Like Eloise in the Plaza, I ran about the Pike Place Market as a child; ducking into stands and around tourists. If I were lucky, there was a post-swim-lesson lunch courtesy of my parents, maybe at the Turkish deli. Other times, my friends and I would slunk about, mixing in amongst older, more experienced vagrants. We’d laugh at the tourists, posing outside the wrong (not the first) Starbucks. Today, I’m no different, no less a kid in a candy store. I sneak through the market at 8am, on my way to work, when only the useful stalls–the fish, the vegetables, are open.
Pike Place Market in Seattle has a broad appeal and the market goers can be divided in to two groups: Locals and Tourists. Tourists stop on the sidewalk to snap shots of the original Starbucks while locals walk briskly by. Tourists watch, mouths agape, as fish fly through the air, while locals push through, sharpened elbows at the ready, to get to the butcher shop in the back. When it comes to lunch time, though, both groups have to eat. As a local, I’m about to tell you about my two favorite places to eat in Pike Place Market.
[Are you a local too? Help my readers and enter a Gilt City sponsored contest to win free tickets to a cocktail party at Crush by leaving your favorite place & why in the comments. More info at the bottom of the post.]
Of the two restaurants I recommend, one has been there for at least 20 years, and the other has been open about 20 weeks as of the writing of this post. What strikes me about both of them, aside from the delicious food, is the experiences I’ve had with the owners. Folks that, despite the crush of tourists demanding cheap, quick food that fits into what they think of as Seattle, don’t serve overcooked fish slammed down in a hurry. They continue to do what they do best, crafting their specialties by hand and being not just courteous, but downright grateful to anyone who appreciates them.
Mee Sum Pastry
Once upon a time, a 10yr old GastroGnome, clutching a pocket full of quarters, saved up from weeks of allowance, bounced excitedly down the street. Not quite tall enough to see over the counter, I was face to face with the trays full of hand made ‘humbow.’ Humbow, a term I have since learned is unique to Seattle, are basically a stuffed bao (or bun), either baked or steamed. Determined, I ordered my baked Beef Curry Humbow.
I don’t remember how much it cost, but I do remember being about a quarter short. Apparently, even with my only being knee high to a stack of moon cakes, the disappointment on my face was clear. The man handed me the humbow, and told me not to worry about it. In retrospect, I worry that I did this more than once, and that is why the memory is so vivid.
Mee Sum is still there. I work only a few blocks away. I get the beef curry humbow whenever I can–it’s the last bao they make each day, so if I’m there for breakfast it often isn’t out yet. They still make all the dumplings and bao by hand in their market stand. I no longer have to worry about having enough quarters to pay for my humbow, instead I worry that they are getting enough quarters in their tip jar. Each time I buy a pastry, I tip an embarrassing amount. They either think I’m some sort of wealthy business woman, or, perhaps, if they truly understand karma, they know why they are getting the giant tips.
The curry beef humbow are a soft, fluffy pastry, with a crisp, sweet topping, stuffed with a beef curry in the vein of Japanese beef curry. I’m not sure if Mee Sum invented this dish, or just are the only place anywhere nearby doing it, but it’s worth trying–as are the vegetable version. The pork are more similar to the traditional char sui bao you’ll find in most Chinese bakeries. So top at the stand, try something different, and maybe discover there’s more to the market than flying fish and hemp bracelets.
Not too long ago, I read a tweet from Il Corvo that remarked on a tourists anger at them not having spaghetti and meatballs. To me, this is a little like walking into McDonalds and asking why the don’t serve Pommes Anna. Yes, they serve potatoes in a ‘French’ form, but you’ve got them totally wrong. Yes, Il Corvo serves pasta, but these are no red sauce and gravy pastas.
Il Corvo serves about three pastas and three small plates each day. If you’re three people, you’ll cover the menu no problem. You’ll get a mix of Italian classics, like the Spaghetti alla Carbonara pictured here, and seasonal delights, like pancetta and peas with penne.
The important part of Il Corvo are these three things:
1) Know where it is–you’re entering a gelato shop that is down the hill from the main part of the market
2) Be prepared–portions are on the small side (about the size of an Italian pasta portion, however, at American lunch you expect your pasta to be the whole meal, so they are a little small) and you can only pay in cash.
3) Trust this guy:
Mike Easton is Il Corvo. Come in twice and he’ll probably greet you by name. By the third time, he won’t even let you read the menu off the chalkboard, because he’ll be chatting you up about how he made the mortadella, tweaking traditional styles to his own tastes.
As a self admitted pasta addict, I hated that it was so difficult to find a good bowl of pasta for lunch by my office. As if he’d heard my incessant rants, Mike opened Il Corvo. I had been in for lunch twice before they even officially opened–walking by the restaurant ‘just to check’ paid off.
Il Corvo is by no means the perfect bowl of pasta. I want the pasta just a little less chewy (and I love al dente–this is just a little much) and I want the portions just a little larger, as I mentioned above. But if they were, I worry, Il Corvo wouldn’t be what it is. Like a crooked smile that is less charming when teeth get straightened by modern technology, part of the restaurant’s charm comes from it’s mistakes. The food is quintessentially who Mike Easton is and Mike Easton is the food that he serves–a few minutes of chatting with him will make that clear.
I fear for the fate of Il Corvo as spaghetti and meatball craving tourists pour through Pike Place now, at the height of tourist season. But smart business people, like Mike and the folks at Mee Sum, know that when cruise ships sail and famous fall rains come, they’ve buttered their bread–folded their humbow dough, extruded their pasta–on the right side.
Seattle residents! Want to win two tickets (worth $75 each) to a cocktail party by Crush restaurant? Here’s your chance to do that and help my out of town readers find their way to great local restaurants. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post about what your favorite local’s haunt is (and why, if you’re feeling helpful). I will draw one winner, randomly, to receive the two tickets. Please note that by leaving a comment you will be entering the contest and your email address will be passed on to Gilt City. Contest will run for one week, closing on August 31st.