So I pretty much lost my mind with joy when District H opened in Seattle’s South Lake Union in September. District H is the version of Korean grocery chain H Mart that’s got all kinds of food-court-style eating options — and South Lake Union, of course, is the land of Amazon, where the lanyarded roam. But it’s also where the Seattle Times newsroom happens to be located. We can see District H from our windows! During a walk-through on the first day, witnessing “Steam Station” making hot Korean-style dumplings, whole squid sizzling at “Grill Station,” all the potential grab-and-go goodness, the tropical fruit, the full French-ish bakery and more, more, MORE, I honestly felt dizzy (and a little ill, even) with anticipation.
Back at the office, while telling my colleague Amy Wong what was happening across the street, I got actual goose bumps. Amy gets it — she was as excited as I was. “I HAVE ACTUAL GOOSE BUMPS,” I said, and we both just laughed maniacally. (Find Amy’s full report on District H’s packaged sweets and snacks here.)
Tan Vinh, on the other hand, just let me rave for a while and then said, “Sounds like it could challenge the love for lunch at Whole Foods” — the South Lake Union branch of which swarms with local workers picking out pricey to-go stuff at noontime.
Tan agreed to help taste-test all District H’s options, after I calmed down. Here, we chronicle what we’ve found there that we’ll be eating for lunch over and over again. — Bethany Jean Clement
OUR OFFICIAL DISTRICT H LUNCH FAVORITES
THE WHOLE GRILLED SQUID ($13.99): Tan and I went after the lunch rush, and we got to see our squid hit the sizzling-hot grill, spend just the right amount of time there and then get handed right over with a smile (everyone who works at District H is so nice!). The portion is huge: lots of sizable, fresh-tasting rings with an ideal level of smokiness augmenting a basic but pleasant sweet-and-soy flavor. To me, the sear was perfect: deep color imparted but no over-crisped toughness, with the bite overall just on the right side of the bouncy/rubbery divide. Tan felt like some of it was a little too chewy — but, then, more for me. We did both agree the kimchi fried rice needed more salt and spice, but that’s easily remedied, and it, too, was fried up fresh for us. Squid from Grill Station for the win! — B.J.C.
SPAM KIMBOP ($7.99): I will unabashedly chest-thump for this Spam sushi-style roll and its layers of textures and flavors — the funky high tide of seaweed and fish to go with the porky saltiness of Spam and all the crunchy elements. This kimbop (Spam along with cucumber, carrot, egg, the broccolini-like rape blossom shoots, burdock root, fishcake, rice and seaweed) is better than District H’s bulgogi, tuna and (sorry, vegetarians) the non-meat kimbop rolls. And it’s better than Spam musubi. — Tan Vinh
THE UNAGI DON ($10.99): Here we have three sizable slabs of eel, the flesh almost melty soft, the skin rich and fatty beneath. Lots of just-right-sweet sauce and a light sprinkling of sesame seeds go on top, while underneath lies a deep bed of decent white rice. A few little, brightly colored pickles chime in for zing; there should be more of these. Nonetheless, if you love unagi, this heavy bowl represents pure comfort, and good value to boot. (However, it is a plastic bowl; District H involves a lot of plastic. They need to cut it out!) Other options in District H’s grab-and-go zone didn’t work nearly as well. Both the bulgogi sushi and japchae crossed the sweet-and-savory line into over-sugary; an uninspired poke bowl came loaded with farmed salmon; and a variety of fried foods, kept warm in a case, failed to wow (as you might expect). The unagi don, though: love. — B.J.C.
BULGOGI BIBIMBAP ($11.99): I would skip all the beef and pork rice bowls and get the bibimbap from “The Bop.” This is a substantial meal — shiitake mushroom, egg, lettuce, zucchini, carrot, rape blossom shoots, bean sprouts and rice — with copious amounts of beef piled on top and a side of gochujang. I’m always skeptical when I see a giant heap of meat in a rice bowl that’s hawked for $9.99 or cheaper. Those meats tend to be gristly or over-seasoned to mask the gnarly cut. Good meat isn’t cheap, people. This umami-packed bowl runs a couple of bucks more than the going rate for rice bowls around South Lake Union, but you can taste the difference. — T.V.
