Seattle's Last Scandinavian Store?

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A simple lunch at Scandinavian Specialties.
It's easy, when pursuing the greater Seattle area's best ethnic grocery stores, to focus on the amazing offerings in White Center, Burien, Lake City, and spots further north and south. But it's important to not overlook those places within the city limits, right under our noses--places like Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard. For more than a year now, I've lived just three blocks from this quaint, Cracker Barrel-esque (anyone who's visited the Midwest or South will know what I mean) cafe and shop selling all types of Scandinavian goods. And I'd never been there. Now, having visited for the first time a few days ago, I know what I've been missing.

It's popular knowledge that Ballard used to be the hub of Scandinavian culture and community in the PNW. But with every hip new restaurant and happening new bar that opens in the 'hood, it loses a little of its quirky charm, and businesses that once thrived have to close as people choose to spend their money elsewhere. Since Olsen's Scandinavian Foods shuttered in 2009, Scandinavian Specialties now boasts the title of last Scandinavian store in the city (or so says the sandwich board outside). It's a niche I hope they'll continue to fill, and I'm certainly not the only one: On my recent hour-long visit, about a dozen people stopped in, some first-timers but many obviously longtime customers, picking up bags of homemade fish cakes and Swedish meatballs, grabbing tins of tea to send to relatives in other parts of the country, having lunch, and reading a copy of Norwegian American Weekly.

My dining partner and I join in on this last event, stopping by the cafe for a quick bite around noon. I'm a bit disappointed that a lot of the more traditional Scandinavian fare--pickled herring, fish pudding, lutefisk, lefse, and the like--is kept in the refrigerated/frozen section to the left of the register and treated more as to-go items for a make-at-home picnic. Since we're looking for something warmer on a cold Seattle day, we settle on a few things from the limited selection of ready-to-eat items from the chalkboard menu. There's a trio of open-faced sandwiches available--one with a meatloaf-like patty, another with a generous slice of smoked salmon, and the third with a pile of bay shrimp with a swirl of mayo--and we decide on the first, since we're getting smoked salmon in the quiche that sits prettily behind glass. We also opt to split a cup of the yellow pea-and-lamb soup, which arrives with wafer-like crackers thinner than the smear of butter we spread on top. The quiche is the star--the flavor rich and buttery, with a flaky crust, leaving the smoked salmon and dill to cut through with a pleasant result. The meatloaf/burger is a bit dry, though the taste is balanced. Surprisingly, the soup is hearty and delicious, the lamb so soft it falls away into chunks.

The lunch is simple, comforting, and relatively cheap (with a sparkling black-currant soda, the total was near $20), albeit not stereotypically Scandinavian. Everything else available in the store? Unbelievably, unapologetically stereotypical. Equal parts Finnish airport gift shop and Norwegian grocery store, the shop provides a little bit of everything for Scandinavian expats and curious Ballardites alike: "Uff da!"-imprinted cufflinks, Norwegian wool sweaters, dolls with long blond braids, faux-fur hats, Freia chocolate bars, sweet and salty black licorice from Finland, signs reading "Velkommen," Swedish pancake mix, jars of pickled fish and cabbage, painted clogs, tubes of cheap caviar, and $100 blocks of imported cheese. There are even multiple polka CDs--one featuring a naked man playing the accordion.

I'm guessing you may not have an immediate need for naked, accordion-playing polka stars or frozen packs of lutefisk, but it's important that we keep frequenting places like this anyway. Do what we did and stop by for lunch--chances are you'll end up leaving with a few bags of candy and a brick of Jarlsberg anyway. Luckily, the neighborhood dose of culture is free.

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