Saturday, May 8, 2010
Seattle’s International District: A Taste of Asia
I can’t think of a much better way to spend a day than getting together with a couple of my best buds to enjoy Seattle’s historic International District. While our Chinatown (a.k.a. the International District) is not as big or flashy as San Francisco’s, it’s still large and diverse enough to offer an enticing day of tasting and exploring.
Since the late nineteenth century this district just south of downtown has been a melting pot of Asian immigrants—first Chinese, then Japanese, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders settled here. The Japantown portion of the district foundered during Word World II when most of Seattle’s Japanese-American residents were sent away to internment camps east of the mountains. These days the ethnic mix is diverse, with mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and some remnant Japanese businesses lining the streets.
Today we start with dim sum at Jade Garden, a crowded, noisy, boisterous spot on weekend mornings where the clientele is a mix of scarlet-robed Buddhist monks, Asian-American families, and the rest of us.
Waiting guests usually spill out onto the street, but since it’s chilly out, we’re smashed together in the small lobby against tanks of anxious crustaceans awaiting their demise. I notice a little shrine tucked away in a tiny alcove at the base of a wall near the entrance. It evokes an aura of Asian authenticity and mystery.
As soon as we’re seated the waiters start foisting little plates of food on us.
Steaming shrimp dumplings, glistening baked hum bow, brilliant green baby broccoli, fried rice, noodles…..it’s hard to say no to any of it.
And it’s mostly quite tasty.
Although we get a big pot of green tea right away, we have to be persistent to get a glass of water. When the check comes, I'm always surprised at how cheap it is. (Today it's $33 for three of us with tax and tip.)
After dim sum we walk down the street past aging brick buildings, herb shops, and more Chinese restaurants to New Century Tea Gallery. This cozy little shop is warm and bright, with shelves stuffed high with teapots, big jars of loose tea, and other tea accoutrements.
Proprietor Grace Chen, who works here with her husband Dafe Chen, invites us to sit down and taste some fine Chinese tea. She notices my friend Mary’s fingers are purple with cold. “You shouldn’t drink green tea, it’s cooling. You need a pu-erh (fermented black tea) that warms you.”
New Century also has a little shrine, which is newer and better-tended than the one at Jade Garden. Grace tells me such a shrine is common at Chinese businesses and it's for the earth or land god.
Next we scoot down a couple blocks to Uwajimaya, the Asian superstore. Years ago this was a smaller Japanese grocery, but now it has morphed into a much larger complex connected to an indoor food court of fast Asian food.
This is the place to go for all your Asian cooking needs like mushroom soy sauce, a zillion different types of noodles, and produce I don't recognize.
A few blocks north on Jackson Street, the main road that bisects the district, we stop in a couple shops in the former Japantown. Momo’s gallery-boutique has a wonderful, eclectic mix of contemporary fashion wear, antique sake jugs, jewelry, and interesting knick knacks. Next door is Kobo, which sells beautiful hand-crafted Japanese artwork and crafts mixed in with historic remnants of its past as Higo's General Store.
We finish the afternoon with tea at the Panama Hotel Teahouse. (Have you figured out yet that I love my tea like Seattle's java junkies love their coffee?) Recently featured in the novel The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, the Panama is a lovely, quiet spot to sip a pot of fragrant tea. (My favorite is genmaicha.)
Exposed brick walls in the long, narrow space are lined with old black and white photos of the neighborhood before World War II, when it was a thriving Japanese-American community.
At the counter I notice petite little cake-like sweets called manju, a Japanese delicacy made with precision and care by Chika Tokara in her shop on Phinney Ridge. We order one to share. Nibbling the exquisite treat between sips of tea is a transcendent experience—the perfect sendoff for a perfect day.
When You Go
Check to make sure there’s not a Seattle Mariners or Seahawks game in town before heading to the International District. Finding a parking spot on a weekend day can be tricky. Better yet, take the bus or walk from downtown. If you can, try a week day to avoid the crowds. There’s so much more to write about the I.D. – watch for another post here on Pacific Northwest Seasons!