I find that Seattleites love to talk about how much they love Southern food—perhaps as a kind of antidote to the wholesome fare our city is often associated with. It’s a way of showing that being a brainy liberal doesn’t necessarily mean one can’t take down a big-ass plate of sausage, grits, and hush puppies (albeit after one has, very un-Southern-like, run or biked an ungodly number of miles in soul-deadening drizzle). It also has a whiff of the exotic, the South being as far away from the Pacific Northwest as one can get in the U.S.
Growing up in Maryland and Virginia, Southern food was just breakfast as usual for me—biscuits regularly filling in for toast—until I came to Seattle and discovered a lack of places to indulge in it despite people’s fascination for it. I was particularly pleased when Fat’s Chicken & Waffles entered the picture last year in the Central District, and now I’ll add Cycene (1523 First Ave., 617-6838) to my list of dependable, if not stupendous, places to get—as they call it—“Southern-inspired” food, which is more derivative of New Orleans than of the traditional South.
Located just around the corner from the entrance to Pike Place Market, it features a chalkboard menu divided into two categories: Sandwiches and Grits, the latter of which are unquestionably worthy of circling downtown for a parking spot. Their grits provide the base of five different dishes, and they’re creamy and croon their way into sauces like tomato gravy and pimiento Mornay (aka fancy cheese sauce; think béchamel with Gruyère). Atop them come a variety of proteins, like Cayenne sausage with red beans and eggs over easy, a delicious mess of a meal with a sausage so spicy the cashier will warn you about it before you commit. It has a trademark Creole ingredient: filé, a thickener typically used to make gumbo, which comes from the sassafras plant and here is incorporated into a tomato gravy that oozes its way into poached eggs like sultry air heating up a Louisiana afternoon.
The shrimp is good too—several medium-sized tail-on crustaceans floating in a savory, not sweet, BBQ sauce dotted with bits of ground Creole sausage and thin, tender slices of grilled green poblano chilies that give a breath of heat. Rounding out the dish are two hush puppies, orbs with the fried tops sliced off to reveal the inner yellow of the corn filling. Other options include a blackened chicken, roast turkey, and a vegetarian number with black-eyed peas and corn. Next time.
Sandwiches run the gamut from a basic bacon & egg on grilled bread—not really Southern beyond the addition of pimento cheese, but fetching just the same thanks to a Tabasco aioli. One either loves or hates Tabasco, and I happen to be in the former category. It’s a pretty basic sandwich, probably one I could whip up at home, except that mine would be overpowered by pure Tabasco, unlike this one with its perfect hint of it. If you opt for the sausage & egg instead, you’ll find more of a Southern spark from Creole sausage and an interesting twist via a roast garlic aioli. The hot ham & cheese, though, featuring thick-cut ham with Swiss, pimiento cheese, and pickles, was a letdown—and indicative of a bigger problem with the sandwiches in general: Most are served on plain toast, which makes them feel rather pedestrian. Served on, say, biscuits, they’d be much more inviting (and Southern).
As for the space, you order at the counter and can be ready to roll in about five minutes, but the hillbilly music and the comfy seating—five or six booths and chairs facing the kitchen and the windows on First—might actually make you want to linger (even though your food comes out in disposable boxes and chef/owner Hassan Chebaro yells out order numbers at an alarmingly loud decibel level). That’s fortunate, because a Southern meal isn’t the kind you want to rush. All those carbs and meat call for slowing down—and, afterward, you can just take a stroll through the Market to walk it off.