Archive for November, 2011

Zesto’s Burgers – 11/26/11- Closed


Location: 6416 15th Ave NW


Mon-Sun: 10am-10pm

As a teenager, I remember going to Zesto’s when we would drive out from Duvall to visit my dad’s aunt and uncle in North Ballard. If it wasn’t a holiday, my dad would usually take us to Zesto’s for lunch, more because of the classic car on the roof than for the food. Much later, when I had moved to Ballard, my dad continued to insist we take visiting relatives to Zesto’s for lunch. For the longest time, until I actually moved to here, I associated Ballard with Zesto’s.

Zesto’s has sat in its spot next to Ballard High School since the 50’s. It’s an old school burger joint in the mold of Arnold’s Diner from Happy Day’s. Red vinyl booths with Formica tables. Black and white photos from Zesto’s hey-day decorate the walls. The menu is what you would expect from a burger joint in Seattle. Burgers. Fish and chips. Milk shakes.

The Service:

The two guys behind the counter were really friendly and our food came out in a reasonable amount of time.

The Drink:

J had a Mr. Pibb Extra and I chose the Chocolate Milk Shake. The shake was passable. Not as thick as I like and a little mild on the chocolate flavor but not horrible.

The Food:

J ordered the Mushroom Burger with Swiss cheese and a side of fries. Not good at all. The patty was obviously previously frozen. The mushrooms were really greasy. He said it tasted like the crappy burgers he remembers from the high school cafeteria. The burger was better than the fries, which were barely cooked. The worst burger in Ballard.

I chose the Bacon Burger meal with fries and a milk shake. My burger had that “flame-broiled” flavor I associate with Burger King. It was a dry sesame seed bun containing a flavorless patty. The “special sauce”, which I usually hate, actually gave the burger some much needed flavor. The bacon was the best part and it was merely okay. The French fries, which were obviously frozen and from a bag, were lukewarm and forgettable.

The Price:

Mushroom Burger with fries and a drink: 8.99

Bacon Burger with fries and a milk shake: 9.99

The Verdict:

Sometimes doing these reviews is not fun. I remember when Zesto’s was better than average. The guys behind the counter were really nice and I hate to give a bad review but we have to be honest. Zesto’s is barely a step above McDonald’s and Burger King. Flavorless, frozen burger patties. Lukewarm fries. Greasy burgers and barely passable milk shakes. It’s really bad that, other than the service, the best thing we can say about Zesto’s is that neither of us got sick. Sure, if you feel nostalgic for the burger joints of your youth or are a teenager with no taste and a cast-iron stomach, I suppose Zesto’s is okay but in our opinion they have the worst burgers in Ballard.

At this point, we’ve visited all the burger joints in Ballard. Both J and I agree that the best burger is at King’s Hardware for their creative selection, flavorful beef, and .28 cent buffalo wings. The Counter and Hamburger Harry’s tie for second because I preferred the former and J, the latter. Then it depends on what you’re looking for in a burger. Scooter’s or Red Mill are good for relatively quick and cheap burgers. If you want a hipster atmosphere, Hattie’s Hat is a good bet. After that, it goes Zak’s, because their burgers were okay but not memorable and in last place is Zesto’s.

Of course, the best burger in Seattle remains Norm’s in Fremont.


La Isla – 11/25/11


Location: 2320 NW Market St


Mon-Sun: 11:30am-2am

Happy Hour:

Mon-Sat: 3pm-6pm, 10pm-12am

Sunday: 3pm-6pm

La Isla is another unexpected and interesting ethnic restaurant in Ballard. It opened a few years ago just off the corner of Market and 24th, next door to Kitchen and Things. La Isla serves Puerto Rican cuisine in a fairly large space that once housed two retail stores. Someone I know said its location, surrounded by retail spaces as it is, reminded him of a restaurant in a strip mall. The interior is painted with bright colors and decorated with a Caribbean flair. The night we went it was nearly at full capacity.

La Isla’s menu is filled with unique appetizers and entrees that lean heavily towards garlic, meat, and plantains. I wouldn’t say it was really suitable for vegetarians. Many of the offerings probably can’t be found anywhere else in Seattle. The drink menu consists of a number of Caribbean inspired cocktails and an extensive rum selection.

The Service:

Our server was friendly and took our orders quite quickly. Unlike many places we’ve been to, they gave a longer than normal space of time between our appetizers and entrees. This may have just been a product of being rather busy that night but it was quite nice regardless.

