The U District Partnership, a nonprofit that serves the University District, bought 25 picnic tables in May, painted them turquoise blue and set them up on the sidewalks of Northeast 43rd Street near University Way Northeast, known as the Ave. The tables, whose color will match the next-door U District light-rail station that’s expected to be completed in October, make up a new shared outdoor dining plaza that is part of a greater expansion of outdoor seating in the U District.
On July 11, the city closed off northbound traffic on the Ave between 42nd and 43rd to make room for 25 more picnic tables. Don Blakeney, the executive director of The U District Partnership, says the city is only permitting the lane closure through the end of September, but the tables in the plaza on 43rd will stay. A group of University District residents started the organization Outdoors On the Ave in May 2020 to help the neighborhood’s restaurants survive the pandemic. With The U District Partnership and other groups, the volunteers have been working to get a lane closure for outdoor dining on the Ave ever since, says Cory Crocker, a volunteer for Outdoors On the Ave.
So with around 200 new seats for outdoor dining, the U District is turning into a solid option for summer dining. Luckily, there are great restaurants within a few blocks of the new dining areas that offer a variety of takeout options, from mouth-numbing Sichuan fried chicken to baguette sandwiches with ham, mascarpone and apricot jam. And if you’ve always wanted to try some U District restaurants but didn’t want to mingle with the throngs of college students, summer is now in session, so it’s the perfect time to head out there.
11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 4545 University Way N.E., Seattle; redpepperusa.com
In college, I worked at a Sichuan Chinese restaurant for three years and became seriously obsessed with mala — the mix of hot spice (from chili pepper) and cooling, numbing spice (from Sichuan peppercorn) that throws my taste buds into a state of bewildered ecstasy I just can’t get from anything else.
The dishes at Red Pepper satisfy my cravings and more.
The boiled fish with green pepper oil ($20.99) brings together fish fillets that disintegrate in my mouth, snappy bean sprouts, crunchy, starchy slices of lotus root, slippery glass noodles and more — all in a light broth brightened by citrusy green Sichuan peppercorns. With a couple of sides of rice, the dish is enough food for two or three people and has enough textural variety to keep the most jaded eater interested.
And if the boiled fish is brightened by Sichuan peppercorn, the lazi chicken ($16.99) — popcorn chicken covered in an equal amount of chopped dried chili peppers — is electrified by it: My tongue was numb, and my lips were tingling by the time I was halfway through my order. The pieces of chicken are tiny, covered in a light, crispy batter, so the dish can be a bit dry on its own. But it has enough salt, spice and MSG to be a truly great drinking food; I recommend snacking on lazi chicken with a light beer.
Byrek and Baguette
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 4209 University Way N.E., Seattle; byrekandbaguette.org
Byrek and Baguette is one of the most relaxing study spots on the Ave. Succulents in pots or vines grow in little glass jars of water on every table, and a small room to the left of the entrance is furnished with two teal armchairs and a beige leather couch. The cafe is also adding outdoor dining this month, according to The U District Partnership.
But the food is perfect for takeout, especially the baguette sandwiches and the byreks (the Albanian spelling for a filo-dough pastry popular in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe). Byrek and Baguette also serves good breakfast food like scrambles, omelets and French toast.
The honey-cured ham baguette ($11.50) pairs ham with crusty bread, mascarpone and apricot jam for a fantastic sandwich. The sweetness of the cheese and jam mellows any sharp flavors in the ham and the apricot adds a sweet aroma that makes the sandwich taste like late summer: wheat, cream and fruit.
And the beef and tomato byrek ($6.25) makes a satisfying snack or light meal with flaky filo dough surrounding ground beef, tomato and caramelized onions served with thick homemade yogurt. The tanginess of the tomato and yogurt brings a nice contrast to the buttery flavors in the beef and filo dough.
10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m., Sunday; 4226 University Way N.E., Seattle
Thanh Vi is one of several Vietnamese restaurants on the Ave, but it’s special among them for its banh xeo (Vietnamese crepes; $11.97) and dishes like the tom nuong (charbroiled shrimp; $14.47) served with spring-roll wrappers, vermicelli and vegetables for DIY spring rolls. Both are perfect summer dishes.
The banh xeo, made with rice flour, coconut cream and turmeric, has a wonderfully crisp crust and soft, airy interior. It’s studded with pieces of shrimp, filled with bean sprouts and served with sprigs of cilantro and basil, which are refreshing with the slightly sweet caramel flavor of the crepe.
The tom nuong also makes for a great light dinner. To make the rolls, nestle the charbroiled shrimp in the vermicelli with lightly pickled radish and carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts and herbs, then roll it up — look up a video on YouTube if you want to learn how to make it pretty, with the shrimp peeking through a single layer of translucent spring-roll skin. Otherwise, enjoy your ugly spring roll. It will taste good anyway.