Seattle's food scene has the same buzz as the city's famous coffee shops. Fresh seafood, standout produce, talented chefs—check. But there are more surprises on tap in this seaside city, including a killer vegan doughnut shop and the first bean-to-bar organic chocolate factory in the U.S.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
Kurt Beecher Dammeier is a businessman who puts his money where his mouth leads him and where his passions lay: with the pure food movement. He opened Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle’s first artisanal cheese-maker, in 2003 in the heart of historic Pike Place Market. Securing the location and setting up the factory proved easier than finding a steady source of premium milk free of antibiotics and hormones. Beecher’s source, initially, was a single farmer in Duvall, Washington. As the line of products grew, so did the number of dairies who signed on, all just outside of Seattle.
The credo at Beecher’s couldn’t be simpler: Their food is “free of all artificial preservatives, coloring, and flavor enhancers. It’s just pure, all-natural, full-flavored food, handcrafted in traditional ways with the freshest ingredients available.”
Prepare to wait in line at the shop, where you can watch the cheesemakers work and sample some of the award-winning cheeses. Consider buying their amazing mac and cheese (ready to eat or frozen to take home), or a gooey grilled cheese sandwich, along with a wedge or two of whatever you decide is your favorite cheese: Flagship cheddar; pepper-corn studded Marco Polo; fresh, creamy, honey-sweetened Blank Slate; or squeaky, bite-size cheese curds. And don’t forget a box of crackers.
When Dammeier established the shop, he also started the Beecher’s Flagship Foundation, which extends the company’s commitment to transforming the way America eats. The Foundation conducts free “Pure Food Workshops” in hundreds of area elementary schools. They teach fourth and fifth graders about common food additives, how to decipher labels and nutritional claims, and explain the difference between whole and processed foods. The session ends with a hands-on cooking lesson making vegetable chili.
The Calf & Kid
When Sheri LaVigne was growing up on a farm outside of Albuquerque, she milked goats and made goat cheese with her mother. Yet it wasn’t until a trip to Paris in her twenties that her passion for cheese, shall we say, bloomed. Living across the street from The Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn furthered her education, and when, after moving to Seattle, she opened her own cheese shop, it provided her with a model. At The Calf & Kid, LaVigne passes her knowledge along to customers, arranging classes and tours of local creameries. She makes a point of personally visiting her local purveyors, and many wannabe cheesemakers come to her seeking advice. Though you’ll find English cheddars or funky French Epoisses, Northwest cheeses comprise 60 to 70 percent of what’s in her tempting cheese case at Melrose Market (across from Rain Shadow Meats). She’s generous with samples, eager, and educates potential buyers by carving a sliver of raw sheep milk tomme just in from Whidbey Island, some Rogue River blue, or a chocolate goat cheese truffle fresh from the Brian Rose Creamery in Dundee, Oregon. It’s worth checking the basket of pre-wrapped odds and ends on the counter. They cost a couple of dollars. Then grab a Macrina Bakery baguette and call it lunch.
Columbia City Bakery
Evan Andres’ bread epiphany came on a trip to Chile. He’s been baking ever since. After stints in Seattle as head baker at Macrina Bakery and then Dahlia Restaurant and Bakery, Andres put his baking ambitions on hold when he and his wife, Julie Andres, bought La Medusa Restaurant in Columbia City, a striving neighborhood south of downtown. Two years later, Andres achieved his long-cherished goal of opening a bakery, just steps away from La Medusa. Inside the cheery, red storefront you’ll find a handful of tables and an L-shaped bakery case, beyond which you can glimpse the busy bakers. They make an array of fine pastries, including croissants, cookies and cakes, but the bakery is best known for the rustic breads that turn up in so many of Seattle’s best restaurants. The rich flavor, moist, airy crumb, and crusts that splinter under the knife, result from a natural, slow fermentation process. Wholesale demand is so high for his bread that Andres established a waiting list, to keep production small and preserve quality. “The style of bread we bake is best made in small batches by bakers who have the passion to do it consistently.” Andres says. To that end, he also began a “Community Supported Bakery” program inspired by community-supported agriculture. Subscribers receive a box of baked goods weekly, either their choice or the bakery’s. The CSB helps fill the inevitable midweek slack periods, plus, says Andres, “nothing feels better than knowing your products are going to somebody who’s really waiting for it.” He wants to stay small, but he also wants to compensate his bakers at a rate that makes baking a viable career. His aim: to train good bakers so they can go forth and multiply. If corner bakeries flourish, he reasons, more people will get to taste the difference between mass-produced and handmade.
