It is inordinately hard to balance high quality coffee service with high quality food. Many places try; they often split the difference, offering one part of the equation with excellent execution and the other as an afterthought. If you’ve ever had a so-so scone at a fancy coffee bar or gross coffee at a great diner, you have experienced this phenomenon, and it’s something I’ve written about extensively over the last decade for the coffee website Sprudge.
This is what makes me want to jump up and down in the street shouting about Ballard's tiny little coffee bar Watson’s Counter, whose founder, James Lim, brings a biotech background and coffee management experience to the project, along with a deep and abiding love of food.
This a specialty coffee shop (with Anchorhead as house roaster) that serves both an exemplary chocolate orange mocha and drip coffee alongside profoundly satisfying dishes like cereal-crusted french toast, hand-cut french fries with housemade gochujang, churros dusted in black sesame, fried chicken and waffles, a KBBQ pork plate, and habit-forming fried and battered “Chicken Chonks” tossed in honey butter. A place that serves decent coffee with great food, or vice versa, isn’t necessarily hard to find; a place that serves a demonstrably great offering of both coffee and food is a balancing act of the highest order, and rare as hen’s teeth. It is enormously hard to pull off both food and coffee quality and maintain this level consistently, and Watson’s Counter does one of the best versions of it I’ve found in the Pacific Northwest.
The cafe opened in early 2019, growing neighborhood buzz and a robust Instagram presence into a stable and climbing business. Then COVID hit.
“Everything is changing so fast,” Lim tells me. “We’re just trying to stay alive.” In the before times Watson’s was a sit-down only affair, with table service and cutlery, as much a restaurant as a coffee bar. Now the pivot is to takeout only, with a focus on dishes that travel well, like a fried chicken sandwich, chicken wings, and kimchi.
About that kimchi.
There are Korean influences throughout the Watson’s Counter menu, but Lim doesn’t necessarily consider himself an expert in the style. “I’ve been cooking all my life,” he tells me, “but I never really cooked Korean food. I would make everything else—Italian food, American classic food, everything—but when it came to Korean, when I’m at home, that’s what my mom makes. She’s the chef.” But when it came time to develop the menu at Watson’s, he wanted to lean into serving his favorite foods, dishes that expressed his love for a range of culinary traditions, including his family’s own. And that meant help from mom.
“We had a night when we first opened,” Lim tells me, “where it was like—okay, it’s time to learn. I said ‘Mom, will you teach me how to make this’ and she said ‘of course!’ So my mom came into the restaurant and gave us all our kimchi recipes. She walked us through all the steps of how to make everything.”
The result is the closest thing to the old food writing cliche of a "must-order” as you will find in Seattle today, on par with the geoduck sashimi at Taylor Shellfish, or the quail appetizer at Tamarind Tree. Fresh, complex, pungent, wonderfully subtly spicy, perfectly textured, clearly made in small, careful batches to a family recipe, and yes, a little bit tingly on the tongue, this is the kimchi I dream about when I dream of kimchi. Available here as a side dish, and occasionally as a sampler with variations like apple or thinly sliced radish, I demand that you order it along with whatever else you’re getting at Watson’s Counter, including the french toast, because why not. Even better.
Lim and his team are now selling their house kimchi to-go by the jarful, which means you can take it home and eat it alongside any and everything, but especially inside an omelette, or as a side with good grilled steak, or on top of a nice burger with white cheddar cheese.
It’s a weird time to be in the restaurant business. I feel like any restaurant writing right now has to do like a deep-breath paragraph in which this is acknowledged, opined upon, outlinked to studies to buttress the assertion, but it’s ad nauseam at this point. You know it and I know it; shit’s fucked. Chipotle is going to be fine, and Dick’s is going to be fine, but little spots like Watson’s Counter—James Lim’s first restaurant, a fusion of contemporary high end coffee and family recipes and nouveau-21st century global snack bar—are exactly the sorts of places we might lose in 2020.
Which is why you might consider, in the near future, or even today, how nice some honey butter fried chicken sounds, or a frozen coffee drink served in a tube, Otter Pop style, as a treat, or some Instagram-ready Fruity Pebbles french toast, or a jar of what might be the best kimchi you’ve ever had. Today you can order online, pull up to Watson’s Counter, and drive away with the sort of dream brunch fixins that make city life worth living in 2020. Enjoy it while you can.