The Drinks:

J ordered the Caribbean Crush, dark, coconut, and 151 rum mixed with a splash of Kahlua and fruit juices. Tasty with a strong coconut flavor that completely masked the considerable amount of liquor in the drink.

I had a Mojito, light rum with muddled mint and a splash of soda. It had a different flavor than other mojitos I’ve had. Very minty but it didn’t seem to have a lot of rum in it. I think they must’ve used club soda rather than Sprite for the splash of soda, which gave the drink an odd flavor.

The Food:

Since the menu was so interesting, we decided to order a couple of appetizers along with our entrees.

A friend suggested the Carne Frita, bone-in pork “wings” marinated in adobo, flash fried, and topped with sautéed onions and served with caldo sauce. Very moist and flavorful pork chunks. J said if they’d added a couple more pieces, the Carne Frita would have made a good entrée. The only thing that was a bit off was the caldo sauce. It was far too mild to go up against the meaty flavor of the pork.

We also ordered the Gandules Dip, a blend of onions, garlic, red pepper, green pigeon beans, olive oil, vinegar, and spices served with tostones cups. Interesting, in a good way. The dip had a strong olive oil flavor with hints of vinegar and citrus. A neat little do-it-yourself appetizer. The starchy tostones cups held up nicely to the dip without getting soggy.

For his entrée, J chose the Bisteca Encebollado, an 8 oz cut of churrasco steak, marinated in olive oil, garlic, and vinegar sauce, topped with sautéed onion and served with beans, rice, tostones, and al ajillo sauce. A huge amount of food. After trying a bit of the steak, J wished he’d spent the extra $1 for the spicier option because it was just a little bland. He ended up eating the steak with the super-garlicky al ajillo sauce for the extra flavor boost. He also felt the steak was a bit tough. J loved the beans and rice so much that he left some of the steak in order to finish them. The sides were so good that he wondered if La Isla served the beans and rice on their own on their lunch menu.

I ordered the Chuletas a la Criolla, two 6 oz pork chops, marinated in lemon and adobo, pan sizzled and smothered in red Creole sauce with beans, rice, tostones, and al ajillo sauce. Another portion of food so large, it couldn’t be finished. Oddly, the pork chops were moist and a little tough at the same time. The chops had just a faint hint of lemon to them. The red Creole sauce, made of onions and red peppers, was a little bland and overcooked for my taste. I like a bit more crunch to my veggies. The tostones and bright al ajillo sauce made a nice little side dish to the rest of the meal.

The Price:

Caribbean Crush: 8.50

Mojito: 7.50

Carne Frita: 7.50

Gandules Dip: 7.00

Bisteca Encebollado: 15.50

Chuletas a la Criolla: 15.00

The Verdict:

La Isla serves good food with a very unique flavor profile. The ingredients were fresh, the portions huge, and the super garlicky al ajillo sauce stole the show. I think our only issue was that the food was really heavy. The appetizers alone can fill you up and adding an entrée to that caused us to still feel stuffed the next morning. I would definitely suggest ordering drinks and a few appetizers or drinks and an entree rather than having both. Also if you go in expecting spicy, Latin American style food, you’ll be disappointed. The Puerto Rican cuisine at La Isla has a more sweet and sour taste with large hints of citrus and garlic. We are both intrigued enough about their menu to go back for more.

Ballard Restaurant News

Since J and I flaked out last weekend and failed to review a single Ballard restaurant, I gathered up the latest news about Ballard restaurants for the last few weeks.

Good news. Bad Albert’s is reopening on November 26. Really. They have a musical guest booked and everything.

Bitterroot BBQ scheduled to open the first week of December. Granted, I walked by there last Sunday and it didn’t look anywhere near ready to open but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Po Dog has moved into a spot that’s been closed for nearly a year. Late night hot dogs for the win.

Outside the project’s boundaries, Café Munir, a Lebanese restaurant, to open in December on 80th Street and 24th Avenue.

Full Tilt Ice Cream opens on Leary.

Seattle Coffee Works takes over Tully’s spot on the corner of Market and 20th Avenue.

Maria Hines, the owner, is scheduled to bartend at Golden Beetle on most Tuesdays in November & December.