KIMCHI DUMPLINGS ($8.99): Four hockey-puck-sized morsels are imbued with bright, fermented flavors, then encased in skin that’s firm but chewy in texture. These steamed mandu (kimchi, pork, noodle, garlic, onions, scallions, salt and pepper) were better — much, much better — than the mealy beef dumplings. Bethany also really liked the clear-brothed dumpling soup, with rice cakes in it, too, from Steam Station — perfect for a cold winter day and/or if you’re not feeling great, she says. — T.V.
THE FRUIT (prices vary): The fruit at District H should not be overlooked! Marvel at the fruit! Enjoy a precious, juicy, gorgeous-inside-and-out mango — alongside the smaller Ataulfo ones, the standard-in-the-U.S. variety recently, which are arguably even sweeter and more velvety (and sometimes called “the champagne mango,” so how can you not?). Or try the oversized, extra-crunchy golden globes that are Korean pears (pro tip: Carry these back to your desk and let them ripen until fragrant with pear-smell before eating). Or several other kinds of special pears. Or dragon fruit. Or who knows what’s next — the selection varies. And yes, the carbon footprint of importing these beauties is real — savor each piece for the treat it should be. Share your special pear! — B.J.C.
THE PAIN AUX RAISINS ($3.25): Most everything at District H’s Tous Les Jours bakery is made fresh on-site, and it all looks amazing. My excitement knew no bounds! The croissant, however, lacked the buttery scent and rich flavor of the best (though, as Tan aptly put it, “I’ve had a lot worse”). A fat baguette ended up more like an Americanized French bread, but with a creditable crisp crust — you won’t feel like you’re in Paris, but it’s still satisfying to tear off a piece and let the crumbs shower down upon the streets of South Lake Union. Most gravely disappointing were two items from a warming cabinet: a tragic croque monsieur, which contained American cheese and was tough from overheating; and a greasy, chewy, flattish ham-and-cheese pastry. But I loved the pain aux raisins, an escargot-shaped brioche pastry made the traditional French way, loaded with raisins, kept soft and nice by a subtle amount of pastry cream. — B.J.C.
DISTRICT H (AND H MART) PRO TIPS
At official lunchtime — right after high noon until approximately 12:47 p.m., Monday through Friday — District H is a melee of hungry Amazonians. The lines at the touch-screen ordering stations for hot food move pretty quickly, and orders generally are ready surprisingly fast, too — you pick up your hot food at the corresponding spot, be it Steam Station, Grill Station or The Bop. But competition for the contemporary, cafeteria-style seating can be fierce, and some food-hunters will bodycheck you with their laptop backpacks. For a more tranquil District H experience — as in, nearly to the point of tumbleweeds rolling around — come before or after the noon hour. But important: All the stations close down from 2 to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
If you’re downtown, an even brand-newer H Mart is there for you — albeit with a more limited selection of ready-to-eat options, which are kept in cases rather than being made to order — at Second and Pine (1601 Second Ave.). In the University District, hungry Huskies have been getting grab-and-go at the small H Mart on the Ave since 2017 (and they know to head upstairs for the huge selection of snacks, packaged ramen and more — 4216 University Way N.E.). Our original local H Mart, in Lynnwood (3301 184th St. S.W.) is very fun to visit, with way more grocery square footage than the others, plus a different food-court setup. And Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reports that yet another H Mart is planned for atop the Link light-rail station on Broadway.
Annnnnd speaking of the grocery aspect, all these locations carry so much great stuff, like the Korean red-pepper powder that chef Rachel Yang (Joule, Revel, etc.) loves, and the big, fat Korean pears that go into the beef tartare at fantastic new Seattle spot Paju.
District H: 101 Terry Ave. N. (South Lake Union), Seattle; 206-706-1365; hmartus.com/districthlocation; Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.