Mighty-O, a company on the leading edge of organic vegan baking, started with a single product and one simple mission: “to make an honest living while being mindful of people and respectful of the environment.” They began in 2000, selling cinnamon-sugar donuts at street fairs and farmers markets. Three years later they opened this corner shop, in a building that dates to 1910, in a neighborhood dubbed Tangletown for its complicated intersection of streets. You will find Mighty-O donuts in many progressive markets around town, but nowhere are they fresher than here. One wall lifts like a garage door when the weather is warm. The few tables and counter seats inevitably attract laptop loungers who nurse cups of organic, free-trade coffee, but most people pick up their Os and go. By late-morning the stacks of donuts have dwindled in the glass-fronted bakery case, smeary from the fingers of little ones. The selection usually includes fritters, made with local, seasonal fruit; maple bars; and raised, glazed, frosted, sprinkled or naked Os, both mighty and mini. These aren’t just the best vegan donuts you’ve ever tasted: their chocolate and the original cinnamon-sugar vanilla versions are among the best donuts anywhere. Mighty-O’s community commitment extends to hosting school field trips that promote organic food and sustainable practices. They compost all food waste, and no donuts are thrown away: extras go to nonprofit organizations serving the hungry.
Rain Shadow Meats
Butcher Russell Flint spent five years in the meat department of Whole Foods but didn’t learn to butcher whole animals until he worked as a sous chef under Renee Erickson at her Seattle restaurant Boat St. Café. Flint started the butcher shop, in part, “to educate customers about animal parts they don’t often see in the market because no big meat processor does those cuts.” At Rain Shadow passersby can peer through windows into the meat locker where carcasses hang on hooks, as well as peek into the aging room to view rolls of seasoned pancetta and rib roasts wearing tags marked with their “ready by” dates. The store sits at the entrance to Melrose Market, a collection of unique shops and restaurants, across from The Calf & Kid artisan cheese shop (see below). In the white-tiled prep area visible behind the butcher case, the staff may be stuffing sausages, layering terrines, or even carving up a whole pig. The steaks, chops, roasts, chickens and rabbits that fill the glass display case are all from a handful of local farms.
The grass-fed beef is raised for as long as three years (18 to 20 months is more typical) and Flint ages the whole carcass for two weeks, which makes it unusually tender and flavorful for non-corn-fed beef. Breaking down the whole animal allows him to carve out uncommon cuts, such as pork brisket, veal flank steak, or Teres Major, a seldom-used shoulder muscle, sometimes called the “Butcher’s Tender.” There’s only one in every animal. Lean, affordable, yet as flavorful as rib-eye, it’s just the sort of item that Flint hopes will spark a conversation with his customers.
Even before wild sturgeon became an endangered species and the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) halted the global export of Caspian and Black Sea caviar in 2006, Dale and Betsy Sherrow pursued high-quality, sustainable caviar produced by responsibly managed fisheries. Their store has the look of luxury you expect of a caviar emporium: ruby-hued walls, Persian-patterned rugs, sterling silver accessories, and bottles of bubbly standing sentinel behind a gleaming black marble counter that bears wispy white traces of fossils from an ancient seabed. Most of the champagne they sell is proprietaire-recoltant, made by small producers where the owner is also the winemaker. A glass of champagne costs $10; a caviar tasting is just $10 more (waived with purchase). The range of roe includes: golden whitefish caviar from Montana; brilliant orange chum salmon caviar from Alaska; Mississippi paddlefish caviar; and various sturgeon caviars from Florida, Southern Idaho, and Northern California. Imported osetra, the costliest, comes from Caspian stock farmed in Germany and Israel. When they started the business 23 years ago, the trick was finding caviar, says Dale Sherrow. “Now there is no lack of product but quality varies widely.” How the fish are raised, what they are fed, and how the roe is processed all affect the flavor. The Sherrows personally investigate their sources as well as rely on the Marine Stewardship Council and CITES to certify sources and the chain of custody. Their number one priority is making sure the people they do business with use methods that are positive and good for the fish, because they say, “If you don’t have happy animals, you don’t have a good product.”
