It Gets Batter
An Investigation Into the Glistening Goodness of Seattle's Deep-Fried Foods
Photos by Kelly O
Unicorn, 1118 E Pike St, 325-6492
The Unicorn on Capitol Hill is the center of the deep-frying universe. They've deep-fried gummi worms, hard-boiled eggs, a slice of pizza, a cell phone: They get bored in the afternoon sometimes, and they've got a deep-fryer. The place looks like a carnival on acid—insanely striped walls, fuchsia ceiling, zebra upholstery, a carousel-salvaged bar—and the 19 taxidermied animals watching from on high, including a water buffalo smoking a cigarette, want them to deep-fry things. You can see it in their glass eyes.
"I can't believe I'm not a super lard-ass," part-owner Adam Heimstadt says. "I've gained like 15 pounds since we opened." Gummi worms and cell phones are off-menu items. On-menu at the moment are seven kinds of hand-dipped corn dogs (Field Roast versions available), Puppy Dogs ("6 tiny little wiener corndogs with fancy sauce"), and Corn-Cats (catfish given the treatment, served with Frank's Red Hot aioli). Stick-Cheese is mozzarella sticks done corn-dog style.
Then there's Unicorn Balls (battered-and-fried meatballs), Narwhal Balls (potato-spheres with Swiss cheese and caraway, with harissa mayo), chicken nuggets (covered in house-made ranch powder), and little crispy-jacketed cornichons (served with warm whipped dill cream cheese, SO GOOD). For dessert: elephant ears, Snickers in Coca-Cola batter, the "Crispy Fried Exploding Twinkie" ("KA-BLOOEY!"), and Oreos battered in some diabolical way involving Hershey's Kisses.
There are also three salads. Not very many people order salads.
Buried in the "Burger Add-Ons"—including cheese, bacon, a fried egg, extra patties (up to 15!)—is the apex of the madness: "Deep Fry Entire Burger." It's a $2.50 surcharge for a one-patty burger. One recent afternoon, Steve-o the chef selects the Magical Unicorn Burger—Painted Hills beef with sriracha cream cheese, red-cabbage slaw, and crispy onions ($7). The burger is cooked and assembled normally, then carefully enfolded in elephant-ear dough, bun and all. The dough is neutral, not sweet. It forms a protective layer around the burger in the boiling oil.
What you get is a golden-puffed blob, more cubic than burger- shaped. Almost anything could be in there—the blob offers no clues—but when Steve-o cuts it in half, it's a cross-section of perfectly normal hamburger encased in a thin, relatively ungreasy, pliant layer of deep-friedness. The sriracha kicks back against the exterior oil quotient with a little spicy heat; the slaw provides psychologically necessary color and crunch. It is nowhere near as heavy or horrifying as an entire deep-fried hamburger sounds—it is actually absolutely tenable, and would probably be paradise if you were drunk. Only at the corners is there a surplus of deep-fried dough, a sign that it's probably time to stop eating.
"If you ever want us to deep-fry anything, just bring it in," the bartender says. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
The Bloomin' Onion vs. Onion Rings
Outback Steakhouse, 15100 SE 38th St, Suite 500, Bellevue, 425-746-4647
The Coterie Room, 2137 Second Ave, Seattle, 956-8000
Before the invention of deep-fried butter, Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin' Onion ($7.49) reigned supreme as our grossest perversion of edible nature—a huge sweet onion "hand carved," breaded in cornstarch, flour, paprika, and beer, then deep-fried to resemble a fatty flower in bloom. It is the kind of ostentatious, greasy bouquet a carnival freak would carry down the aisle, and, surprisingly, it's a common conduit for marriage proposals. "I've hidden about seven engagement rings in onions over the past few years," my server tells me. "The grease probably makes the ring easier to get on the finger." The utter wrongness of eating a whole deep-fried onion makes it delicious—the dipping sauce, composed of equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream, is just the icing on Heart Attack Mountain. Consuming a whole blossom takes a year off your life, easy, but I've heard the last few aren't worth much anyway.
