If you ask people in other cities to describe Seattle, they’ll probably tell you that locals walk around here carrying a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand and an umbrella in the other, on their way to buy salmon at the Pike’s Place Market. Well, anyone who’s spent more than a year in town knows that there’s a ton of better places to get coffee, that only tourists use umbrellas, and that the place where they throw the fish is called the Pike Street market (I’m joking, folks). Still, one of those stereotypes is actually true: there’s a ton of great salmon here. And we’re fortunate to also have a wide range of fantastic fruits and vegetables, seafood, and other food products that are identifiable with the city and surrounding region and that make it an amazing place to eat. Inspired by a recent discussion in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group, here’s my list of 17 of the most iconic Seattle foods.
In addition to salmon, eating like a Seattle local means taking advantage of the abundant seafood in Puget Sound and nearby waterways. According to Cynthia Nims, author of several books about seafood, Washington is the biggest producer of oysters on the Pacific Coast and one of the largest in the country. And there are lots of great oyster bars in town where you can slurp your fill, including The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard, Taylor Shellfish Farms in Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, and Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor in Ravenna.
Another iconic seafood is Dungeness crab, which can be found throughout Pacific Coast waters but is abundant on the Washington coast. According to Nims, you can find Dungeness crab almost anytime on the calendar, but the greatest supply (and best prices) typically come in the first month or two after the ocean fishery season opens around December 1. And year-round, it’s possible to enjoy a great Dungeness crab roll at places like Seattle Fish Guys in the Central District, Bar Harbor in South Lake Union, and Local Tide in Fremont, as well as at many restaurants along the waterfront.
One more iconic Seattle seafood is the giant saltwater clam known as geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), which is abundant in the inland waters of Puget Sound. A good place to try it is at Shiro’s Sushi in Belltown, where it’s available on the a la carte sashimi menu.
Fruits and vegetables
Washington State produces over 100 million boxes of apples annually, more than any other state. But there’s a lot of other iconic produce to enjoy here, like the sweet golden Rainier cherry, created in 1952 by a Washington State University scientist and named after the mountain. You’ll typically find them only for a few weeks after harvest, in late June to early July.
Another fruit created through a WSU breeding program and named after a local mountain is the Shuksan strawberry, a large, bright-red fruit. It also has a very brief season, typically harvesting in June at farms in the Skagit Valley.
Blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and marionberries are all prevalent near Seattle and throughout the Northwest, but the most iconic local berry is the red raspberry. Washington State produces over 60 percent of the nation’s raspberries, which is 15 times more than our neighbor to the south. Take that, Oregon!
It’s not surprising considering the Pacific Northwest’s moist climate, but you can find an abundance of iconic mushrooms in the local woods. Species including the Pacific golden chanterelle, morel, and chicken-of-the-woods are among the edible fungi you’ll find on a foraging expedition in the forest, or on a less adventurous visit to your local upscale market.
Teriyaki, pho, and poke
Three iconic Seattle foods that you can eat at dozens of restaurants around the city reflect its large Asian population and diverse culinary influences. According to a 2007 Seattle Weekly article, the first teriyaki establishment in town was Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant in what’s now called Uptown. A Japanese immigrant named Toshihiro Kasahara, who opened it in 1976, still cooks at a location called Toshi’s Grill in Mill Creek. Kasahara has defined Seattle-style teriyaki as meat that’s marinated in a sweet soy-ginger sauce, grilled over an open flame, and finished with a drizzle of teriyaki. You’ll find versions of teriyaki in every neighborhood in Seattle, but it’s much less prevalent in other cities.
With around two percent of Seattle’s population identifying as Vietnamese, it’s not surprising that pho is one of the iconic Seattle foods that you can find throughout the city. A few recommended places to try are Pho Bac Sup Shop in the International District, Billiard Hoang in Columbia City, and Pho Than Brothers, with multiple locations in the region (all of which provide a signature cream puff along with your pho).
