Growing up in Seattle's north end (Matthews Beach! Holla!), I always told myself I'd never become one of those people—who live on Capitol Hill, and socialize on Capitol Hill, and eat on Capitol Hill, and never, ever leave Capitol Hill. But I told myself a LIE. Because now I am queen of those people. Now I am fused to Capitol Hill like that lady in Kansas who became one with her toilet seat. My toilet seat has grocery stores and bars within walking distance. I work on my toilet seat. Most of my friends live on my toilet seat, too. That's what toilet seats are for.
BUT! I still have many, many tender feelings for the north end. What I like about the north end—specifically the parts clustered on ugly thoroughfares like Lake City Way and Aurora Avenue—is the same thing that I like about Los Angeles: The good stuff is hidden away in unassuming storefronts or weird, cold strip malls. It's like a treasure hunt. The neighborhood doesn't come into your apartment with a marching band and an oversize novelty cowboy hat and throw a bag over your head and drag you outside and force-feed you daiquiris and tattoo your name on its thigh. You have to work for the north end.
It's worth it, and so I venture out. On Lake City Way, next to the world's largest hobby shop (seriously, it's massive), Toyoda Sushi (12543 Lake City Way NE, 367-7972) is almost invisible. The first time I went there was during that crazy blackout in 2006. Lake City was pitch black. Everything was closed. But Toyoda, a miraculous little cave of wonders, had some sort of intrepid small generator, and a light bulb dangling on a long orange cord, and many candles, and SUSHI. I sat in the dark with two friends, cozy and thrilled, and ate.
On my most recent visit, we got the chef's choice sashimi platter ($31.95), heaping, gorgeous slices of at least nine kinds of fish: delicate albacore, springy scallops, ridiculously soft and buttery salmon, addictively salty mackerel, all of it fresh and pretty. An accompanying portion of agedashi tofu ($6.95) provided a simple, comforting companion, and the whole thing was more than enough for two (though a stop across the street for Iranian sweets at Minoo Bakery is well worth it).
Just up Lake City Way a few blocks—past the Fred Meyer, but before the Best Little Rabbit, Rodent, and Ferret House—sits Pho Binh (13310 Lake City Way NE, 361-5144), an unassuming cafe serving bubble tea, banh mi, pho, and other Vietnamese delights. It's not the best Vietnamese food you'll ever meet, but eating at Pho Binh is an unfailingly pleasant experience. The service is quick and attentive, the vermicelli noodle bowl (with grilled pork and egg roll, $7.95) is loaded with fresh ingredients—lettuce, basil, daikon, fried onions, shredded carrots—and the banh mi ($2.75) is as good as most you'll find in the International District.
In more westerly lands, in the stretch of Korean restaurants dotting northern Aurora Avenue (near what my friends and I call the "Triumvirate of Savings"—Grocery Outlet, Dollar Tree, and Ross Dress for Less, all in one thrifty complex), Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari (15001 Aurora Ave N, Shoreline, 367-7843) awaits, adorable and delicious.
Inside there's Korean basketball on the TV, and on each table sits a small plastic Peter Rabbit–themed lunchbox filled with long spoons and metal chopsticks. Immediately upon sitting down, we were presented with a feast of banchan—at least nine little plates—daikon, soybean sprouts, fish cake, a strange rectangular noodle, kimchi, and so on. Hae-Nam has some of my favorite bibimbap in town, but at this meal, we were there to eat meat. As a tribute to its logo—in which a be-toqued squid and pig stand in happy congress, slimy tentacle encircling piggy waist—we ordered the oh-sahm-bul-go-ghi ($12.95), a spicy concoction of calamari and pork belly brought to the table on a gas-powered hot plate. The thinly sliced pork belly—coated in salty, spicy chili paste with a hint of calamari fishiness—was a soft, surprising treat. And the kalbi ($14.95), a mountain of marinated short ribs and rapidly caramelizing onions on a sizzling hot stone platter, turned beef into a dangerously addictive substance. I'm already looking for my next fix.