If you value life, try a batch of the Coterie Room's Walla Walla onion rings instead. The onion rings come with the $35 grilled rib-eye steak, but you can order a side for $4 at either lunch or dinner. The Walla Wallas are soaked in buttermilk and breaded in mixture of regular flour and Trisol—a magical soluble wheat fiber that results in fried foods with more crunch and less oil, made famous by molecular gastronomy wizard Ferran Adrià—then fried to order. Instead of smothering the onion, this batter functions as a light, salty exoskeleton that underscores the delicate sweetness of the Walla Wallas and doesn't have the oppressive heaviness of other fried foods—I'm looking at you, baby-head-sized Bloomin' Onion. CIENNA MADRID
Deep-Fried Pickles and Deep-Fried Cheese Curds
Captain Blacks, 129 Belmont Ave E, 327-9549
Why is it that battering and deep-frying a pickle somehow reinvigorates the pickle in question, giving it back some of the essential crispness and vitality it had in its salad days, before the enlimpening vinegar bath? Captain Blacks' deep-fried pickle spears (three for $2) are crunchy and sour and juicy and vigorous. The deep-fried pickle expert I brought with me (shipped in from the Michigan wilderness) declared them to be "way better than Cracker Barrel's deep-fried pickles," which is a bordering-on-sacrilegious statement for a Michigander to make.
The deep-fried cheese curds ($7 for a heaping crock), too, are enough to make a Midwesterner's toes curl with pleasure. Each curd squeaks when you bite down on it—that's the mark of curd quality—and while the outside melts in a suitably gooey fashion, the interior keeps its structural integrity, tasting remarkably of fresh milk. None of Captain Blacks' fried items will win any beauty contests; the lightly bready batter-coats are uneven in their consistency. But that's a heartening sign, because it means the simple ingredients are lovingly slathered and fried on-site, by hand, the way God and nature intended. Paired, these golden spears and nuggets represent a love letter from the middle of America. PAUL CONSTANT
Deep-Fried Magical Balls, aka Ebelskivers
The Ebelskiver Lady at the Fremont Sunday Market, 3401 Evanston Ave N
Tucked among the used shoes, doll heads, and broken dreams for sale at the Fremont Sunday Market stands Susanne Brown in a red apron, her hair braided like a Hollywood milkmaid, methodically frying up soft balls of pancake dough until each ball is a perfectly round, hollow shell. Then the magic happens: She splits them open and stuffs them full of your choice of sweet or savory flavors—jams, lox and cream cheese, bacon and maple syrup, Nutella and walnuts—until each ball resembles a fat hamster. The balls sit soft and warm in your hand, fragile, their slits slightly parted to reveal delicately steaming insides.
Brown calls them ebelskivers; they're three balls for $4, or four balls for $5. They're a Danish Christmas tradition, she says. But no one cares what the pancake purses are called—what matters is the taste. They taste of your favorite things, like warm reminders of every cherished Sunday brunch or birthday dinner (minus your alcoholic father or narcissistic ex-boyfriend) contained in one bite. They really are like Christmas in your mouth—thanks, Hollywood milkmaid! CIENNA MADRID
Deep-Fried Lemon Slices
Pike Street Fish Fry, 925 E Pike St, 329-7453
Every employee of Pike Street Fish Fry is a scrappy, hungover, train-hopping hobo with cool hair and a sense of humor. While they're dunking your food in vats of furiously hissing oil, they're usually playing music very loudly, talking shit on some band or other, running to the back to get someone ice, banging on things, and just generally being unhinged. It's awesome. In the middle of making lunch for me the other day, one of them started screaming. He was using a gloved hand to pull a hunk of fried cod ($8) out of the screened-fry-box-thingy and onto my pile of fries, and the fried cod was so hot, it melted his plastic glove to his fingertips. But whatever. Fuck fingertips. Next minute, he was punching the next guy's order into the register.
One nice touch at Pike Street Fish Fry is the tangy and brain-tingling deep-fried lemon slices they give you. On this particular visit, the lemon failed to materialize, so I had to ask for it—but whatever! They will always give you lemons if you ask, and they'll come fast. Right now, there's also Famous Crane's Autumn Fried Apples with caramel sauce ($4), which taste like a good version of McDonald's apple pie. And the french fries are amazing, the chili mayo dipping sauce rules, they will grill things for you if fried is not your friend, you can get a pile of various fried veggies ($6) if animals are your friends, they will also sandwich anything on a Macrina roll for you, and it's open super late. Asked what they put into their batter to make it taste good—actual answer: paprika—one guy said, "Marijuana." The other guy said, "Love." CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
BOKA, 1010 First Ave, 357-9000
The jalapeño popper is usually a humble food, formed by clattering machinery in an anonymous factory belching batter-smoke, frozen in bulk, and carried by semitruck to the faceless distribution center and, at last, to the neighborhood bar, where it waits in the dark freezer until it is dumped unceremoniously into the fryer and then into a paper-lined plastic basket and onto your table. Somewhere there are enormous fields of jalapeños grown for poppering, jalapeños that are doubtless doused with the chemicals of Monsanto; there are huge cattle yards of chewing Holsteins who get lots of shots to produce the milk that goes through another factory to make cream cheese. And yet, those who like them will tell you, jalapeño poppers are good.
