Skillet's Truck Stops Here

How does an Airstream Trailer's mobile magic taste sitting down?

Back before the food-truck format became so fetishized that conglomerates like Jack in the Box felt compelled to mint mobile burger units, most wheeled vendors aimed to upend convention on the cheap. Freed from the choke hold of administrative costs, massive staffs, and comprehensive menus, the first food truckers showed eaters what could be done with a playful attitude, an unwavering culinary focus, and, typically, a hyperactive Twitter account. Diners exhausted by the rigidities of restaurant-going chased after Korean taco trucks and Belgian waffle trucks, smitten by the novelty and ingenuity they'd long ago given up on finding at eateries with floors and doors. They waited in Soviet-like lines for smoked salmon gyros, distracting themselves with visions of the food-truck ethos bubbling up and infiltrating proper restaurants. But instead of functioning like a minor league for brick-and-mortar establishments, food trucks have clung to their breakaway status, chugging through a parallel edible universe. It's early yet, though, as food trucking is still a new-enough phenomenon that The New York Times' dining section considered its existence front page–worthy as recently as 2008. It took nearly a decade for the National Basketball Association to get wise to American Basketball Association innovations like the three-point shot, so the trucks' unstarched verve may yet rub off on restaurants—especially since the recent relaxation of food-truck rules in Seattle is likely to increase the number and influence of mobile kitchens. So what might restaurants informed by food-truck culture look like? A hint comes by way of Skillet Diner, the fixed-location venture from the Skillet Street Food team. Chef Josh Henderson has deftly translated his still-running Airstream trailer for the sit-down crowd, retaining the friendliness and commitment to quality cookery that have distinguished his traveling operation since 2007. Stripped of its variable schedule and inclement-weather concerns, Skillet remains a captivating, bacon-drenched place to eat. "Overall, I'm exceptionally pleased at how it turned out," Henderson recently told Seattle Weekly's Voracious blog. "The big thing for us was kind of just shifting our thinking to be either full street food or to use street food as our marketing." For its permanent home, Skillet's concocted an L-shaped restaurant, windowed on both sides and furnished with spacious booths and counter stools upholstered in avocado-green vinyl. The chrome-inflected decor borrows from rural- and urban-diner traditions: Jarred fruit sits in a windowsill, and classic rock dominates the playlist, buoying the room's chipper mood. The restaurant's roots show in a few spots. There aren't any appetizers on the menu, save a parcel of roasted and salted hazelnuts, so it's nearly impossible for a group of friends who want to extend their stay in the mod dining room to string together a multicourse feast. The cocktails—sometimes meek, sometimes stridently sweet—undulate unreliably, and the relentless emphasis on comfort food, which reads as clarity truckside, can foster monotony if you order too widely from the menu. But only fools and food critics are likely to lard their tables with breakfasts and burgers and entrées and a sea of side dishes. The vast majority of Skillet guests will surely understand that, in true diner fashion, the dishes are meant as one-shot affairs. It's the rare Dionysian who's likely to trundle into the Capitol Hill restaurant after midnight with a craving for a mannerly meal that starts with a salad and ends with sorbet. Diners come here for a high-end grease fix, a hankering that doesn't need to be stretched out over lots of dishes. "Grease" sounds like a slur in a restaurant review, so it's worth noting that Skillet intends for its dishes to glimmer with butter and swell with pork fat. On Thursdays, the restaurant serves a chicken-fried pork chop so attractive that it's impossible to spend even a few short minutes in eyeshot of Skillet's open kitchen and not emerge with a conviction to order it. The burly chop, coated in an engagingly knobby crust studded with caraway seeds, is accompanied by peppery bacon gravy and a hill of mashed potatoes saturated with scads of yellow-hued butter. There's enough cream and salty crunch here to dismember the arguments that hold fast-food chains solely responsible for the national obesity crisis. Skillet's blazing its own trail to corpulence. It's a beckoning path lined with meatloaf, surging with the swine-rich flavor of ground pork and bacon, and paved with poutine. The poutine, a carryover staple from the food truck, probably wouldn't be recognized as such by a Québécois, which means there's more of the extraordinary snack for eaters who don't let semantics interfere with their enjoyment of a perfectly fried potato. Skillet's burnished skin-on fries are cloaked in sheer gravy and melted Cheddar, the cheese's sharpness waltzing with the gravy's satisfying sweetness. Much of Skillet's food skews slightly sweet. A gorgeous fried chicken, enveloped in a shatteringly crisp crust, is scrubbed too vigorously with honey. The meatloaf's ketchup-based sauce smacks of sugar. Even the brown gravy aboard a hulking Salisbury steak seems designed for eaters who always save room for dessert. Sometimes, though, sweetness is used to exactly the right effect. Skillet serves a hunk of pork belly braised in apple juice, maple syrup, and chicken stock. Looking as thick and blockish as an unabridged dictionary, the pork belly comes perched atop a fleecy cornmeal waffle and paired with a precisely cooked fried egg. The smoky pork begs for a secondary hit from the accompanying maple-syrup dispenser. Befitting a restaurant that bills itself as a diner, Skillet serves breakfast whenever the restaurant is open. The line between morning and evening food is fluid: French toast is urged for supper, and a steak-and-blue-cheese scramble—echoing the winning combination of tangy blue cheese, arugula, and bacon jam that top the restaurant's terrifically juicy (if slightly sweet) burger— is considered breakfast fare. If the prospect of after-work eggs appeals, place an order for the deconstructed corned-beef hash, a dry stew of savory roasted onions, fingerling potatoes, carrots, and supremely salty shards of corned beef, all crowned with a pair of gently fried eggs. Among all the protein, a few vegetables are worth seeking out. The cooks at Skillet are kind to asparagus, pulling fat spears off the grill at exactly the right moment, and surprisingly adept with greens. A Caesar made with papery kale and oily white anchovies attests to the restaurant's willingness to muse beyond muscular ingredients. Skillet's sharp minds clearly haven't been slowed by setting up camp: "Speaking of aioli . . . " a cook told his colleague on a quiet weekday morning, while servers on the opposite side of the kitchen window were trading mirepoix facts. Diner customers tend to be forgiving of gruff service, but the service at Skillet is outstanding. There's no wine list or proper wine glasses, just a few on-tap wines to supplement the selection of beers and cocktails, so the servers' schooling centers on food. Every server I had was remarkably fluent in the menu: If there's a service flaw, it's that the servers' willingness to parse every dish—and warn against the rare blunder—sometimes slows the pace of order-taking. But the proffered demurrals, and a server's pause before refilling a glass of iced tea, not wanting to upset its sugar balance, prove Skillet's servers think like diners. Perhaps the legacy of food trucks will be to bring restaurateurs and their staffers closer to their customers. That's a fine achievement to import indoors, where it can be appreciated by eaters like the diner recently spotted alone at the Skillet counter with a burger, a pint of Manny's, and a copy of "Seattle Reads" selection Little Bee. She wasn't rushed, wet, or forced to eat off a window ledge. Food trucks are nourishing culinary wit and whimsy, but there's an upside to settling down. Price Guide Pork belly and waffle $13 Kale Caesar $7 Poutine $8 Burger $14 Fried chicken $15 Chicken-fried pork chop $16 hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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