The imposing teak cabinet with glass doors and deep drawers that looms behind the counter at Sugarpill haunted Karyn Schwartz from the minute she saw it in Thailand. A family of apothecaries had owned it for many generations. They liked the idea of selling it to a trained herbalist and homeopathic consultant. After she left Thailand, a friend brokered the transaction, and when the cabinet arrived in Seattle it became a talisman, a portent, a spur for Schwartz to open the store she had long envisioned. The cabinet bestows an ancient aura on this fragrant, contemporary shop. For the gastronome, it’s a place of endless discovery, a magical mystery tour of exotic delights for body and soul, among them herbal tinctures and teas, spice blends, flavored salts, and fancy foodstuffs. Schwartz is both curator and creator. Local foragers and growers supply ingredients for proprietary products like her Four Thieves Tea; the mix of peppermint, cloves, rosemary, sage, Angelica root, ginger and thyme is designed to ward of “all common plagues.” An erstwhile restaurant cook, Schwartz blends potent curry powders, masalas, and ras el hanout. You can taste them here, as well as sample her flavored sea salts, including one with wild fennel and nigella suggested for seasoning flatbread. “A huge part of good health is joy and a huge part of joy is pleasure,” says Schwartz, who believes herbs are a bridge between us and nature and that consuming them connects you to the life force of the plant. She sees herself as a link too. “I really feel having the shop is the best way to teach people what we all should know,” she says. “I can reach many more people here in a different way than I could as a consultant.”
Taylor Shellfish Farms at Melrose Market
“You have to see the geoduck,” a woman urged her friends at the entrance to Taylor Shellfish Farms Melrose Market store. The geoduck, or giant clam, with a foot or so of muscle protruding from its fist-sized shell, is indeed a Pacific Northwest wonder, but so are all the oysters, clams, mussels, scallops and Dungeness crab resting in chilly tanks of rippling water at this “tideland-to-table seafood experience.” Taylor Shellfish Farms is a 120-year-old family-operated company based in Puget Sound. A steward of some of the purest, nutrient-packed tidelands in the world, the company has long championed clean water and sustainable farming methods, steadily upgrading technology to monitor quality and production. There are retail outlets adjacent to their farms in Bow and Shelton, and the white-tile-and-stainless-steel Seattle store opened as a market only. But city-folks’ demand for fresh-shucked oysters prompted them to add a few round tables and counter stools next to the tanks. So, while some people wheel in coolers to carry home their perishable treasure, others enjoy an oyster sampler, cracked crab or geoduck sashimi on the spot; though oyster stew from the self-serve chowder bar may be the more attractive option on a wet Seattle day.
Making the world a better place through chocolate is both a fun and noble goal, one that began in earnest in 2006, when Joe Whinney founded Theo Chocolate, the first bean-to-bar organic chocolate factory in the U.S. Made in small batches using the purest ingredients grown in the most sustainable ways possible, Theo’s chocolates adhere to the highest standards for organic, Fair Trade, and Fair for Life products. The chocolate factory, confection kitchen, and retail shop share an historic red-brick building originally built to house the interurban streetcars that carried people to and from downtown Seattle. Theo doesn’t just make chocolate, they educate consumers about the environmental, social, and geopolitical issues involved in cacao growing. The company also partners with organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute, the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), and World Bicycle Relief. Theo and ECI, for example, worked with Congolese organic farmers focused on quality and sustainability to grow the cocoa, vanilla, and pili pili peppers used in the Congo Pili Pili Chili bar. Proceeds go back to ECI to support work with Congolese farmers. Factory tours involve lots of chocolate sampling, plus a little history, geography, and science. Videos of the chocolate-making process—table-tempering, ganache-making, bean-roasting—are part of every tour, which begins and ends with an opportunity to stock up on chocolate bars, cocoa nibs, caramels, and artisan confections from their retail shop. Each month, the company updates their “Fresh Sheet,” and the factory store is the only place you can find these seasonal, limited-edition, confectioner’s choice beauties.
It all started with a woman named Judy and a pig named Wilbur. Since 1994, Pigs Peace Sanctuary near Stanwood, Washington, has rescued and cared for abused and abandoned pigs and their animal friends: cows, horses, sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, llamas and more. In 2005, a Sanctuary board member facilitated the acquisition of this eclectic Seattle shop that sells 100 percent vegan merchandise. Formerly known as Sidecar for Pigs piece and staffed by volunteers, every purchase helps the animals. A local artist painted the colorful façade. Inside, a labyrinth of metro shelving is packed with groceries, pantry items, pet food, body care products, handbags, and wine. You can buy books, or borrow them: the well-stocked lending library includes mostly cookbooks and vegan lifestyle tomes. Cold cases stock locally made artisanal products, among them Rachel’s Ginger Beer, Field Roast vegan grain meats, fresh sandwiches from The Wayward Vegan Café, and beautiful handmade truffles from Olympia’s Blissful Wunders. Community events include book signings, tastings, and the occasional personal appearance by one of the Sanctuary’s porcine residents. Proceeds from Vegan Haven support the Sanctuary’s work arranging medical care, providing a healthy diet, socialization, and a permanent loving home for the animals, as well as educating the public about animal abuse.