It wasn’t because of the used car lots, or the grime, or the noise (although all of those things exist there in abundance). No, I hated the area because it, more than any other place in the city, made my lack of navigation skills glaringly apparent. Every time I’d drive to the U District, say, I’d get stuck in a Lake City Way vortex, hopelessly turned around, my anxiety mounting with every unfamiliar landmark.
When I started spending a lot of time in the neighborhood several months ago, all that changed. To my lasting delight, I discovered a world of good things to eat, of richly mingling cultures, of rough, untrammeled city-ness.
“Sweet” tamales (made with masa and fresh corn), homemade saffron ice cream, dill-scented rice studded with fava beans: these are just a few of the novel delicacies I’ve had the fortune to eat in this stunningly diverse neighborhood. There are Vietnamese and Mexican and Thai places (natch), but also Szechuan, Ethiopian, and Persian restaurants. There are Mexican video shops, Filipino and Halal and African/Caribbean grocery stores, hair salons with “welcome” spelled out on their windows in five languages. There is a hookah lounge and a German bakery. There are also the sort of seriously divey dive bars, sketchy tattoo parlors, and bizarre second-hand stores that you won’t find in the “nicer” parts of Seattle. Although it’s not immune to the gentrifying creep of luxury apartments and upscale condos, Lake City is still real, still raw, still gloriously gritty. And I love it for that.
…the good things. The sweet sunshiny summery things. The things that make breakfast worth savoring and sighing and swooning over. I submit, for your consideration, The August Breakfast Taco:
Heaped on top of warmed corn tortillas: scrambled egg, grated sharp cheddar, pan-grilled onions, peppers (red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, Hatch chiles), and squash, fire-roasted corn, blistered cherry tomatoes (Sungolds), and cilantro. Also: fennel, cucumber, and radish relish, and, of course, a generous dotting of Sriracha.
To make these tacos:
Take sliced onions and bell peppers. Sear them in a very hot cast-iron skillet with very little oil until they develop a nice deep char. Using the same pan, do the same to cubed summer squash. Then whole cherry tomatoes. If you have a gas stove, roast a whole ear of corn over the flame until some of the kernels blacken. If not, use the cast-iron for a similar effect. Cut the corn off the cob, mix with onions, peppers, and a healthy handful of fresh chopped cilantro. I toasted cumin and coriander and ground it up with dried oregano to make my own taco seasoning. Spice at your discretion.
For the relish:
Finely slice half a fennel bulb, and finely dice a cucumber and a bunch of radishes. Add a quarter cup of minced onion, a handful of chopped cilantro, a big pinch of salt, and squeeze half a lime over the whole thing.
Warm some torillas, scramble some eggs, and throw it all together. Add hot sauce, sour cream, and cheese if you want.
Note: this is a very loose casual recipe – these are loose casual tacos. You can use any mix of summer vegetables you want. They can be dinner tacos with beans or meat, and anytime tacos with cold beer.
Late in the spring, blossoms on the berry bushes that blanket the Pacific Northwest give way to tiny green fruit, hard and sour. Their annual appearance is followed by months of anticipation as ripeness slowly imparts juice and sweetness.
Fast-forward to August, and the continued presence of unripe berries is a reassuring sign that summer is still in effect. Though inevitable, chilly mists, waking in darkness, and seasonal depression are still far (enough) away. There are still pies to be baked, preserves to put up, and faces to be smeared with vivid purple juice.
To sit and sip—to truly savor—a well-made cup of coffee in the morning is a pleasure unrivaled in its simplicity. From the first tentative exploration, steam singing your nostrils and scalding your lip, its aroma twining pleasantly through your neural pathways, it’s a deeply sensual journey. The sepia layer atop a deep black americano, or the bloom of cream through the darkness if you take it like that, are a small beauty to cherish and add to your catalog of minor pleasures. The initial chuffing and blowing and barely letting it touch your tongue, the frustrated longing for a full round mouthful while it’s still too hot to drink. The gradual cooling and revelation of complexity—chocolate and dirt and secret starchy roots, or blossoms and citrus fruit and spice (or whatever you happen to taste). The heft of ceramic and its comforting warmth flowing into your hand.
Of course, there are other moments, other cups. Hastily quaffed, thin and sour from paper or Styrofoam when you just need the drug that’s in there, or the reassurance of hot liquid. The desultory cup of decaf that must (must!) accompany dessert, no matter how old and bad it is. The frosty iced espresso with lots of cream, ice clunking against plastic, drunk on a languid summer day.
I’m not talking about any of those. I’m talking about the perfect cup, the first cup, the ultimate cup. Black. For here. Drunk slowly, observed as it cools, appreciated at each stage for what it is in that instant. (A quality cup of coffee, of course, should taste just as good lukewarm as piping hot, the last sip as pleasing, in its own way, as the first.) Leaving a few speckled grounds as a portent to be read and pondered. The lingering flavor, staying with you as you get up and move on, an intimation of timelessness in the midst of the here and now.
The perfect morning coffee is more than a drink: it’s a refuge from daily demands, a reminder that to give oneself over to small enjoyments, to delight unreservedly in a humble occasion, is the basis for a satisfaction that abides long after the coffee is gone.