Recently a friend boldly declared her belief that the block of Greenwood Avenue North between North 85th and North 87th streets is home to "the best food in Seattle." This friend being the sort of woman possessed of inherent charisma and credibility, I listened. (It also doesn't hurt that she used to manage a cafe, owns her own stand mixer, and makes her own pork rillettes.) I tried to picture the area she was talking about, but the only things that came to mind were a Washington Mutual, the PAWS Cat City Adoption Center, and a McDonald's. "Um, no," said my friend. "There's an incredible Mexican restaurant, a Mediterranean place, an Indian place, a Thai place, and an old diner all on one block." Clearly, it was time for a trip to Greenwood to sniff around and do some exploratory eating.
Arriving at this little stretch of Greenwood Avenue North was thrilling—there they were, all lined up in a row: a diverse concentration of tiny, independent restaurants, most of which feel like family run shops filled with neighborhood regulars. Much to my delight, these sorts of blocks are popping up more and more, but mostly in places like White Center or Burien. I was excited to find one a little closer to home.
Craving a little spiciness and complexity, I made my first stop Kalia Indian Cuisine (8518 Greenwood Ave N, 782-7890), which was thoroughly tasty and fine, but anticlimactically underwhelming. A mixed-appetizer platter ($5.99), comprising freshly fried (though perhaps not in the freshest of oil) vegetable pakoras, samosas, and aloo tikka (spiced potato patties) was a decent start. The texture of the homemade cheese in the paneer tikka masala ($11.99) was wonderfully firm and fresh, though its sauce was decidedly not creamy, which is precisely what makes a tikka masala great. Lamb rogan josh ($11.99) was pleasantly aromatic and piquant, but while some pieces of lamb were tender, others were unfortunately tough. If it weren't for the attentive and engaged service, I might have left feeling more than a little disappointed.
As I drove home to my own neighborhood, Capitol Hill, where I've had hundreds of mediocre meals (and where the thought of eating out increasingly makes me want to curl up on my couch and gnaw on my hand while I watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), I realized that neighborhood eating is tricky. Every neighborhood has its hidden gems—decidedly unfancy places that serve up consistently good, real food, places that endear themselves to residents not necessarily by being mind-blowing, but by being consistent and comforting.
These were the places I was looking for in Greenwood, and on subsequent trips, I realized that what I like most about the neighborhood is that it's not exactly nice or pretty, but retains a scrappiness, a persistent sort of hodgepodge, eclectic charm. Greenwood's not so far away from Ballard, but it feels less shiny and far less concerned with its image. If there's an influx of couples buying houses and having babies (which I'm sure there is), it hasn't yet shown up through brand-new, sterile-looking buildings and development.
The perfect example of Greenwood's charm is the Baranof (8549 Greenwood Ave N, 782-9260), a crusty old diner that feels like it's been open forever, and comes complete with a nautical-themed bar, open from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day. More important, though, is the Baranof's food, which is unexpectedly, absolutely delicious. While I was expecting standard, contemporary diner fare (frozen hash browns, soup that comes from a giant bucket), I was delighted by their clam chowder, which was creamy and homemade and flecked with chunks of real bacon. A cup of clam chowder comes with an order of beef stroganoff ($8.50)—thick egg noodles and tender strips of beef smothered in a sauce flavored with red wine, and clearly made from scratch. The Baranof is roasting whole turkeys every day back in their kitchen, and a roasted-turkey sandwich ($8.50), complete with gravy and a little dollop of cranberry sauce, is moist and white and dreamy. In keeping with the maritime theme, they also offer SOS ($4), a classic sailor's breakfast of ground beef and creamy country gravy over white-bread toast. The portion is, to say the least, generous, though it benefits from a heavy dousing of Tabasco and salt.
Folks in Greenwood who are able to drop a little coin on dinner head to Olive You (8516 Greenwood Ave N, 706-4121), a cozy Mediterranean restaurant that always seems to be filled with people. The spreads onde pita (three spreads and grilled pita for $8) was only so-so—watery tzatziki, decent baba ghanoush, and a red-pepper feta spread that was mostly cream cheese, and very little feta. Grilled meats are the way to go here. The king kebab—a plate of grilled lamb chops (redolent of rosemary and perfectly pink inside), marinated lamb shawarma kebabs, and adana kofte kebab (peppery, ground-lamb meatball skewers) set atop creamy, lemony potatoes—was extremely satisfying, though at $23, it feels a bit overpriced, as does much of Olive You's menu.
I believe that the true gem of Greenwood is, just as my friend mentioned, La Botana Restaurante Mexicano (8552½ Greenwood Ave N, 706-5392). La Botana's menu alone won me over—dishes like lengua (beef tongue) in salsa verde, birria de chivo, borrego dos patas (lamb shanks), and, on the weekends, pozole ($7.70). The pozole, a huge bowl of spicy red broth, infused with the flavor of pork, was filled with white hominy, freshly shredded cabbage, two giant pieces of pork neck bones, and several large chunks of slow-cooked pork. This is pozole that clears the sinuses and soothes the soul, and because of it, I'll gladly return to La Botana to try anything on the menu. The lengua taco ($1.50), among the best I've had in Seattle, was another encouraging sign.
There's much more to this small, tasty section of Greenwood—Phad Thai (8530 Greenwood Ave N, 784-1830), Yen Wor Garden Restaurant (8580 Greenwood Ave N, 784-7422), The Northside Grill (8550 Greenwood Ave N, 781-2224), just on the one, magical block alone (though some definitely look more promising than others). If you're looking for a little guidance, stop in at the centrally located bar the Crosswalk (8556 Greenwood Ave N, 789-9691), which, in an appropriate and genius move, is named after the crosswalk that leads right to its door. The Crosswalk keeps a neighborhood food book—a three-ring binder with menus for every restaurant in the neighborhood, and you're likely to be served by a bartender with an opinion on where you should eat.