MAEKAWA BAR Night owls and horse mackerel. Victoria Renard
by Sara Dickerman

As I mentioned last week, the search is on for The Stranger's new food writer ["Eat Food, and Get Paid!" June 26]--and I've received a ton of submissions already. (Keep 'em coming, please: chow@thestranger.com.) This week's Chow column is by local foodie Sara Dickerman, who has written for Slate, the Seattle P-I, Saveur, and Food & Wine. Since Sara works evenings as a restaurant cook, she used her late hours to her advantage, and discovered a new spot in the I.D. I'll be sure to visit the next time I'm up late and craving hot udon soup. --Min Liao

Maekawa Bar

601 S King St, Suite 206 (International District), 622-0634. Open daily 6 pm-1:30 am, food served until 1 am.

Late-night Seattle can be hard on a hungry girl. Too many restaurants, including the one where I work, close resolutely at 10:00 p.m. Mercifully, there's the International District, where places like the Sea and ABC Gardens have long been serving proper meals until the small hours of the morning. When word got out about a new Japanese restaurant that serves food until 1:00 a.m., I grabbed a coworker for some late-night sampling.

Located on the second floor of a small shopping center, the Maekawa Bar has glassy walls that stare out into its sister bar/restaurant, Fort St. George. (Owner Yuichi Maekawa took over the new space a month ago.) It was once a cook-it-yourself nabe restaurant, and giant, defunct hoods still gape open over every table, giving the space a sort of unintentional industrial chic. Despite the lean décor, waitresses are so cheerful and the Beatles play so frequently that the whole place is infused with a happy Tokyo-pop feeling.

From time to time, it's good to eat at a Japanese restaurant that doesn't serve sushi. When it comes to raw fish, I've got little willpower, and I'll typically ignore the rest of the menu in favor of piles of nigiri and sashimi. But other kinds of informal Japanese food have so much to offer. Maekawa serves a huge range of nibbly little appetizers, dubbed "Asian tapas, Japanese-style" on the menu. They're the kind of snacky fare that tastes best at night, perfect for evening cravings: the chewy, the pickly, the sweet, the crunchy. They're also a great match for a milky glass of unfiltered sake or a pitcher of Kirin. (Little plates run in the $3-$5 range.)

My coworker was impressed by the Spartan description of "grilled horse mackerel, with salt and pepper" (we were all impressed by the price: $3.25)--but our waitress convinced us to try the same fish with "special sauce." "It's like teriyaki, but not too sweet," she promised. She was right; the mackerel arrived with a chewy mahogany crust, and the soy in the sauce played nicely with the oil-rich meat.

A seared-bonito plate featured thin slices of the dark tuna bathed in a gentle marinade, and it was the only sashimi-like thing we tried. It was cool and slithery, and, on its pretty turquoise plate, the kind of thing for which you'd expect to pay a lot more than $5.50. Another dish of supple chilled squid with scallions was served with a crisp white miso sauce. Seafood's definitely a focus at Maekawa, perhaps because Mr. Maekawa is from the seafood-rich city of Fukui.

But peppery slices of pork in little wonton envelopes have a satisfying chew about them, and fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu), in its ruff of panko breadcrumbs, was clean and crisp. The menu may be homey, but nothing at Maekawa is done carelessly: Even sesame spinach looks sharp, served in pressed sushi-like bundles. A fluffy omelet was the only dish we didn't scrape off the plate, mostly because it was topped with a huge dollop of sweet Japanese mayonnaise.

It would be easy to make a whole meal of the little plates, but late-night excess seems so right--especially with hearty noodle and rice dishes ($6.00-9.50) like slurpy bowls of ramen (with pork and fish cake) or udon (with tempura). I had a monumentally filling dish: a bowl of rice topped with chicken and onions cooked, frittata-style, in egg. It was sweet but not cloying: a good cold-winter option, and more than I really wanted to eat.

As we left, the bar near the entrance was comfortably crowded, and some people were hunched over drinks, watching highlights of a ball game. It was a bit of an Edward Hopper scene, but more convivial. I'm grateful that Maekawa is watching out for us night owls.