Sunday, April 27, 2008

La Carta de Oaxaca

Braved the crowds at this popular Ballard restaurant for a recent birthday celebration. We joined the well-dressed pack waiting shoulder to shoulder in the standing-room-only bar, drinking tasty Margaritas from pint glasses almost as fast as the busy bartender could pour them.
Our patience was rewarded with a table, a basket of hot fresh salty chips and a bowl of guacamole. There is a salsa bar that consists of a half dozen really delicious salsas- pico de gallo, a green one, a light red one, a deep red one, a brown one... I don't know what kinds they were but they were outstanding, especially the brilliant red one which has a wonderful flavour unlike any salsa I've ever tasted.
The menu consists of dishes that were described by our party's La Carta de Oaxaca veteran as "not quite big enough for a meal" so we proceeded to order 2 dishes a piece.

Over the years, I've looked at the menu on the website probably a dozen times, totally excited about Oaxacan flavors and cooking, to find that the vegetarian options are really limited. I've always hoped that something else vegetarian would pop up (Vegetarian tamales? Molotes without sausage?), but the choices remain limited (and, I realize, probably more authentic for being so.)

My first dish was the Quesedilla Fritas, fried cheese quesedillas garnished with guacamole, Oaxaqueno cheese, beans and flavorful salsa. The tortillas were homemade and exquisite (would be worth ordering on their own)- warm, thick, soft, fragrant with masa. I sometimes get in over my head with quesedillas filled with stinky cheese, and was really pleased that the cheese used was mild and completely inoffensive to my sensitive little cheese tongue.
My second dish was the enchiladas, which I special ordered sans the typical fried egg on top. The Oaxacan enchiladas are different from the enchilada I am used to in that they aren't filled with anything. Instead, the fresh tortilla is dipped into a red chili sauce, folded over, then topped with onion, parsley and Oaxaqueno cheese (and a fried egg, if you like). I wasn't enamoured by the enchilada sauce- it was fruity and sweet and I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't been.
All in all it was definitely a good evening, and it's hard not to have too good a time with large margaritas and a small fortune of salsas to choose from. But foodwise as a vegetarian, I felt a bit like I was eating from the kids menu. The food I had was good, but I felt like the meatless dishes were just scratching the surface of the wealth of the cuisine. I don't expect every restaurant to make numerous special concessions for the vegetarians, but seeing the dishes my meat-eating companions were relishing made me daydream more than a little.

(206) 782-8722
5431 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107
La Carta de Oaxaca in Seattle

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

P.F. Changs

On a recent cross-state drive, I found myself needing dinner whilst in the middle of one of the countless and contagious stretches of country containing an explosion of chain restaurants and box stores and little else. In this hungry and road-weary state, it was a relief and a pleasure to spot the majestic cement horse statue that marks a P.F. Changs.

No matter where you are, the P.F. Changs menu seems to stay the same. To my fortune and delight, it includes a sizable vegetarian selection that promises the same dependable vegetarian choices even in areas of the country where tofu might not be popular.

The shtick is dependable too... your waiter will arrive at the table with an attractive tray with glass bottles of soy sauce, vinegar and hot oil, and small cups of chili sauce, pot sticker sauce, and horseradish-y Chinese mustard. He asks how hot you like it and like a magician combines the ingredients before your eyes.
I've found an item on the menu that I really enjoy, and I enjoy the predictability of its availability no matter how far into cattle country I've wandered. I order the Ma Po Tofu. It comes standard with the silken tofu fried (but they easily accommodate my request for steamed instead) on a big pile of steamed broccoli in a not-too-salty, not-too-sweet Ma Po sauce that is rich with garlic.
You can choose white or brown rice.

One interesting thing I noticed while looking through the PF Changs website later on, is that many of the vegetarian dishes include vegetarian oyster sauce, which includes no animal products. The existence of such a product was an exciting discovery for me (though I do wonder if it is just a fronting name for liquid MSG?), and I am pleased to see that PF Changs is going the oft-considered-subtle-extra-mile and acknowledging the presence of oyster extracts as not truly vegetarian.