Categories: Restaurants Tags:

La Carta de Oaxaca-11/14/11


Location: 5413 Ballard Ave NW



Tues-Sat: 11:30am-3pm


Mon-Thurs: 5pm-11pm

Fri-Sat: 5pm-12am

La Carte de Oaxaca is one of Ballard’s most well known restaurants. Most of the time, when I’ve told someone about this project, the first thing they ask is “Have you been to la Carte de Oaxaca yet?” After 6:30 on any given night (except Sundays), rain, snow, or shine, you will see people standing outside Oaxaca, waiting for a table. Its small space is packed with as many tables as they can safely get in there. There’s one long communal table, about a dozen two person tables, and a short counter that overlooks the open kitchen. A tiny bar sits at the back of the dining area. The bright white walls are covered with beautiful photos of Oaxaca, Mexico.

J and I arrived at 5:30 on Monday night to find Oaxaca already a quarter full. By the time we left, about an hour later, seating was down to a few seats at the communal table. The clientele varied from young hipsters to couples out for a night out to two construction guys sitting at the counter. If you go to Oaxaca after 6:30, or anytime on the weekend, expect a wait.

Compared to the typical Mexican restaurant, Oaxaca’s menu is small, mostly a selection of dishes unique to the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Meat is a main ingredient, as are peppers. If you don’t like spicy food, Oaxaca is not the place for you, Everything from the salsas at the complimentary salsa bar to the guacamole to the beans and entrees have a heightened level of spiciness. Their drink menu includes a list of mezcal, tequila, and specialty cocktails.

The Service:

The guy who waited on us was friendly and helpful and the food came out pretty quick.

The Drinks:

I ordered the Teq-Caliente, a shot of pepper infused tequila. It was a good tequila with an extra spicy kick. The drink was very spicy but not in an undrinkable way like the cocktail I had a Paratii. The initial burn faded quite nicely.

J chose the Chimayo, Sauza tequila, crème de cassis, and apple juice. Great. Sweetness complimented by the sharpness of the tequila. An unexpectedly tasty combination.

The Food:

We started with an order of Guacamole and chips. Delicious, creamy avocado paired with light, salty tortilla chips.

To go with the guacamole, we got an order of Tacos Carne Asada, beef in fresh, homemade tortillas topped with cilantro, onion, and hot sauce. The carne asada had a distinctive, smoky flavor. J said they were the best tacos he’s ever had. The tortillas were incredibly light and fresh. A squeeze from the lime wedge nicely enhanced the flavors.

I had the Lamb Birria, stewed leg of lamb served with beans, rice, pico de gallo, and tortillas. The lamb was tender and pleasantly spicy. The black beans, cooked in a variation of a mole sauce, were the best Mexican style beans I’ve ever had. The rich, spicy sauce was rounded out by a touch of crema Mexicana. The rice was the only item in our meal that was merely okay. Lightly spiced and well cooked but nothing special.

As an entrée, J ordered the Entomatadas, grilled, thin sliced beef with homemade tortillas in a tomatillo sauce with Oaxaqueno cheese, onion, and crema Mexicana. The meat was so deeply flavored that J found himself sucking the juices from the meat before chewing it. Nothing extra, like salsa or quacamole, needed to be added because the mixture of meat, crema Mexicana, and tortilla was  perfect.

The Price:

Chimayo: 8.00

Teq-Caliente: 6.00

Guacamole: 5.00

Tacos Carne Asada: 6.00

Entomatadas: 11.00

Lamb Birra: 9.00

The Verdict:

La Carte de Oaxaca really deserves the accolades. It elevates Mexican food to the level of some of the best restaurants in Seattle. The depth of flavor. The freshness of the ingredients. The variety in the menu all make it the best Mexican restaurant in Ballard and one of the best in the city. There’s a reason why people are willing to wait out in the pouring rain for a table. We will go back, no doubt about that.

One thing to keep in mind, though,  when you do go to la Carta de Oaxaca, is that this is not your typical Mexican restaurant. The huge platters of cheese laden food are replaced with small plates of authentic Mexican food with hardly any cheese. Going to Oaxaca has more in common with going to a higher end Seattle restaurant, like Poppy or Staple & Fancy, than, say, Azteca.

Naturally, Oaxaca is our favorite Mexican restaurant in Ballard followed by Senor Moose, more for their breakfasts than dinner. Technically, that puts Malena’s Tacos next but going outside the project guidelines, I would say I like the taco truck, El Camion, better than Malena’s.

