by Amanda Ong
I meet J. Kenji López-Alt at Cafe Ibex, an Ethiopian spot near the intersection of Rainier Avenue and MLK Way. We share a vegetarian combo platter, which López-Alt calls “generous and delicious” in his Instagram post a few hours later.
López-Alt, a cookbook author, culinary consultant at Serious Eats, New York Times Cooking writer, and Seattle resident, has been called Seattle’s most powerful food influencer. Though as we sit down, he quickly declares, “Just don’t call me an influencer.”
“I use my platform to support Seattle as much as I can, because I love the city and I live here for a reason,” López-Alt says. “The South Seattle food scene is like a — it’s like a series of hidden gems. You just have to go out there and make the effort to explore it, and you’ll be highly rewarded.”
López-Alt indeed supports Seattle business as many chances as he gets, with recommendations scattered across his Instagram, his articles online, and even on Google Maps. Seattle, he says, reminds him of Boston, the city where he went to college and one he frequented growing up. Both are smaller food cities compared with New York and Los Angeles. Still, the options in these cities are exciting and interesting, with innovative chefs and access to any delicious food you’re craving, while still being manageable. Many people underestimate the Seattle food scene, though, largely because they are missing out on South Seattle.
“One of the things you find in cities like New York and LA is that there’s like a wide range of good, inexpensive food,” López-Alt says. “And that’s something areas like Capitol Hill and the more expensive parts of the city are missing. … Whereas in South Seattle, you can get like a giant cheesesteak for like seven bucks, you can still find good cheap food that’s usually better too.”
He gestures to the meal before us as an example, a $16 platter that feeds two and is filled to the brim with injera, greens, lentils, cabbage beans, and split peas. And while many people may have heard of hotter spots for fine cuisine in the South End, like Musang, Archipelago, and Off Alley, many people also don’t take the time to explore the South End itself. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why they don’t, with the South End having taken the brunt of Seattle’s industrial development. Even the café where we’re seated faces the wide, highway-like stretch of Rainier Avenue. But if given the chance to explore, foodies will find that the South End will reward them.
Gentrification gets tricky in this context, with some throwing around words like “revitalized” to describe the results. Some business owners want to attract new customers, which might mean appealing to a different demographic, typically whiter and wealthier. López-Alt says he simply hopes South End businesses can get the traction they deserve, and he hopes any changes come from the choices of members of the community.
“Food, from how it’s grown and picked, how it’s prepared and who’s preparing it, and who’s making the money for the business, top to bottom, it’s a political thing that you can’t ignore,” López-Alt says. ”But seeking out a variety of food gives you a window of perspective on the world, and I think makes you a more empathetic person. … And especially when you’re in a neighborhood where there are literally people in crisis outside your door all the time. It’s hard to run a business when that’s happening right outside, and in a way that’s empathetic to both the people in crisis and to the [rest of the] people who live in the neighborhood.”
With that in mind, getting to the South End to try the vast array of food options is a must for anyone who enjoys, well, enjoying food. With star cuisines like Vietnamese and Ethiopian food, which López-Alt says are the best of any city he’s lived in — and better still in the South End — it’s worth the exploration.
Don’t know where to start? López-Alt has recommendations in every neighborhood. Read on below, and be sure to check them out!
López-Alt’s CID picks include Little Saigon’s Tamarind Tree, James Beard nominated Phở Bắc, Thanh Son Tofu for tofu and more, Saigon Deli for a variety of Vietnamese bites, and bánh mìs from ChuMinh Tofu & Vegan Deli, whose radical compassion has been featured in the Emerald more than once.
López-Alt also shouts out Chengdu Taste as “the best Sichuan food around” among the Sichuanese options that dominate Seattle’s Chinese restaurants.
The Ethiopian food López-Alt said was the star of Seattle’s food scene? To find it, look no further than the restaurants in the Central District along Cherry Street. While López-Alt says you can’t go wrong at a single one, he most often turns to Agelgil, but sings praises of Ras Dashen and Cafe Selam too.
Seattle Fish Guys is, of course, an area staple with its deep Seattle roots, perfectly seasoned poke, and fresh fish. Spots like Reckless Noodle and Wood Shop BBQ are also serving fun new fare and tasty bites.
Breweries, López-Alt says, are the third star of Seattle’s food scene, and Standard Brewing goes above and beyond with not just great beer, but “they also have some of the best food,” López-Alt said. “Really like good sandwiches and good tacos, even dinner.”
And, of course, the obvious: grabbing chicken and waffles from Fat’s.
PICK-QUICK Drive In is what López-Alt calls “a local McDonald’s” and the closest burger to In-n-Out, if, like him, you have lived in California and miss that classic fast-food burger. Here in SoDo, Paseo has its second location, serving up Caribbean sandwiches and elote worth salivating over.
Meanwhile, López-Alt says Slice Box Pizza is just about the closest you can get to a New York-style slice. While there is plenty of great pizza to be found in Seattle, López-Alt said, “I find all the New York-style pizza here is more like it’s made by a bread baker. It’s nicer, it’s more like bread, and less like a New York slice.” But Slice Box, he says, comes the closest to the kind of dollar-slice, hole-in-the-wall spot you might dream of.
He also calls Homer’s partner Milk Drunk’s fried chicken sandwich “excellent” and raves about both the food and kindness of employees at Carnitas Michoacan. And Flora Bakehouse, partner of Cafe Flora, is his chosen spot to grab his daughter a croissant after a long day at summer camp.
As far as López-Alt is concerned, you just have to love the $7 burger at Loretta’s Northwesterner. Say no more.
In Georgetown, you can find “excellent” Mexican food at Ciudad Grill and Fonda la Catrina. But one of López-Alt’s unique picks is Matt’s Famous Chili Dogs, which is one of few hotdogs in Seattle offered in natural, custom casing, made in its own kitchen. This hot dog joint also, of course, offers Seattle dogs featuring its homemade weiners.
One of López-Alt’s picks is Billiard Hoang, a Vietnamese spot within the Billiard Parlor that shows sports across widescreen TVs and has plenty of pool tables — López-Alt calls the spot “fun and balmy,” to say the least. He also enjoys a beer at Flying Lion Brewing, a small, family-owned brewery and tap house that makes up for its small size in beer, and Safari Njema, a Kenyan restaurant where he says you can find delicious sambusas.
And if you’re looking for Tex- Mex in the Pacific Northwest, try the Jackalope Tex-Mex and Cantina. “I have a soft spot for their queso dip,” López-Alt said.
Another overlooked aspect of South Seattle’s food scene is the seafood — both for its quality and price. “If you’re going out for seafood in New York, it’s expensive,” López-Alt said. “Here, you can just go to Emerald City Fish and Chips. And I think you can get two pieces of fried cod for like eight bucks.” The Rainier Valley spot has yet to disappoint with tender cod and crispy french fries.
You can certainly find a number of tasty eats in White Center, but in venturing out to the neighborhood, what you might find are a number of beyond-satisfying taco spots you might be missing elsewhere. Taqueria la Quebrada, Taqueria la Fondita, and El Catrín are some of López-Alt’s Favorites.
And finally, if you get to Burien, López-Alt suggests you might try El Cabrito, where you can order tlayudas — a less-often-tried Mexican dish from Oaxaca that consists of a crispy tortilla covered with beans, meat, cheese, and more. Turn to the Burien Fish House for fish and chips, tuna melts, and more. And if after everything you really just want a taco, Birrieria Tijuana serves up classic birria, spiced and stewed meat, in tacos.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: J. Kenji López-Alt is a celebrated chef, food writer, and Seattle resident. (Photo by Aubrie Pick)
Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!