Return to the Sandwich District
Pioneer Square Becomes a Living Monument to an Extremely Tasty Art
How many delicious sandwiches can one neighborhood bear? In an ideal Seattle, one claiming a wise and benevolent Neighborhood Food Czar, a few of the brilliant sandwich joints in Pioneer Square would be redistributed to other parts of the city for fairness' sake. How can one five-block stretch lay claim to both Tat's Delicatessen and Salumi? (I wrote about these places, along with worthy newcomer Delicatus, six months ago—see "Seattle's Sandwich District.") And then, to add to the embarrassment of riches, how could three more amazing sandwich spots open in Pioneer Square in the last month? There oughta be a law.
One of these new places even opened in the space left empty after Tat's moved around the corner. A small, hungry challenger to the East Coast sandwich throne, Calozzi's doesn't feature the same broad menu as Tat's, but it does one of Tat's specialties—the Philly cheesesteak sub—very, very well. A basic Calozzi's steak and cheese is $8, your choice of cheese. While you could opt for a more cheeselike cheese—provolone and mozzarella are on the menu—you really should make like they do in Philly and go for the Cheez Whiz. What you get is a torpedo-shaped chewy roll full of the perfect mixture of shaved steak and artificial cheese product. It's not as messy and out of control as Tat's steak and cheese, but it's every bit as authentic and delicious.
Adding to its East Coast allure, Calozzi's offers a basic no-frills topping bar (shove some pickled peppers into your sandwich and you can probably trick yourself into thinking you're eating a healthy vegetable-infused meal) and a gregarious owner, Al Calozzi, who befriends everyone who walks in the door. Calozzi used to run a cheese-steak cart in Belltown, and he still comports himself with the patience of a man used to serving drunks on street corners—he's unfailingly happy and constantly curious. If he finds out you spent any amount of time in Philadelphia, he will question you until he nails down the places you visited and the names of the residents you may have encountered in your time there.
Unlike Calozzi's, BuiltBurger isn't founded on back East ideals—its central gimmick is decidedly West Coast. BuiltBurger began (and continues) as a mail-order meat service, and the Pioneer Square location is the first brick-and-mortar restaurant to serve cooked versions of the patties to the public. It's a fine space, a minimalist, hollow block of a store, faintly reminiscent of Pioneer Square's many art galleries, which puts all the pressure on the burgers to fill the space with meaning. The message here is more than just the ingredients (although those have a good pedigree, including locally sourced beef and organic toppings and buns). In an insane and delicious twist, BuiltBurger puts the toppings inside the patties themselves.
The Magnificent Chorizo ($7.95) blends ground beef with Mexican sausage, poblano peppers, and cotija cheese. It is a wondrous, spicy treat—not too greasy, with a perfect amount of fiery kick. Part of the appeal is the size: There's just enough burger to be satisfying—six ounces—without stuffing you full.
Not all BuiltBurgers are served so well by the ingredient-infusion technique. The Pinnacle Bacon Bleu ($8.50) has the taste of a brilliant bacon-and-blue-cheese burger minus one of the best aspects of eating a bacon cheeseburger: the texture. With the bacon ground into the patty, there's no tugging at a hunk of bacon with the teeth. The flavor is there, but an essential joy is missing. It's almost as though you're eating in some futuristic Jetsons-style restaurant in which they hand you a pill and you taste every flavor of a five-course dinner in an instant. It's jarring. Other combinations—beef and barbecue pork, beef and pastrami, chicken and "Thai flavors"—are less alarming on a textural basis, and every other aspect of the BuiltBurger experience is excellent, especially the potato beignets ($2.95), a side of tater-tot-looking nuggets that, when bitten, reward the biter with a mouthful of creamy mashed potatoes. They're forward-thinking in just the right way, a scientifically pleasing side order.
One of the greatest new pleasures to hit Pioneer Square has risen from the ashes of one of Pioneer Square's most forgettable mediocrities. In the old space formerly occupied by a Quiznos—kitty-corner from the old Elliott Bay Book Company storefront at the intersection of First Avenue South and Main Street—the Berliner is serving a lunch experience unparalleled in the city. A doner is a Turkish-German kebab sandwich, which is to say that it's basically a gyro, but you've never had a gyro quite like this. In a basic doner ($6.49), an enormous helping of juicy chicken or lamb is served in a pita, wrap, or ciabatta (the latter for $2.49 extra), and flavored with cilantro, garlic yogurt sauce, and vegetables.
Both the lamb and chicken are marinated in a sauce of the restaurant's own devising, which adds impressive complexity and saves the sandwich from being a generic overgarlicked gyro at any boring old Greeked-up storefront. It's also a sandwich that's marvelously open to variation—among others, they serve spicy hot doners, mango curry doners, and sweet and spicy doners. Some lucky days, you can get a cup of lamb-and-lentil stew ($2.99) on the side. Lamb is a tricky meat to get right; most restaurants err on the side of gaminess or overcooking. Here, it's just as succulent a meat as a good steak, served in a rich hot stew with enormous coins of carrot and hunks of potato.
In many ways, Pioneer Square should look to this handful of excellent new restaurants as a road map for the future. These shops are revisiting old favorites, forging new ground, and giving the neighborhood an identity that should be recognized throughout Seattle. From now on, whenever you are trying to determine where to eat lunch and someone says, "I feel like a sandwich," you should have no other destination in mind but Pioneer Square.