Jhanjay Vegetarian Thai – 11/12/11


Location: 5313 Ballard Ave NW


Mon-Fri: 11-10

Sat-Sun: 12-10

Since our vegetarian friend, TN, was coming over to hang out on Saturday, we decided it was the perfect time to finally visit Ballard’s only completely vegetarian restaurant, Jhanjay Thai. I will admit to being an unrepentant omnivore, so I’m not very familiar with vegetarian cuisine. I’ve tried a couple of vegetarian places and found the cuisine uniformly bland. J, on the other hand, spent seven years of his life as a vegan until the day he had a bacon epiphany.

Jhanjay Thai sits on Ballard Ave. just a couple doors down from Bastille. It’s a long, skinny restaurant with a décor that leans heavily towards natural materials and good lighting. Lots of wood. Plants everywhere. Their menu, which mentions that they use no fish or meat sauces, is quite large with a selection of interesting Thai dishes, some of which were unfamiliar to me. They also offer tea, coffee, beer, wine, and desserts.

The Service:

It feels odd saying this but the servers were too friendly and attentive. Every five minutes during the meal, someone would come over to ask how the food was or if we needed anything. We wondered if this was their normal service or if they had guessed we were doing a review. This intrusiveness slightly impacted our opinion of the place, to be honest. The rate that the dishes came out was way too quick. We had barely started on our appetizers when our entrees came out.

The Drinks:

The three of us shared a large pot of flavorful jasmine tea.

The Food:

We ordered two appetizers. First, the Wonton Cream Cheese, corn and diced carrots mixed with cream cheese and wrapped in wonton wrappers, deep fried and served with plum sauce. The wontons were not fried long enough; resulting in a pale, limp appetizer. The soupy filling added an unappetizing sogginess. It would have benefited from a heavier, binding element. The plum sauce was bland and forgettable.

Our other appetizer was the Tofu Satay, extra firm tofu, marinated with herbs and spices, served with peanut sauce and cucumber salad. Much better than the wontons. The very fresh tofu had a delicious smoky flavor that played off the dark, rich peanut sauce quite well. I am not a fan of peanut sauce but the deep, nutty flavor of this one almost made me one. The tofu satay was plated very attractively.

For his entrée, J ordered the Nun’s Noodles, udon noodles stir fried with enoki mushrooms and mixed vegetables in a light chili sauce. He thought it was good and flavorful but pretty spicy for a two on their spiciness scale. The udon noodles were nice and firm as were the chunks of deep fried tofu. He was surprised at the strong mushroom flavor of the thin enoki mushrooms. The sauce reminded him of good lo mein. J did feel the portion size seemed small compared with similar dishes at other Thai restaurants.

TN chose a dish she’s had many times elsewhere, Tom Kha, hot and sour soup simmered with coconut milk, galangal, mushrooms, lemon grass, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and deep fried tofu. The broth, while a bit thin, had a pleasant coconut flavor with just a hint of lime. She felt there could’ve been more and a better variety of vegetables though. She ended up adding garnishes from the tofu satay to her soup. The tofu had the right texture, soft on the inside. Like J, TN thought the portion size was smaller than she had expected but it did hit the spot on a cold evening.

My entrée was the Phad Ka Prau, onions, garlic, bell peppers, mushrooms, green beans, chili, and deep fried tofu, stir fried with sweet basil, including a side of brown rice. The sauce had a rich garlic, spicy flavor with caramel undertones. Very good. I’ve never particularly liked tofu because it tends to be too spongy for my taste, but their deep fried tofu was pretty good. There was a nice mixture of vegetables but they were just a tad bit overcooked. Especially the green beans which didn’t have the crispiness I expected. Unlike J, I felt it was perfectly spiced and just the right portion size. Although the brown rice was of a good quality, it just didn’t have the nutty flavor I prefer.

The Price:

Large pot of Jasmine Tea: 3.00

Wonton Cream Cheese: 7.50

Tofu Satay: 7.50

Nun’s Noodles: 8.95

Tom Kha (Large): 8.95

Phad Ka Prau: 8.95

Side of Brown Rice: 2.00

The Verdict:

J said Jhanjay Thai is one of the better vegetarian restaurants in Seattle, mainly because the food was very flavorful and I have to agree. My entrée was quite good, as was the tofu satay. Even though both TN and J thought their portions were a rather small, they did enjoy their meals. I would say, as a non-vegetarian, that the food was good enough that I didn’t miss the meat. Next time we need someplace to take a vegetarian, we’ll probably choose Jhanjay Thai.