The jalapeño popper at BOKA's happy hour (daily 2:30–6:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.–close) is an elevated jalapeño popper, made fit for a place with glass-bamboo art and butter-colored snakeskin chairs. There are 13 floors of an expensive hotel overhead, and at BOKA, you're flying business class. Overheard recently: "I had really strong second-quarter earnings." Nonetheless, the jalapeño poppers are popular—even those with strong second-quarter earnings have yearnings for the deep-fried, the lowbrow.
At BOKA, the jalapeños are cored and seeded, then given an initial flash-fry. The filling, per the menu, is Beecher's cheese curd—about as local as you can get, as Beecher's is headquartered in Pike Place Market, 0.4 miles up First Avenue. The batter is a little corn flour plus rice flour mixed with soda water to keep it light, and the effect is lacier than your corner bar's, less leaden. You get three golden-brown specimens—each an individual, with its own happenstance curlicues of batter, rather than a uniform, extruded shape—for $6. They come on a chic square white plate, with quite superfluous buttermilk dressing underneath.
But BOKA's jalapeño poppers taste very much like regular jalapeño poppers. A source in the kitchen reveals that mixed in with the Beecher's is, surprise, cream cheese—and the texture and flavor are melty-cream-cheesy, not squeaky-cheese-curdy. The batter makes a difference, but really: not much. "We kind of turn it up a little bit to make it seem like it is fancy," the kitchen-person said. "But the main part of it is they're good." BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Fish and Chips
Red Mill Totem House, 3058 NW 54th St, 784-1400
Lots of Americans like to believe that Thanksgiving was a friendly, neato feast that occurred in 1621 involving some "Pilgrims" and "Indians"—after the nice Indians taught the naive Pilgrims how to grow corn. In reality, "Pilgrims" were "Puritans"—fucking scary religious nuts—and the indigenous people, the Wampanoag, were only one generation later forced into King Philip's War, in which more than 3,000 Native American men, women, and children were brutally massacred. The Wampanoag and other tribal lands were flooded with thousands and thousands more "Pilgrims" who renamed the place New England. I always wonder if things could have been different if the Wampanoag would've opened up a can of whup-ass on those first settlers instead of handing them seed corn.
Corn, or maize, has been around since the dawn of time. So has cornmeal, or masa—the flour ground from dried corn. I had no idea that such a perfect breading for a nice hunk of white fish could be made with a cornmeal base—not a clue—until I had the super-delicious fried cod at the new Red Mill Totem House. Totem House is a Ballard landmark: a former tourist trap built in the 1930s—a traditional Northwest- style six-post longhouse, complete with totems made by a Nuu-chah-nulth tribal carver—that used to sell local Native American artifacts. The owners of Red Mill Burgers scored a lease on the building earlier this spring, and have transformed it into their own version of a fish 'n' chips joint. Along with the gooey and rich Red Mill burgers that Seattle has loved for years, you can get fried wild Alaskan cod with the best cornmeal batter I've ever tasted—a batter that's crunchy instead of greasy, and that keeps the fish perfectly piping hot and firm inside. A three-piece cod and chips at Totem costs $11.49—which seems steep (a one-piece goes for $7.29) and a little ironic, as fish 'n' fried potato is a cheap meal that originated with poor working-class England—but food is expensive everywhere in Seattle, so suck it up and order the three-piece. Pay extra so you can have both the tartar sauce and the Mill Sauce, their smoky mayonnaise. Enjoy both the richness of the food and the decor of the place. Try to remember to respect the latter every day and always—especially on Thanksgiving. KELLY O
Fish and Chips Plus Tiger-Prawn Corn Dogs
Six Seven at the Edgewater, 2411 Alaskan Way, 269-4575
Six Seven is the waterfront restaurant attached to the lobby of the Edgewater Hotel, and happy hour (Sunday–Thursday, 3:00–6:00 p.m.) is when normal people can best enjoy the swankery, which includes yacht-quality views of Puget Sound and a mod-lodge sort of lounge with squishy furniture and a full bar.
