Monday, March 30, 2009
Big John’s PFI: Seattle’s Not-So-Secret Food Find
Here at Pacific Northwest Seasons, I’ve written avidly about why we should eat local food, fresh with the season (see my Eating with the Seasons post). After all, our farmers’ markets feature fresh and beautiful local food year-round.
So allow me to contradict myself.
Ever since I discovered PFI’s (Pacific Food Imports) retail store in an old brick warehouse just south of downtown Seattle in the late 1980s, I can’t get enough of this place. Every few months I head to this cornucopia of mostly imported foods to stock up on olive oil from Italy or Spain, Colombian estate chocolate, Spanish aged sherry vinegar, hand-harvested fleur de sel de Guérande from France, Italian pastas of all shapes and sizes, sharp Vermont white cheddar cheese, crispy butter cookies from Holland, and much more.
You can get much of this stuff at some of the higher end grocery store chains like Whole Foods and Metropolitan Market, or at DeLaurenti’s in Pike Place Market. But you’ll pay more (except perhaps at Trader Joe’s). And you’ll miss out on the treasure-hunt feeling you get while wandering around the aisles and nooks in this anti-chain store, discovering exotic and fascinating products.
Finding your way to PFI can be a challenge since it’s not right on the street and the sign is easy to miss. When you do arrive, look for the red-white-green awning (think Italian flag) over the entrance at the bottom level of an unassuming, two-story brick building. This is not your usual shopping area—it’s an old Seattle industrial district sandwiched between railroad tracks and I-5 to the east. Walk up the stairs, pass through the short entryway lined with framed black and white photos, and enter a foodie’s fantasyland.
What you’ll notice first are the colorful shelves and aisles stuffed with jars, bottles, and packages of all shapes and sizes. Or maybe your eyes will land on the long, lit display case to your right full of big wedges and chunks of foreign and domestic cheeses. Grab a cart or a big white bucket to collect your stash and walk around over the uneven cement floors. Maybe today English won’t be the language spoken by most of your fellow customers.
Give yourself some time to explore before grabbing things off the shelves. Need some hard-to-find slabs of Syrian dried apricot paste? No problem! Small burlap bags of artisan sea salt from Bali? Got it. Vivid orange-red jars of chile pepper-eggplant ajvar puree from Bulgaria? Just down the aisle. South African red chile sauce? Tucked between the jars of Indian ghee and Moroccan preserved lemons. I have no idea how to use many of these items, but they offer exciting possibilities.
On a recent visit to PFI, I find myself in the checkout line behind a man with an overflowing grocery cart. “Planning a party?” I ask him. “No.” he replies. “I run a restaurant up in Mount Vernon. I come down here every month to stock up on items I can’t get anywhere else.” For you non-locals, Mount Vernon is about 60 miles north of Seattle. A bit of a trek for groceries
My friend Julie, one of the most innovative and capable cooks I know, shows up behind me in line with a bucket of goodies. “What did you get?” I ask. She pulls out a dark green, slender bottle of avocado oil first. “This is expensive, but it’s a lovely bright green and a perfect garnish to drizzle on pizza or finish dishes.” She also has several cartons of chopped plum tomatoes from Italy that come in handy for her sauces. She wants some good parmesano-reggiano but is daunted by the one pound minimum on cheeses. I ask Louise, a longtime employee behind the counter, if they have any smaller chunks tucked somewhere. “Yea, we have about a two-third pound piece,” she says. Julie and I split it.
Sometimes my favorite products disappear from the shelves. I’ve learned over the years to be patient—sometimes they just as suddenly reappear. My favorite Italian olive
oil, a certified-organic, buttery oil from the Ionian Coast, vanished from the shelves for about 5 years until I just found it there again a few months ago.
This family-run business has been operating for over 40 years. I’ve never seen Big John, who is in his eighties now, but the second-generation is running the business now. Let’s hope the next generation keeps it going at least another 40 years.
When You Go
You won’t find any advertisements for PFI. They get plenty of regular customers via word-of-mouth. Click here for directions. It’s on Sixth Avenue South due east of Qwest Field, Seattle’s NFL football stadium, and just north and east of Safeco Field where the Mariners play. Time your trip carefully. Avoid going right before or after a Seahawks or Mariner’s game or you’ll learn how truly awful Seattle traffic can be. PFI’s hours are somewhat limited: they’re not open evenings, only open until about 3 pm on Saturdays, and closed Sundays.