I instantly flashed back to that pivotal morning, after I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, when I stepped out into a narrow, cobbled street. Exhaust from WWII-era school buses offering public transport mingled with the irresistible scent of barbecue. A nearby woman tended a small hibachi, grilling ears of freshly shucked corn. Hailing from King County, a place whose health department prides itself on the eradication of any municipal street food, my first encounters with real street food culture were perhaps more profound and formative than, say, my first rock show, or the first time I became "accidentally drunk" at Bible college. Whatever it was this woman was preparing, I wanted some of it. I had never had anything like the cob-on-a-stick slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with cojita cheese she handed me. After this initial encounter, I ignored physicians' guide books' and advice, and wrapped my chops around almost any street food I could find.
In the States, much of the "ethnic" food we eat, we eat in ethnic restaurants. Some of the dishes are probably quite authentic, while many have been altered to suit broader tastes. Street food is another matter entirely. Street food, to me, is home cooking and festival food: focused on flavor and a sort of deeper physical satisfaction rather than style and presentation. The masterful Kabab House tops my list of Most Delicious, and is probably some of the best "ethnic" dining in the city (if you need definitions like that).
Seattle is so lucky. Joseph, the man behind the counter at Kabab House, makes the kind of food that tastes as if it were touched by God--whether this is due to the fact that it is 100 percent halal beef, lamb, fish, and chicken, I can't say, but I have never tasted food like Kabab House's. The herb-and-peppercorn-encrusted chunks of Lamb Boti Kabab ($8.95) are marinated in yogurt, like the chicken and beef, and share aromatics typical to Indian cooking; but the flavors are unleashed without hesitation, taking over the mouth with such strength, the body submits in delight. I watched Joseph, in the small open kitchen, pour what appeared to be about a cup of ghee into a frying pan and heat it with masala, sliding a healthy portion of halibut into the rich sauce. Ten minutes later, I dipped my Tandoori Aloo-Palak Paratha ($3.95), naan stuffed with potatoes and spinach, into the deep and full-bodied Halibut Fish Masala ($10.25). One bite and the passion in my tongue was ignited. Fortunately, that can be quenched with a soothing mango lassi ($2.50), and Joseph sets out a pitcher full of water in front of customers when they sit down.
This food is by no means fast. All dishes are made to order. The small, focused menu does not make many concessions to vegetarians or those wary of spice, but this clarity of vision is part of the secret to Kabab House's success. Marinated, spiced raw meat is molded carefully, to keep it tender and moist, onto metal skewers and grilled--no stick of gyro here. Naan dough is kneaded with expert, fluid fingers, spread out on that naan pillow and thrown into the clay oven, where it is tended with two long metal hooks. Customers look on with a glow in their eyes. When I catch the eye of a Kabab House comrade, we nod, imperceptibly. We wait, inhaling the heady perfume of meat grilled to perfection, and of ginger and garlic and cumin and curry. The look in our eyes is anticipation, and love.
8102 Greenwood Ave N, 782-3611. Tues-Sat noon-11 pm, Sun noon-10 pm.