If you visit Seattle without having a meal in the International District, you’re doing it wrong. No food tour would be complete without an afternoon exploring Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon. The district is packed with family-owned restaurants serving up traditional recipes passed down for generations. And prices are insanely cheap. Take a culinary tour of Asia without leaving the states with these can’t-miss gems.
Saigon Deli is a hole-in-wall treasure trove of Asian junk food and homemade desserts. But the real draw here is the insanely cheap banh mi sandwiches. Go traditional with pork or, my favorite, delicious fried tofu. The veggies are so fresh and crisp and it almost seems unfair to only hand them $3.50 for the giant portion.
Time slows down at the Historic Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House. Choose from more than a dozen loose leaf teas, cozy up in a nook with tons of pillows, and listen to the piano playing from downstairs while you wait for your tea to brew. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, try the Cinnamon Plum. It pairs well with the fern root mochi, a gooey rice dessert.
The hotel is on the National Historic Landmark list and the glass window in the floor by the stairs reveals a piece of history that isn’t pleasant, but one we shouldn’t forget. During World War II, many Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps and dozens of Seattleites left their belongings behind at the Panama Hotel. Not all families came back to claim their possessions. Staring into the basement below at all the forgotten items is a haunting reminder of what should never happen again.
Dim Sum King is a favorite with locals and tourists because it’s one of the cheapest eats in Seattle. It’s also one of the best smelling places because of the trays and trays and trays of steamed buns and sweets. You can score an Egg Tart here for just 80 cents. If you’ve never had this dessert before don’t let the name throw you off. It’s a pie filled with thick custard that’s kind of like English custard but less sweet. Round out your order with warm pork buns and custard buns for a couple more bucks and you’ve got one delicious haul.
Located across the street from the main Chinatown station, Thai Curry Simple is exactly what it sounds like. The lunch spot serves traditional mild and hot curries plus noodle favorites. Try one of the tofu curry specials offered throughout the week. And Thai tea addicts: get your fix here. It’s blended perfectly without too much milk.
Korean barbecue gets a lot of hype, but another delicious dish in Korean culture is sundubu-jjigae, a spicy tofu soup. Located right under the famous archway in Chinatown, Tofully serves up the traditional stew boiling hot. If you’ve never had sundubu-jjigae, go mild. Trust me. Mild will melt your face off. But it hurts so good. You can customize your stew with beef or seafood, and every bowl comes with accoutrements such as radishes, potatoes, sprouts, kimchi, and more than enough rice.
After a bowl of spicy tofu soup, cool down with a sweet, milky bubble tea next door at Seattle Best Tea. The name might sound like a bold statement but the tea house, lined with huge golden drums of tea, has incredibly friendly and knowledgeable shopkeepers who are passionate about tea, especially varieties of oolong. Before you leave, check out the gorgeous, traditional wooden tea tables in the back.
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is a cultural hub in the International District. If you can’t squeeze in a visit, at least pop into the gift shop for traditional Asian crafts and cookbooks. In addition to rotating exhibits, the museum offers a walking tour this spring called “The Rice Stuff,” which is all about its role in history and cuisine.
Traveler’s Tip: Cash is king in the International District. Many restaurants don’t accept cards. There are several national banks with ATMs in the area. When you don’t want to incur a fee out of town, just stop at the Bartell Drugs across the street from the Chinatown station and get cash back on a lip balm.