Of Rullepølse and Rømmegrøt

Ballard's palace of Nordic nosh.

It’s a shame that Scandinavian Specialties doesn’t deliver. Picture the truck moving slowly through residential Ballard, an illustration of a happy herring on its side, a Stan Boreson song (“Catch a Pickled Herring,” perhaps?) blaring from a loudspeaker on its roof. Kids from the neighborhood trailing it for blocks, pleading for their very own portion of fish pudding.

I think it’s a great idea. But maybe co-owners Ozzie Kvithammer and Anne-Lise Berger, also husband and wife, are doing well enough as it is. Their Scandinavian food shop/cafe provides a pleasant alternative for those who’ve grown sick of Thai takeout. And who needs it when there’s shrimp salad ($9.95 per pound), fish pudding ($6.95 small loaf, $11.25 large loaf), fish cakes ($6.95 per pound), pickled herring ($6.25 per pound), sauerkraut ($2 small, $3.25 large), salmon quiche ($5.25 per slice), Scandinavian cold cuts, and traditional sweets for dessert?

My friend Sarah and I recently availed ourselves of most of the above and had an indoor picnic. Just a few bites in, we found the herring highly addictive. Its texture—very soft, almost chewy—is much like that of ceviche; Sarah rightly described it as “silky.” The tangy-sweet brine includes allspice, which heavily accents the flavor of the fish, plus the usual pickling suspects: vinegar, sliced onions, caraway seeds, and a combination of spices that Berger prefers to keep to herself. She did reveal, however, that the same mixture is used for Specialties’ fish pudding, which is steamed, and fish cakes, which are deep fried. Both benefit greatly from a liberal dose of nutmeg. If you don’t find the idea of fish in pudding or cake form appetizing, think of them as soufflé and fritters. Berger says the pudding is her favorite dish on Specialties’ menu, and its unique blend of sweet and savory flavors could very well make it yours, too.

For dessert, we shared a few of the shop’s Swedish punch rolls ($1.35 each), semimysterious confections that taste simultaneously of bubble gum, alcohol, marzipan, and chocolate. If you’re feeling less indulgent, Norwegian fortune cookies ($4.75 per dozen) —each filled with an Ole and Lena joke—are the way to go. In case you’re not a regular Prairie Home Companion listener: Ole and Lena jokes are Norwegian-American culture’s answer to blonde jokes, inasmuch as they’re about the stupidity of their subjects. (An example, from www.oldlutheran.com: “Lena called the airlines information desk and inquired, ‘How long does it take to fly from Minneapolis to Fargo?’ ‘Just a minute,’ said the busy clerk. ‘Vell,’ said Lena, ‘if it has to go dat fast, I tink I’ll just take da bus.'”) Berger told me that the jokes are a Midwestern invention and weren’t part of her childhood in Norway; be that as it may, I can easily picture the delivery-truck driver, in his Herringmobile, giving kids a free cookie with every purchase.

The menu also features several hot dishes, including Swedish meatballs ($9.25), but when I returned with my friend Reed, we went for the impressive sandwich selection. Half are served open-faced on white bread; the other half arrive on French rolls or rolled up in lefse, a soft, potato-based Norwegian flatbread. I chose the shrimp sandwich ($6.25), and Reed opted for a sampler platter ($9.95), choosing half- sandwiches laden with smoked salmon and egg, shrimp and fish pudding, and rullepølse, a Danish luncheon meat. (Specialties’ version is made of lamb.)

The salmon-egg combo proved the most inspired: Sliced thin, the smoky fish was a fine match for the warm, lightly seasoned egg. I found the pudding-added shrimp sandwich better, though both—as well as the rullepølse, which Reed described as salty and “smooth-textured”—packed a bit too much mayonnaise for his taste.

The cafe’s more specialized dishes are seasonal. Lutefisk ($12.50), a notorious Norwegian dish of dried cod boiled in lye, is only available in December; and while Specialties makes fish soup ($2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl) every Friday, you can only order kumle (potato dumplings served with rutabaga stew, $12.50) from September through April, and then only on Tuesdays. What’s available every day, and what you simply can’t not try, is rømmegrøt ($3.25 cup, $5.25 bowl), sour-cream porridge served with—sorry, swimming in—melted butter and topped with cinnamon and sugar. It’s divine. Extremely rich and soothing, it would make a perfect sleep aid.

In time, rømmegrøt might also become the Herringmobile’s signature item. Though Specialties sells take-out portions, I’d much rather have it delivered to my door, piping hot in frosty January—perhaps to the tune of Boreson’s “Walking in my Winter Underwear.”


Scandinavian Specialties, 6719 15th Ave. N.W., 206-784-7020, BALLARD. Open 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat. (Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.)