And although poke is a food that’s native to Hawaii, it’s become ubiquitous enough in Seattle that I’d also include it among the city’s iconic foods. My favorite spot for poke bowls is 45th Stop N Shop in Wallingford, but Poke Square in Ballard is also great, and Seattle Fish Guys in the Central District has a delectable assortment of poke by the pound.
Huge numbers of Scandinavian immigrants settled in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, and that heritage is still an important part of the city’s DNA. Seattle’s fortunate to have some outstanding bakeries that produce iconic Scandinavian baked goods. Larsen’s Bakery in Crown Hill is known for the Kringle, a buttery Danish pastry in a pretzel shape that’s filled with almonds and raisins. And at Byen Bakeri in Queen Anne, you’ll find a wide assortment of Scandinavian breads and cakes. These include cardamom braids as well as princess cake, a Swedish specialty consisting of sponge cake layered with raspberry jam, vanilla custard, and whipped cream, and topped with green marzipan.
I was surprised to learn that the Dutch baby, a thick pancake that’s typically baked in a cast-iron pan and served in wedges, originated in Seattle in the early 1900s. In 1960, Sunset Magazine credited a downtown restaurant called Manca’s Café as the inventor of the Dutch baby. The owner’s daughter apparently named the creation, perhaps corrupting the German word “deutsch,” since the Dutch baby was similar to a German pancake dish. Around town, you could try one at the Tilikum Place Café in Belltown, or at the Original Pancake House in Bothell.
Hot dogs and hamburgers
The Seattle dog, a hot dog with cream cheese and sauteed onions, has been around for less than 25 years, but has since become known as a regional specialty. According to one account, the Seattle dog was invented in 1988 when a bagel vendor in Pioneer Square added a hot dog to the bialy sticks with cream cheese that were a popular snack for the stadium-going crowd. About five years later, a different vendor nearby added cream cheese to the hot dogs he sold, helping popularize a similar creation. Today you’ll still find Seattle hot dogs in the neighborhood before and after Seahawks, Sounders, and Mariners games, as well as at stands in nightlife hot spots like Belltown and Capitol Hill.
As I wrote about in March, Seattle doesn’t (yet) have its own iconic regional burger. But if I had to nominate one iconic Seattle burger, it would probably be the Deluxe at Dick’s Drive-In (with multiple locations around the city). It’s a pair of all-beef patties that are topped with melted cheese, shredded lettuce, mayonnaise, and relish. There are certainly better burgers elsewhere in the city. But this one is a touchstone for many locals remembering how good it tasted at 2 a.m., so it deserves to be on the list of iconic Seattle foods.
Finally, I’ll finish the list of foods that are identifiable with Seattle (and the surrounding region) with a trio of confectionary treats. Similar to Turkish Delight, Aplets & Cotlets are jellied candies that combine fruit with powdered sugar and walnuts. Aplets were first developed more than 100 years ago as a way for Washington State apple farmers to use their surplus crops. (Cotlets, made with apricots, came a few years later.) The candy gained popularity during the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, but they may soon be a relic of history, as Liberty Orchards, the company that makes them, recently announced that they would be shutting down this June.
In 2009, when the Washington state legislature debated whether to make Aplets & Cotlets the official state candy, the bill failed when some politicians wanted to give the honor to Almond Roca. The latter candy, a chocolate-covered toffee with an almond coating, is made by Brown & Haley of Tacoma. You’ll find it in supermarkets and drugstores all over the region, and in many other cities as well.
You might associate this third confection more with Chicago than with Seattle, but the Frango mint was originally created in 1918 at the Frederick & Nelson department store downtown, in the building that later became the flagship Nordstrom store. Frederick & Nelson was soon acquired by Marshall Field’s in Chicago, which changed the recipe and produced its iconic mints for more than 75 years before that company was acquired by Macy’s. Today you can still buy Frangos from Garrett Brands, the Chicago retailer that’s perhaps better known for its popcorn. It might be a bit of a stretch to call this candy one of the most iconic Seattle foods. But if you want to bring along a taste of the city the next time you visit relatives, it’s a lot easier than schlepping along a salmon – or a Dick’s Deluxe.
What do you think are the most iconic Seattle foods? Leave a comment and let me know!
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