A is for dining alone... and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself.
—An Alphabet for Gourmets by M.F.K. Fisher
I am almost certain that I first read those words in the fall of 2003 while eating alone some late night at a restaurant in the International District. Most likely it was Hing Loon (628 S Weller St, 682-2828), and most likely it was a meal of salt-and-pepper squid ($8.95), or a beef-and-ginger hot pot ($9.25), or steamed tofu stuffed with shrimp ($9.25).
I ate alone a lot in 2003. I lived in a little studio in the International District, in a building called the Governor, above a Filipino travel agency, a Korean hair salon, a Japanese restaurant, and a tiny Chinese take-out joint. My apartment was directly above the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant. I could hear the giant fan whirring away when I lay in bed at night, and my apartment always had a faint smell of sesame oil that I secretly loved. Once a month the restaurant would spray for cockroaches, and all of them would come crawling up through the walls to hang out at my place. But I prefer not to think about that. More important, my little apartment was across the street from Maneki (304 Sixth Ave S, 622-2631), my favorite restaurant in the entire universe; down the alley from Tsukushinbo (515 S Main St, 467-4004); one and a half blocks from Mike's Noodle House (418 Maynard Ave S, 389-7099)—hello, congee!; two blocks from Uwajimaya; and five blocks from Van's Produce. Wherever you are in the ID, whatever time of day (or night) it is, you are never far from delicious, cheap food. It is paradise, roaches included.
The ID is where I fell for, and got good at, eating alone. I started out clumsily enough—at Top Gun (RIP) eating dim sum and reading a book. While I still maintain that the shu mai at Top Gun were the best in Seattle, I must concede that eating dim sum alone is a terrible idea. It is, inherently, a group activity and slightly depressing when done by one's self. I always ended up having to unbutton my pants or carry an embarrassing amount of leftovers for the walk home. Eventually, the book became unnecessary. I found that the green-onion pancake ($3.30) at Szechuan Noodle Bowl (420 Eighth Ave S, 623-4198) was the perfect size for one person and made a fine dining companion while I waited for an order of perfect, homemade vegetable dumplings ($6.30)—dense, packed with spinach and silky bits of tofu, and so good I would happily take them over the pork-filled counterparts.
While all the Asian cuisines found in the International District differ from each other, they share many flavors with the Filipino food I was raised on. The cozy, humble restaurants and their home-style dishes reminded me of my mom's cooking and having dinner every night at the table with my family. I started thinking about food differently when I lived in the ID. It's where I really began thinking about food—feeling my way through each bite, letting each taste remind me of someplace or someone, letting everything I ate become a memory, part of a story, part of my story.
Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly. —M.F.K. Fisher
Last spring, on one of my first dates with my boyfriend, we found ourselves, after a movie, starving at 10:30 p.m. I suggested heading down to the International District's Sea Garden (509 Seventh Ave S, 623-2100) since it's open late, though I was a little wary of taking him there. I calculated the risk in my head: I love Sea Garden; I like this guy—I don't know him so well. Will a bad experience ruin everything? As a test, I suggested he pick out what dishes sounded good to him. After a few minutes, he looked at me and spoke these magical, beautiful words of love: "What do you think about clams with black bean sauce and barbecue duck? I could also go for pork spareribs."
While I still often eat alone in the ID, I've acquired a new love for the neighborhood. Now it's a place where we go for late-night dinners together: stiff cocktails (Long Island iced tea and something called a Zombie) and "Chinese Style Squid" ($9.25) amid the fluorescent lights and fake wood paneling of Tai Tung (655 S King St, 622-7372); take-out barbecue pork from 663 Bistro (663 S Weller St, 667-8760), which we eat at the Fortune Sports Bar before pool and/or karaoke. And, it turns out, Maneki is my boyfriend's favorite restaurant, too.
I feel like I know the International District so well and, while I love it, the truth is I'm just discovering it. And that's what I love most about the neighborhood—how it seems to hold everything: the familiar places that I know and love, and the places that have been there forever that I'm just discovering. On a friend's recommendation I headed to Mi La Cay (718 Rainier Ave S, 322-6840) for the first time last week for a bowl of fried-chicken soup ($5.50)—a light, oily broth fragrant with star anise and black pepper, egg noodles, bits of lettuce and scallion, and three moist, rich pieces of glorious fried chicken, complete with bones and dark meat. It was a stunning revelation. My romance with the ID is ongoing; it's now a story that requires other people for its telling.