While lounging on a settee between a fireplace and a wall of windows overlooking the rainy water, I enjoyed two battered delights, both sourced from the sea. (Enjoying seafood at the Edgewater is a long-standing tradition—google "Led Zeppelin shark episode.") The fish and chips ($15 lunch, $5 happy hour) featured beer-battered true cod atop a pile of fries in a stylish wire basket; between the still-moist fish and the extraordinary twice-fried fries, it's one of the best five dollars you'll ever spend. The tiger-prawn corn dogs ($14 regular, $5 happy hour) were described by the server as tiger prawns given the classic corn-dog treatment—so, then, battered with cornmeal breading and impaled on a stick, right?
What arrived was indeed be-sticked, but rather than corn-dogged, the prawns had been given a standard tempura treatment. The results were still delicious, thanks in part to the accompanying citrus mustard and ketchup-displacing tomato jam, but NOT CORN-DOGGY ENOUGH. The million-dollar ambience is free. DAVID SCHMADER
Deep-Fried Cheese Curds and Fried Green Tomatoes
Brave Horse Tavern, 310 Terry Ave N, 971-0717
Sometimes the only thing that will help is grease. When that's the case, the fried Wisconsin cheese curds ($9) at the Brave Horse Tavern, served with dill pickle tartar sauce and coated in a batter made from a combination of panko and the bar's own Brave American Brown Ale, are enough to restore one to—well, to brave American status at a minimum. It's cheese inside deep-fried batter dipped in tartar sauce, which, let's be clear (so as to appreciate better), means chewy grease inside bready grease dipped in mayonnaise-y grease heaven. Perfect, as mentioned, had I been in a state that only grease could fix (i.e., hungover).
Which, as it happened, I was not when I walked into this cavernous, somewhat dark, and overall well-considered tavern. It offers beautiful waist-high shuffleboard tables, plenty of seating at long wooden tables, and a deep menu of beers, each with the percentage of alcohol helpfully listed. If the service is somewhat confused—as it was on the afternoon I arrived, with not enough waitstaff to cover the number of patrons and my presence completely missed until I walked up and said hi to someone, which I did not want to do, because that is awkward and annoying—the speedy competence of the kitchen makes up.
Not being hungover, and not being averse to a little bit of healthiness within my batter, I also ordered the cornmeal-fried green tomatoes, and they came right out, set alongside Dungeness crab served with Old Bay remoulade ($12). Flesh and grease just go well together—the cheeseburger is the classic example—and in this slightly less fatty alignment of the two elements, green tomatoes are coated in a mixture of regular flour, corn flour, paprika, salt, and pepper, and laid around a little bowl of crab soaking in remoulade (French for tartar sauce). The tang of the tomato mixed with the bite of its paprika coating provided a welcome late-afternoon slap in the face, and laying the Dungeness crab on top made for greasy-lipped delight. ELI SANDERS
Fish and Chips
West Seattle Fish House, 9005 35th Ave SW, 457-8643
The two-piece cod and chips at brand-new West Seattle Fish House is $7.99 and damn good. Surprisingly, though, there is no batter here. (Less surprisingly, the Fish House is not a house made of fish, but a cheerful regular storefront made of regular-storefront things.) The fish and chip offerings are basic—just tilapia, cod, or salmon dredged in a dry, flour-based potion of secret and delicious things that co-owner and operator Muzit Evans can't tell me about. The coating is thin, almost transparent, but is seasoned well and has a significant crispiness and crunch that leads me to believe one of Evans's secrets could be panko—or Cheetos. Whatever it is, I wish more things in my immediate proximity, or just my life in general, could be coated in this happiness and then deep-fried. A slogan on the menu calls for customers to "Hear The Taste!" which provides good dinner conversation. Also discussed: tartar sauce, and whether it contains cream of tartar. (It does not.) CHRISTINA SPITTLER
If we had more stomachs, we would’ve also paid homage to the deep-fried pickles at the People’s Pub, the fish ’n’ chips at the Pacific Inn, the onion rings at the Jolly Roger Taproom, and all the fried things at the Twilight Exit. Yell at us about what else we missed in comments below.