PF Changs China Bistro (Downtown) in Seattle

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kingfish Cafe

The Kingfish Cafe
602 19th Avenue East
Seattle, Washington 98112

Southern food tends to be a tempting but inaccessible genre for my tastes as a vegetarian- everything looks delicious... but meat and pork fat seem to be everywhere.

The Kingfish Cafe has taken southern food and given it enough newfangled influence to make it accessible for a vegetarian. Meat eaters will find delicious looking versions classics like pork chops, battered catfish and fried chicken, but there are some real gems nestled in for the vegetarians too.

I started the meal with an appetizer of Fried Green Tomatoes. They came to the table coated in a light and gritty herbed cornmeal batter, and drizzled with both garlic and chipotle aiolis . Arranged on top were three plump hushpuppies... dense and moist and a little bit sweet, they had a deep brown crust and were outstanding. The entire plate was sprinkled with chopped tomatoes and parsley.
Next came the main dish. I ordered the Hoppin' John Griddlecakes. I was thrilled when they arrived and the plate was huge and half covered in massive green salad. The griddle cakes were delicious- black eyes peas and rice and roasted veggies mashed into patties and deep fried until crusty, then garnished with salsa and sour cream.
I am easily seduced by a large salad, and this was no exception. I felt like a rabbit in an endless garden... plenty of wild greens, no need to ration or hoard. My one complaint was that it was slightly overdressed, and by the end of such a joyous salad orgy, my tongue was feeling ravaged from so much vinegary dressing. I would ask for the dressing on the side next time.

I enjoyed the atmosphere, which while still casual, had the slightly giddy buzz of people dressed with a little more effort than what you usually see around Seattle.

In addition, there was a visually appealing bar, and a delicious looking dessert menu.

The Kingfish Cafe is a wonderful restaurant to have in the arsenal of places to go with a mixed group and ensure an impressive and satisfying meal for both the meat eaters and the vegetarians alike.

Kingfish Cafe in Seattle

Friday, April 11, 2008


2207 2nd Avenue
Seattle, Washington 98121

Michael at Herbivoracious had the great idea to propose a restaurant to Seattle food bloggers, then post a conglomeration of accounts after the visits were done. He chose Txori (pronounced CHO-ree), a Spanish tapas bar in Belltown.

A quick look at the menu on the Txori website ahead of time didn't leave me much hope for anything beyond olives and almonds, as the vegetarian items (and there were a handful) mostly included items my particular tastes don't tend to fancy: eggs, strong or non-cow cheeses, and mushrooms. The drink list looked delicious though- homemade sangria, all sorts of sparkling lemonade+alcoholic addition drinks, unusual cocktails.

I wasn't sure how to approach Txori, but given the menu perusal decided it best to go not-too-hungry but ready for a drink. I ended up taking the trip with an old friend visiting from out of town, and the slow pace of the food delivery (one plate at a time) was perfect for catching up with him.

I ordered a Cava Manzana Verde... a cocktail made absolutely alluring with the inclusion of arbequina olive oil. It also included cava (the Spanish sparkling wine, not kava, the west pacific intoxicant), and green apple puree. I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn't be sugar-y neon, and was happy to find it to be both opaque from puree, and quite tart with the flavor of real apples. The beads of olive oil floating on top smoothed onto my tongue and mellowed the acidity of the rest of the drink.
First to the table was Pera a la Plancha con ValdeĆ³n (~$3.00 pintxos size (about 2-3 bites)). It consisted of a slice of toast with a pool of melted blue cheese, grilled pear slices and a topping of a couple whole walnuts. It was described by my dining partner as a more delicate and delicious version of the same appetizer he makes at home.
I was really excited to see the presence of two additional vegetarian dishes that weren't listed on the website, and I ordered them both.

The first of these was Garbanzo Beans with Spinach, a regular menu addition. They fell into the "Raciones" category, which meant ~$6 and enough to share between a few people. They were absolutely delicious... coated in spices and oil and cooked a second time (pan fried? broiled?) such that they were nutty and browned. They were mixed in with bites of tender steamed spinach.
My other dish was a chalkboard special, cauliflower, also in Racione portion. It arrived a pretty pile of florettes charred at the peaks, one of my all time favorite preparations. Beneath it was a pool of olive oil so rich I wondered if perhaps it was part butter. The first bite was an exquisite mix of tenderness and flavour. The second bite melted in my mouth. By the third bite, my dining companion noted that the florettes seemed a bit like sponges soaked in fat, and thus it was I who finished the remainder of the plate.
The food was all delicious, but a bit on the rich and salty side. Makes me wonder if perhaps the dishes I ordered were meant to be eaten in smaller portions than I ate them in. I more or less ate the entire contents of both Racione dishes, and probably wouldn't have noticed the salt or the fat so much if I had shared more and eaten less. I'd be tempted to re-visit under the premise of drinking and hanging out accompanied by accents of luxurious food, rather than as a semi-attempt at dinner.

