A Signature Dish for Seattle: Every City Needs One

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U. S. and Canadian cities all have dishes they’re known for. Philadelphia has its Philly cheese steaks, New Orleans has its Po’Boy sandwiches, Chicago its deep-dish pizza, Montreal its poutine and Baltimore its crab cakes. 

In New York City, the iconic dish is the humble bagel. But it’s not that simple. Take last January, 15, National Bagel Day, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused an uproar. He declared his love for a bagel from Brooklyn’s Bagel Hole Bakery. So far so good; but he crossed the line when he said his go-to bagel was “whole wheat toasted and spread with extra cream cheese.” 

A toasted bagel? That caused an immediate storm of anger. New Yorkers said that a good bagel should never be toasted. The dispute escalated, calling into questioning Mayor de Blasio’s culinary choices and even reminding them that their mayor had once been caught eating pizza — oh the horror — with a fork. 

Bagelgate, although something of a tempest in a coffee cup, starts one thinking about other cities and their signature dishes. If New York ranks as the untoasted bagel capital and the home of hand-held pizzas, one can’t help wondering what’s Seattle’s iconic dish and how it should be treated.

Seattle, however, really doesn’t have one single signature dish. Oh, sure there is coffee, available everywhere in the home of Starbucks. But coffee is more of a beverage than a dish. Besides coffee gets very personal. Each consumer insists on an individualized order: a skinny latte, a macchiato, a caramel mocha and so on.

Then there’s Puget Sound salmon, tip of the sou’wester to the Pike Place Market’s flying fish. We’ve got many salmon preparations to choose from. It could be smoked sockeye salmon in tribute to Northwest natives. Or even cedar-planked salmon served at Salty’s restaurant, and Tom Douglas’s “rubbed with love” fillets, although his restaurants are shuttered for now. 

Seafood ought to rank as a top candidate for a Seattle specific dish, something like clam chowder patterned after the creamy bowlful served at Ivar Haglund’s Acres of Clams restaurants and seafood bars. Competing with native clams, crab, oysters, and prawns as a possible Seattle dish are dozens of other municipal specialties. Take fast food choices like Dick’s burgers, Alki Spud’s fish and chips, and the Seattle Dog that comes slathered with sautéed onions and cream cheese.

Also not to be ignored are the many great dishes — pies, cobbles and scones — devised from the region’s superior fruits: the bountiful berries, the sweet Rainier cherries and oh, the many varieties of locally grown apples, topped by the brand new sweet-tart Cosmic Crisp.

What a food-lovers’ dilemma: Do we choose coffee, salmon, chowder or berry pies?  Or here’s another idea. If we’re serious about singling out Seattle’s iconic dish, how about Dutch Babies? That’s a take on the traditional German puff pancake served at restaurants around town.

Dutch Babies were once baked — even trademarked — at Manca’s, a family-owned cafe that thrived in Seattle during the first half of the 20th century. The dish, a pancake layered over thinly sliced apples or other fruit, was called Dutch Baby because Victor Manca’s young daughter mispronounced Deutsch, the word for German. Top a Dutch Baby pancake with a berry-based syrup and it would be a proper signature dish for any city.

Just one note of caution: no serious politico should ever order a Dutch Baby featuring out-of-state apples.  After witnessing Bagelgate in New York City, we wouldn’t want to risk Babygate in Seattle.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Ok Jean. Let’s hear your list of places with good clam chowder. I’ve had Ivar’s and frankly it was meh. The best clam chowder I’ve ever had was in Salt Lake City at a local restaurant chain that includes The Market Street Grill. If you have had it you know how good it is. So whose chowder have you had here that made you swoon?

  2. I am positive that a Dick’s Deluxe burger is fit to be Seattles most noteworthy food choice. Couple it with a chocolate shake at Dick’s and you have a meal to die for.
    Carolyn Staley (probably overweight).

  3. Difficult not to vote for a Dick’s cheeseburger and a coca cola with the exactly perfect amount of ice and fizz along with a packet of fries sided with one catsup and one tarter eaten before you turn the key on your car.
    But I vote for the Dutch Baby. We can easily cook it at home in our inherited cast-iron skillet (I stole mine from my dad who stole it from his mother in law who came across it in Montesano) and we have all those jars of fruit jam and jelly…..apple, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, Cascade berry, marionberry. I like the rush to get everyone to the table before the Dutch Baby collapses. It’s part of our culture,,,,well, white culture. Maybe we should slide over to Indian Fry bread, served at Makah Days, fluffy as a cloud, dripping with butter and jelly.

  4. Full disclosure: I’m biased when it come to Dick’s. My late husband (Bob Godden) was the commercial artist who drew the iconic picture that still appears on Dick’s take-out bags. That’s our old car in the middle of the picture. I’m also pretty sure it’s his signature on the “Dick’s” neon signs — even though Beatrice Haverfield of Western Neon is rightfully credited with turning it into a proper logo as she did for the Elephant Car Wash and other classic neon signs.

  5. You’ve got to be kidding, Jean. Everybody knows what Seattle’s signature dish is: It’s Seattle-style Chicken Teriyaki. Or Beef Teriyaki, a dish that is celebrated in every neighborhood and strip mall from Lynnwood to Fife to Issaquah. You can’t find the real item anywhere outside Puget Sound, and arguments about who has the best are known to have ended lifetime friendships. A dish that was perfected by the Takei family at the Tenkatsu on Main Street in the 1960’s, and whose
    origin has been claimed by at least a dozen parvenus since. Invented by Japanese-Americans
    and adapted by Korean immigrants to Seattle. Don’t look for it in Tokyo; it’s not there but it is just around the corner. It’s best in your own neighborhood. My current favorite: Ichiro’s in Magnolia Village.

  6. My friend Rick Shenkman challenged me to name a good place for clam chowder. There are many choices. I’ve had good ones at Chinook’s, Anthony’s and on Fridays at the Bay cafe at Fisherman/s terminal. The question is: do you want creamy Boston Chowder made or Manhattan chowder smothered in tomato paste? I still argue for Dutch Babies as something totally Seattle with historical context. Had terrific one at Tillicum Cafe near our Chief Seattle statue.

  7. I vote for crab cakes, particularly the ones Tom Douglas makes. He once told me the secret to the breading in those cakes was, gulp, Wonder Bread.

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