Orchids at the Labor Temple
The New Edition of Green Leaf Is Even Better
You're probably not supposed to wander the halls of the Labor Temple in Belltown before going to Green Leaf, which is in the basement. The buff-colored brick building, dating from 1942, is neither ornate nor beautiful; the exterior, according to the city, is "a good example of 1940s Modernist design in its materials and lack of ornamentation," with the only detail of note its "large windows with spandrels of aqua-colored terra cotta tile below." (The main entrance, despite its decorative seal and "LABOR TEMPLE" in both deco-style lettering and neon, doesn't make the cut.)
The inside isn't palatial or even pretty, but there's history in the hallways' still air—recent history, anyway, which smells like waxed linoleum and the memory of cigarette smoke. The stained wood doors have fogged-glass panes with lettering like "ROOFERS & WATERPROOFERS LOCAL #54." Posters celebrate people like Sojourner Truth. If you keep going, you'll get to a series of framed large-format photographs showing union workers doing their work at some point in the not-so-distant past: two Newspaper Guild members with a pasted-up Seattle Times, a duo from Stage Hands #15 dangling among the lights up in the wings, representatives from Bakery Workers #9, Carpet & Linoleum #1238, Heat & Frost #70. Then you might hear present-day union members around a corner, sounding aggrieved about a contract and its wages, and rumbling from a meeting room further along, at which point it seems best to go back.
Green Leaf's original location—still open at Eighth Avenue South off Jackson—is where a number of people in Seattle first experienced the grand scope of Vietnamese food. It opened in 2006, a narrowish space with eight tables, decor a step up from hole-in-the-wall, and bargain prices. The gigantic menu offered billions of tasty, fresh (and tasty, fried) things to try, and Green Leaf became a city favorite, eventually expanding upstairs.
The new edition of Green Leaf in the Labor Temple is even better. The basement space used to be Gompers, the bar named after AFL founder Samuel Gompers, who was, fittingly, "assailed as a drunkard" at the 1914 convention of the United Mine Workers, accused of getting "'gloriously drunk' during the Seattle convention and on other occasions" (the New York Times, January 30, 1914). After it was Gompers, it was a number of other places that no one remembers. You'll want to sit on the lounge side, with its antique wooden bar, glowing red lights, and velvet-and-gilt bar stools. The tables here have cushioned rattan chairs, while the dining-room side has too much seating crammed in and too-bright lights.
If the building upstairs is unornamented, the details of the restaurant are too numerous to mention. If you take the time to look around, you'll notice at least three kinds of very pleasing light fixtures, orchids in various states of bloom, complicated shelves with porcelain tea sets, pagoda-style overhangs, arches, molding. Walk all the way back through the dining room, and you'll find goldfish living in a hard-to-believe fake-rock grotto. It's cool and dim and otherworldly down here; the soundtrack might be song after song of excellent old soul.
When it comes to the food, the best strategy, as at the original Green Leaf, is to just order pretty much at random. The pan-fried rice-flour cake topped with egg and green onions ($6.95) doesn't sound especially appealing, but it's totally delicious: a plateful of squishy-on-the-inside, lightly-crisped-exterior starch-snacks with a salty-sweet soy dipping sauce. They come with a good-sized heap—pretty much everything here is a good-sized heap—of pickley-sweet crunchy carrots and jicama for contrast.
Salads at Green Leaf are exactly right for summertime, bright with carrot, jicama, chopped basil, and mint. The combo version, with lotus rootlets, green papaya, green mango, and your choice of grilled shrimp or tofu or chicken, is worth the extra few dollars at $12.95 (though the grilled shrimp was a little dry). The one with duck ($11.95) is especially great, but then any of the $8.95 salads will be very good, too.
There are all kinds of noodles—try #57, dry-style, with turmeric-y egg noodles, three kinds of seafood, two forms of pork, a layer of greenery, and some light but rich broth (including a tender wonton) on the side, all for $9.50. Chef's specials include clay-pot catfish ($13.95) and grilled beef shortribs ($14.95); then there are 10 kinds of pho, fried rice, vermicelli noodle bowls, "Grilled Dishes From Kitchen," and more, more, more.
The bartender, in his handsome vest and tie, has a cocktail list that Samuel Gompers would approve of, though he'd probably be confused by the Vietchelada—sriracha, lime, basil, and beer—or the lemongrass shandy. The classic Boulevardier or Old Pal might be more his speed. Again from the January 30, 1914 New York Times:
Gompers sat within four feet of McDonald... [and] the miner assailed him as having been intoxicated at various conventions. "Gompers had a snoot-full at Atlanta," asserted McDonald... "he had been celebrating and he tottered up to Delegate Groce Lawrence and threw his arms around his neck, saying: 'Johnny Walker, I love you like a brother.'"
Cheers to you, Mr. Gompers, and to the Labor Temple and its new tenant.