There was plenty for a vegetarian to nibble on, especially if you like sheep cheese and eggs.

Txori Bar in Seattle

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Samurai Noodle

606 5th Ave S
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 624-9321

Samurai Noodle is a tiny ramen house located on the west side of the Uwajimaya complex. In addition to pork, chicken and fish broth options, they also have a fully vegetarian ramen based on a seaweed soy broth (Tounyu).The bowl came to the table looking beautiful with palate of creamy colored broth and dabs of color in the form of green onions, roasted seaweed, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, pillowy squares of fresh soft tofu, and then toasted sesame seeds, crushed red pepper and pickled ginger as condiments at each table. In addition, you may purchase extra toppings (available vegetarian extras: green onion, roasted seaweed, garlic chips, tofu, seasoned bamboo shoots, extra noodles) if you'd like.
When ordering, you are asked whether you prefer your noodles soft, medium or hard. I chose medium, and didn't notice anything unusual about the way they were cooked.
The broth had the salty flavour of the sea and it was nice to know that it was coming from seaweed instead of from fish.

Samurai Noodle in Seattle

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tutta Bella

(Columbia City Location)
4918 Rainier Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98118

Tutta Bella has gone through a pretty significant cycle over the years... it started as a confused and confusing place, not sure whether it was a full-service restaurant or some kind of Italian Cafeteria. Then it got its program down: the wait staff was organized, the procedure was clear, and the pizza was great and felt like a good deal. Now, the wait staff is excellent... attentive and quick, but the pizza has gone way down in quality and the prices have gone up. I realize that Tutta Bella is Seattle's lil' Pizza darlin', but it seems to me the reputation is currently carrying more weight than the reality.

I am definitely a fan of thin crust Italian style pizza, and these guys have, over time, really botched it. We ordered two pizzas, the Quatro Stagioni (Four Seasons), which comes with artichokes, roasted red pepper, roasted zucchini, and herb mushrooms, and the Regina Margherita (Queen Margherita), which includes fresh mozzarella and basil, and opted for the $1 addition of chopped tomatoes.
The "Pomodoro San Marzano" sauce on each was unremarkable, an unfortunate reality considering the effort made in using special tomatoes. But the real lameness comes from the crust, again, a shame considering they have gone through special efforts to use authentic wood burning pizza ovens. About an inch in from the outer edge the sog starts, and it continues, getting worse towards the center such that a slice, thin and and scarcely topped, slumps and sags with no structural integrity, totally soggy fresh from the oven.

The topping are tasty and interesting, but poorly distributed and not quite plentiful enough. The Margherita had so little cheese (non-uniformly distributed), that there were a couple unfortunate slices that had nothing on them but wet sauce and a dissolving bottom crust.
The salads, on the other hand, are excellent. They are huge and delicious. There are two vegetarian salads, the Insalata di Mista (House Salad) with mixed greens, slivered onion and carrots, kalamata olives, roasted red pepper, white beans, and balsamic vinaigrette, and the Insalata di Salerno (Salerno Salad), which is made with Romain hearts, small fresh mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and crunchy fennel in a Dijon balsamic vinaigrette. (Both pictures show the Salerno.)
I love the them both... the Large version of either is big enough to completely gorge one person (and I have a near endless appetite for a salad chopped by somebody else), or satisfy a whole table in more reasonable rations. The house salad has enough stuff on it to feel hearty, and the Salerno is both refreshing and decadant with the fresh mozzarella and fennel.

They have a variety of desserts including gelato in a small array of flavours, and I made a small faux pas by mistaking the price for the number of scoops. The waiter was a little bit surprised but happy to oblige my request for the 6 scoop option.

Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Seattle