tables, signs and portraits salvaged from the basement of the Oddfellows Building—it's Derschang's most beautiful space yet, where old-timey cocktails served in Grandma's glassware look like they've always shared tablespace with MacBooks. Chef Burke's gift is for classing up basic American food without sparking class resentment. Her simple mac and cheese looks circumspect yet has a surprising depth of flavor, and her shepherd's pie is covered in a constellation of buttery mashed-potato poufs. For every plate of clams with chorizo the kitchen puts out, it assembles six BLTs and chicken-salad sandwiches, all for less than $10. And the anise-haunted blueberry cobbler that occasionally shows up on the blackboard is the greatest $5 find you'll score. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: breakfast, lunch, dinner. 1525 10th Ave., 325-0807. CAPITOL HILL oddfellowscafe.comSaba I've long believed the best way to order off a menu from a cuisine you don't know well is to find the most unfamiliar items, point, and hope you don't completely butcher the pronunciation—which of course you will. Sitting in the bar at Saba, I go for it. "Um, gored gored?" I request. The waitress raises an eyebrow. "It's raw," she tells me over the sound of Ethiopian music videos playing on a television overhead. I pause for a moment before I decide to stick with the plan. "That's OK," I assure her, adding an order of spicy lentils and kikle alicha, a spicy lamb stew, just in case. It turns out the beef is lovely and tender, featuring just enough spiced heat to keep it interesting without overwhelming the meat itself. Of course, the lamb and lentils are delicious as well, and scooping it all up in the spongy injera is a unique joy for people whose grandmother insisted on exquisite fork-and-knife manners. LAURA ONSTOTServes: lunch and dinner. 110 12th Ave., 328-2290. CENTRAL DISTRICTSeñor Moose My plus-one grew up in El Paso, of Mexican-born parents, and is extremely picky about the food of his homeland. And he loves this cozy Ballard spot for precisely the reason they intend: their avowed emphasis on comida tipica, traditional Mexican home cooking. Their alambres (beef, chorizo, bell peppers, and other staples grilled together and topped with cheese) inspired wistful reverie: "We used to eat this stuff after Mass. They sold it for $3 in the rectory." Of the pastel de tres leches, a dense milk-soaked cake: "Better than I've ever had it." Their hongos guisados, sautéed mushrooms with strips of poblano chiles and a dollop of sour cream, is scrumptious out of all proportion to its simplicity, tasting as though it'd been whipped up effortlessly in the kitchen of some archetypal Mexican mom-goddess. GAVIN BORCHERTServes: breakfast, dinner. 5242 N.W. Leary Way, 784-5568. BALLARD senormoose.comTamarind Tree I still have total recall of the taste of Tamarind Tree's homemade black sesame ice cream after a meandering dinner on their covered, it's-so-L.A. outdoor-seating appendage. The best meals, for me, fire on all cylinders, and the kitchen here consistently bangs out the comforting and vibrant flavors of Vietnam—sometimes a little bit sweet, sometimes sour, and often spicy. How can you not become smitten with a restaurant that stuffs tofu with pork and has a menu item titled "Seven Courses of Beef?" Whatever you do, do not skip the cinnamon pork rice balls hidden among the appetizers—ground pork surrounded by young rice, deep fried and served with a tangy tamarind sauce. This wildly popular spot continues to remind you that Vietnamese cuisine is a marvel of simplicity when done well. MAGGIE SAVARINO DUTTONServes: dinner. 1036 S. Jackson St., Suite A, 860-1404. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT tamarindtreerestaurant.comA FEW MORE BUDGET-FRIENDLIES WE LOVE: Cafe Presse, Dahlak Eritrean Cuisine, El Paisano Rosticeria y Cocina, Jack's Tapas Cafe.