Why travel if not to eat? Come to think of it, why eat if not to travel—at least in your imagination? Craving romance and adventure, but lacking the funds for airfare, my husband and I recently made a world tour of Wallingford. Inspired by the neighborhood travel bookstore, Wide World Books and Maps, and by the globe-spanning eateries that run the length of North 45th Street, we set out to discover how much culinary territory we could cover in the space of eight or 10 blocks. Sole Food
This is the first in an occasional series of stories exploring the food and street life of Seattle's neighborhoods. We started out in Central Asia at Kabul (2301 N. 45th St., 206-545-9000), where the biggest hit was the burta ($6.75), an eggplant dip served with parchmentlike squares of Afghan flatbread. Smooth and intensely garlicky, the dip's flavor was brightened by a squeeze of lemon and the surprising addition of fresh mint. Ash ($3.50), a traditional soup made with pasta, kidney beans, and chickpeas, had a nice tanginess from yogurt and dill, but didn't transcend its identity as a run-of-the-mill tomato-based soup. We also tried the bolani, fried turnovers ($3.50 for a single order of two pieces, $6 for a double order of four) with a potato and scallion filling enclosed in a dough that looked suspiciously like wonton wrappers (perhaps introduced by Marco Polo on his return journey?). The broad, thin triangles were like a samosa's more elegant cousin, and their accompanying sauce of yogurt, garlic, and paprika was so good you could eat it with a spoon (we did). Our only serious mistake of the evening was starting out later than we'd intended, so that we had to cram three restaurants into two hours before the last stop on our itinerary closed at 10 p.m. But in a funny way, the whirlwind pace of our tour helped me get into the spirit of travel, and imagine being a tourist in strange lands. At Kozue (1608 N. 45th St., 206-547-2008), the Japanese restaurant that was our second destination, all those little empty dishes that the waitresses kept adding to our table and we didn't know what to do with seemed like exactly the kind of cross-cultural comedy that would have happened if we really were in Tokyo. Kozue is known for its sushi, but after those homey, satisfying dishes at Kabul, I wanted something a bit more everyday. The agedashi tofu ($4) fit the bill perfectly—chunks of crisp-fried tofu surrounded by a sweet-salty broth and topped with dried flakes of bonito (a kind of fish), little scallion rings, and zippy grated ginger. Kozue's version of this Japanese restaurant staple wasn't much different than I've had elsewhere, but it was exactly the sort of reliable standard I craved. In search of a bit more local color, we also tried the Farmer's Snack ($4.50) and the Fisherman's Snack ($4.95). The first of these was a pleasing trio of shapes, tastes, and colors: a nutty tangle of soybean sprouts laced with sesame oil; fat chunks of perfectly steamed asparagus to dip in a creamy, mustard-spiked sauce; and something the menu called baby field potatoes, with a tarolike sweetness and texture. The Fisherman's Snack, meanwhile, turned out to be a cleverly designed but odd dish: a boat made from half of a hollowed-out cucumber and divided into segments by paper-thin triangles of lemon, then filled with American-style tuna salad alternating with dry, stringy crabmeat. It seemed the farmers got the better end of that deal. For dessert, we journeyed across the street to the pan–Southeast Asian Mandalay Cafe (1411 N. 45th St., 206-633-0801). There's no printed dessert menu, but don't let that fool you into thinking sweets are an afterthought. The Thai basil cheesecake ($6.95), for example, was splendid, the basil utterly transformed from its usual role in curries and noodle dishes at your neighborhood Thai joint. Paired with ground almonds in a simple-syrup sauce, the basil had a slightly floral taste that cut the richness of the cheesecake nicely. The brilliant color of that sauce—somewhere between grass and emerald—was half the delight. The chocolate pot de crème ($7.95), a smooth custard spiced with black curry powder, was a bit less accessible: The first few bites were very strange, and I wasn't sure I liked it at all. But once my taste buds got over their culture shock, I could stop tasting "curry powder" and savor the way the heat of cayenne and the smokiness of cumin and coriander complemented the dark taste of the chocolate. The mint that had accented the eggplant dip at Kabul showed up again as a garnish here, bringing us full circle; we broke off little bits of leaf to eat with each spoonful of custard, and found that the mint pulled the chocolate and spice flavors together even more. By this time, the hour was late and our bellies were full, and we hadn't even made it out of Asia. Next time, we might sample the delights of Marco Polo's homeland at Milano Pizza & Pasta, investigate other uses of spices like cumin and cayenne at the Chili Pepper, or try any of the other myriad combinations that North 45th Street offers. Or we might just head over to Wide World Books and Maps (4411 Wallingford Ave. N., 206-634-3453), which has been inspiring journeys actual and imaginative for nearly three decades. Its shelves are stocked with guidebooks, maps, far-flung fiction, and even a few cookbooks, providing another way to sate your hunger for travel. Whichever route you take, you'll leave dreaming about your next journey—or at least your next meal. This is the first in an occasional series of stories exploring the food and street life of Seattle's neighborhoods. To suggest Sole Food topics, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.