Following in Jonathan Gold’s Pico Boulevard footsteps, the people of the blog Rainier Avenue Eats are lunching their way down that street, one restaurant at a time.
In their attempt to eat lunch at every restaurant on Seattle’s Rainier Avenue South, the people of Rainier Avenue Eats went 10 stops before reaching a place owned by a Seattle native.
Gail Savina and her husband, Dave Beeman, started at McClellan, because that’s where they live, and decided to head south, because that seemed like the more interesting direction. As of last Friday, they’ve eaten at 19 places, bringing along a changing cast of family and friends ranging in age from 3 to 69. They’re skipping chains, and they sometimes argue about other methodological matters — Beeman wanted to forgo Ezell’s, because they’d already eaten there, but Savina says she’s going back again anyway.
Data is elusive, but Rainier Valley is certainly one of the most culturally diverse areas in the region. It’s been home to waves of immigrants from everywhere, and Rainier Avenue South is home to their food: Borracchini’s, barbecue, pho, bibimbap, injera and much, much more. As Savina says on her Rainier Avenue Eats blog, “Take that, Donald.”
Savina and Beeman’s inspiration is Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles-based, leonine king of contemporary food writing. Gold credits his effort to eat at every restaurant along Pico Boulevard, now decades ago, as fundamental to his work. He ate food of the different regions of Mexico; he ate Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Guatemalan and Ecuadorean food. In his essay “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” he wrote, “This was not my mother’s cooking. Pico, in a certain sense, was where I learned to eat.”
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Gold’s subsequent omnivorous, eloquent exploration of what he’s called “the glorious mosaic” of Los Angeles earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He’s also the subject of a documentary called “City of Gold,” which Savina and Beeman saw at the Seattle International Film Festival last May. (The film’s recent run in local theaters was sadly brief; it should be available on Netflix in the not-too-distant future.) When they learned of Gold’s gustatory Pico undertaking, they thought: Why not try something similar here in Seattle?
Last Friday at Columbia City’s Watercress Vietnamese Bistro, Savina recalled Gold’s assertion that the restaurants of Pico, representative of the strip-mall sprawl of Los Angeles, are central to newcomers’ economic toeholds. Likewise, in eating along Rainier, she observed, “The whole thing about entry-level capitalism … you’re supporting that.” Joining her at Watercress were Beeman, their nieces Naomi Beeman and Meghan Crandall, and friends Michele Domash and Tom Phillips.
Rainier Avenue Eats has found places with bars on the windows, then, inside, orchids on the tables. They lunch at 1 o’clock, which is better than noon if you hope to talk to the people working, maybe meet the chef or the owner. They loved dining at La Teranga, a tiny Senegalese spot in Columbia City. “I think it only seats four,” Beeman joked (though not by much). They were the only customers there, and as for the server/chef/owner, “There’s just one guy working there, and he’s running his ass off,” Savina said. Beeman chimed in, “He does it all.” That included telling them about immigrating, first to New York, then Seattle, and about economic development in Senegal.
At Emerald City Fish & Chips, they met the owner and his uncle — “so nice,” they concurred — and witnessed the restaurant’s policy of “Discounts upon request” in action when a homeless man stopped in. At The Spice Room, a Thai place, they learned that their busy server, a Mexican guy, was also an experienced chef who sometimes works in the kitchen; he told them that at home, his Thai wife doesn’t cook at all. At Safari Njema Restaurant, where the owner is from Mombasa, Kenya, Savina likened the spices to those of India. “She was very offended,” Savina recalled; the owner then gave a discourse on how the spices that are identified as Indian originally came from Africa.
Savina segued into an off-the-cuff explanation of how the spice trade got started and the global significance of pepper. “Pepper!” she enthused. “I’m so interested in it.” Possessed of a penetrating intelligence, Savina is remarkably un-self-important; she won’t tell you that she founded the marvelous Seattle nonprofit City Fruit until prompted by Beeman, nor about her work to save fisheries in the Philippines. She grew up picking apples in Wenatchee, Beeman noted, so perhaps the City Fruit thing was in her blood. He’s a former engineer; they’re both retired now, but he teaches piano, and his Vietnamese students bring her spices to make her own pho.
Watercress’ pho broth, Savina opined, was very good. But the endeavor isn’t about critiquing the food, everyone said: It’s about the people. Savina jumped up and waylaid the server, Lee Huy, the owner’s nephew. “Is the bar new?” she asked. Indeed, and the former pool hall is gone, too. She complimented the pho, then quizzed him about the chef; where did she get her ingredients? “That’s a secret,” Huy laughed. “I can’t tell!”
Asked for advice for those who might set out on their own similar restaurant experiment, Savina said simply, “Go do it.” Her niece Meghan mused about the prospect of eating her way down Lake City Way, near where she lives: “It’s a little bit like traveling in your own city.” Niece Naomi half-wished she’d gotten the same dish at, say, all the Thai places, to have a point of comparison. But, above all, they all urged: Be friendly.
“I try to find out as much as I can,” Savina said, “but some people are super shy.” Then she was up from the table again, asking Huy if the chef would come out for a photo. Visible through the doorway, the chef demurred, grinning widely. More back-and-forth ensued, translated by Huy; the chef emerged, retreated, then came out again, smiling all the while. At last agreed upon, the photo was taken.