Is it just the sad state of Seattle's street food that's got everyone already so enamored of Skillet? Or is it that the gentlemen of the shiny Airstream trailer are geniuses, humanitarians, heroes?
Something about Skillet moves people quickly to hyperbole. An e-mail from a friend read, "I LOVE SKILLET," going on to describe "The Burger," which comes with bacon jam, blue cheese, and arugula as, "well, life-changing." A woman waiting in Skillet's line makes the sweeping assertion that food with wheels always tastes better. A man standing there eating a salad—with tiny tomatoes, big homemade croutons golden with grease, and slices of steak (tender, he says, with a subtle, barely sweet fruit marinade)—proclaims, "This is the best thing ever."
The issue of whether Seattle's street-food-unit requirements (hot and cold running water, four sink compartments, refrigeration) are punitive aside, Skillet is part of a recent uptick in local mobile eating—permits granted rose 6 percent in 2006 and 16 percent so far this year. Street food is a thing of both economy and joy that can only go toward the greater good: more hot dog stands for the hungry/drunk everywhere; the vaunted Hallava Falafel truck roving from Georgetown to Capitol Hill and beyond; a new taco truck called Rancho Bravo on Northeast 45th Street (to which employees at Dick's direct laggards on Friday and Saturday nights at closing time). And while we can all celebrate the proliferation of dogs, great falafel, and greasy tacos on late-night corners, Skillet's after both less and more: just breakfasts and lunches made with local, seasonal ingredients for, as they put it, people who really like food. The gentlemen of Skillet, Josh and Danny, have culinary school and family restaurant backgrounds, and they see Skillet's sole shiny Airstream as the beginning of an empire of American-bistro-style mobile excellence: Seattle first, then the West Coast, then the world.
At lunchtime on a stretch of Terry Avenue that's (for now) still obscure, still industrial, construction-worker women in hard hats and biotech men in dress shirts line up. It's a snapshot of South Lake Union: many cranes in view, a still-skeletal new building on the corner, kitty-corner from a building labeled BIO-RAD LABORATORIES. Skillet's parked in front of a sign reading "NOTICE DO NOT PARK IN DRIVEWAY," but the driveway goes (for now) to a thicket of blackberries behind a hurricane fence. The menu—today, The Burger with hand-cut fries ($6.50), the steak salad ($8), a chicken sandwich ($8), poutine ($4), the "Sweet" du jour (grapes and thick Nutella on baguette, $3), and a few drinks—lives on a chalkboard.
Smoke pours out of the vent on top of Skillet. Danny, possessed of a fine Kentucky accent and manner, takes orders, maybe calling you "dear." He's at pains to explain that the poutine is not traditional Canadian-style, as some customers have complained about the lack of cheese curds; you immediately side with him, trusting Skillet's unorthodox poutine implicitly. Credit cards are accepted via a handheld wireless apparatus. Inside, Josh, making everything for everyone, confirms amiably (and doubtless for the one-millionth time) that it is indeed hot in there.
No provisions for eating on-site have been made, but if no one's playing beanbag toss, the wood platforms make for sturdy if slanty seating. (Made by an outfit called American Cornhole, this game is handsome and, you'd think, irresistible.) Everything comes in pretty, thick, cream-colored cardboard containers: made of sugarcane, 100 percent compostable (as are utensils), 1,000 percent better than any other option. While you're eating the poutine—a big cup of thick, ungreasy fries with cubes of Irish cheddar covered in delicious, chickeny gravy with fresh herbs—a cement mixer might edge past you, the driver waving. While you're eating the chicken sandwich—crisply walnut-crusted pieces of moist bird with fennel/apple slaw in a bun that's got just enough body without being intrusively crusty—the lady who's declared the preeminence of food with wheels is, suddenly, clearly, the smartest person in the world.