SEATTLE — This is a great food town. It's an eating culture formed by a confluence of perfect conditions: pristine seafood in nearby waters, impeccable produce sprouting from moist and fertile soil, wines from east of the Cascades, chefs with worldly influences, and an adventurous spirit in the dining public that won't necessarily favor a four-star restaurant over a teriyaki food truck.
In many ways, Seattle's scene is a more compact, less pricey San Francisco, only with better shellfish and stronger coffee.
When it comes to constructing a Seattle-essentials food itinerary, the city offers a conveniently inclusive option: Pike Place Market, the waterfront bazaar seen in all the postcards with the airborne salmon, heaved by growling fishmongers. The market dates to 1907, when the soaring price of onions caused a city councilman to propose a place where the public could bypass middlemen and directly "meet the producer." That phrase remains inscribed on the building today.
The 9 acres of market space houses a colorful mingling of jewelers, artists, florists and one magnificent newsstand at the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street, where Pike Street turns into Pike Place. But food will always be its forte. You can get a well-rounded sense of the city's dining culture — high and low — just by walking an oval route around the market premises.
I can speak for its top-notch eating options, because in high school I worked demonstrating products at the Market Magic Shop. I'd arrive early, sit at the counter of The Athenian and wouldn't deem my day ready until a smoked salmon benedict arrived at my table. Not even four hours later, lunch break would arrive, and a decision awaited: Where next?
Fifteen years have passed since I worked here. Each time I'm back in my hometown, I make Pike Place Market my first stop. Newer restaurants have only grown more daring, but many of my food haunts from the 1990s still thrive today among the nearly 70 restaurants and specialty vendors here.
Seatown: Mention the name Tom Douglas to Seattle residents and their knees may reflexively bend into a kneeling pose. The man is the superstar of Seattle restaurateurs, with an empire of 14-and-counting bakeries, pizzerias and proper sit-down restaurants. Douglas owns two on the outskirts of Pike Place Market, including Seatown — a seafood bar meets greasy spoon, minus the grease. You're in the Pacific Northwest, so of course, seafood sandwiches reign: a killer salmon burger that leaves all pre-formed hockey pucks in the dust; a BLT with the sweet, chilled meat of Dungeness crab; an albacore tuna melt using jack cheese from Beecher's, the renowned cheese-makers steps from this restaurant.
Chicken Valley: Every part of the chicken that could be dredged in flour and dipped in hot grease, is here — gizzards, hearts, chicken backs, standard size and jumbo thighs. I've been eating this Hungry Man-size fried chicken for 20 years, to this day served out of paper bags that gradually turn shiny with grease. I wouldn't describe the breading as crunchy or with a crispness that crackles; it's more a lacy sheath of skin one notch away from too salty, which is to say, my ideal level of seasoning for fried chicken.
Pike Place Chowder: New England and Manhattan don't own the monopoly on chowders. This shop offers eight renditions, including a Seattle take with smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese. My hands-down favorite is the seafood bisque, a greatest hits of the Northwest featuring cod, salmon, shrimp and crab simmered in a tomato-tinged cream broth so indulgent and rich you'll forgo lip balm for a whole week.
Daily Dozen Doughnut Company: You'll see many cameras pointing through the foggy glass here. They're all trained on the "doughnut robot," a mesmerizing contraption that plops rings of batter into oil. Watch as the batter morphs into doughnuts as it travels down the oil river like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, flipped once, and again a minute later, golden and bulbous onto cooling racks. If you get a batch of these mini doughnuts hot from the fryer, dusted with cinnamon sugar, bite in immediately and experience an act defying physical law — fried dough collapsing unto itself, into nothing.
Emmett Watson's Oyster Bar: Seattle's best-known newspaper columnist, the rabble-rousing Emmett Watson, died in 2001, but his name lives on in a no-nonsense seafood house tucked deep inside the Market's north end. Don't expect martini glasses and bebop swank to accompany your Kumamotos here. The space resembles a nautical-themed mess hall; nonetheless the raw oysters are first rate, arriving and quickly disappearing by the dozen. The broiled version, topped with bacon and crusty Parmesan cheese, is the only valid reason to ever cook the raw beauties.
Others: Any baked item from Piroshky-Piroshky, if you can stomach the long lines. The Roman-style pizza at DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine. Sitting at the counter at Jack's Fish Spot with an order of fried halibut fish and chips. Tim's Cascade-style jalapeno potato chips from Pear Delicatessen & Shoppe (you can find Tim's chips, a proud Northwest export, at most any grocer). Landjager sausage sticks from Don & Joe's Meats.
Pike Place Market begins at First Avenue and Pike Place in Seattle. pikeplacemarket.org.