Four out of the five Thai restaurants in Ballard are actually pretty good. In our opinion, for the flavor, variety of dishes, and the awesome brown rice, Thai Thani comes out on top. Then there’s pretty much a three-way tie for second best, depending on what you’re looking for in a Thai restaurant.

Uma Thai is good for quick, cheap take-out, especially if you pay cash. If you’re introducing someone to Thai food for the first time, the mild but good dishes at Thaiku are your safest bet. And Jhanjay Thai is the place to go when there’s more than one vegetarian in a group for its flavorful, interesting entrees that even a carnivore will enjoy. That leaves Mae Ploy in last place for its okay but nothing special menu.

Vietnam Café & Sandwich – 11/5/11

No Website

Location: 5701 15th Ave NW


Mon-Fri: 11am-8pm

Saturday: 11am-7pm

Sunday: Closed

Vietnam Café and Sandwich is located on the corner of 15th and 57th in what was, for half a second, a Peruvian coffee house. It’s a sparse space of the teriyaki joint mold. A short order counter. A few tables and chairs. A kitchen tucked behind a ¾ tall wall. They offer a menu of Vietnamese dishes, ranging from spring rolls to bahn mi to various versions of rice and/or noodle entrees along with tea, soda, and bubble tea.

The Service:

The guy at the counter was super friendly. Our food came out piece meal because it seemed like he was the only person working.

The Drink:

J and I shared a pot of mild green tea. J wasn’t all that impressed with the tea though I thought its flavor was perfectly fine.

The Food:

I’ve been searching for a Fried Tofu appetizer as good as the one at Boom Noodle so I ordered Vietnam Café’s version. These lightly fried chunks of tofu were piping hot but not crispy at all. Kind of rubbery, to be honest. The salt and pepper was obviously shaken directly from a generic salt and pepper shaker.

I ordered a Pork BBQ Sandwich, a toasted French baguette with stir fried pork, homemade mayo, sautéed cucumber, pickled daikon and carrots. The mayo was quite good with a spicy aftertaste. The vegetables, especially the daikon and cucumber, were incredibly fresh with just a hint of a vinegary, pickled taste. The sandwich could’ve had more pork though. What little was there got lost in the huge baguette and the vegetables. The flavor was a bit too mild, as well, but it was nicely caramelized.

J had the Hu Tieu Soup, pork broth with yellow noodles, grilled chicken, steamed pork, fried onion, chives, and cilantro. Tasty. The yellow noodles were real, Asian style noodles rather than spaghetti. The chicken was really flavorful with a delicious, grilled flavor. The pork tasted like real pork. The broth was very good. J made the comment, while eating, that if pho tasted like this soup, he’d like it way more.

The Price:

Fried Tofu: 4.50

Pork BBQ Sandwich: 5.00

Hu Tieu Soup: 7.50

The Verdict:

Even though the fried tofu and my sandwich left a bit to be desired, there was enough potential in what the Vietnam Café offered that we would return. The ingredients were extremely fresh and J really enjoyed his soup. Frankly, even with the issues, the food there was way better than any of the teriyaki joints in Ballard. Another plus is that it’s only a block from our apartment. If you like cheap, fast Asian fare, give them a try.

Red Mill Totem House – 10/30/11


Location: 3058 NW 54th St


Tues-Sat: 11am-9pm

Sunday: 12pm-8pm

Cash & Checks Only

The day before we started this project, one of Ballard’s institutions unexpectedly closed. Totem House Seafood and Chowder, located across the street from the Ballard Locks, had been there for years. A kitschy, 1950’s interpretation of a Native American long house, Totem House served up a plethora of fried seafood, chowder, and milkshakes to generations of Ballardites. For months the building stood empty with speculation of its eventual demise running rampant until it came out that local chain, Red Mill Burgers, had bought the building with the plan to renovate it while keeping true to its kitschy past.

Red Mill Totem House is tiny, just like the original Totem House. When J and I went, we ended up getting our meal to go since there was nowhere to sit. The interior is more colorful than its predecessor but just like it, the menu hangs over the order counter. Red Mill, known for their burgers and milkshakes, has added fish and chips at this location only.

The Service:

The obviously high school and college age staff were friendly and our order arrived quicker than I’d expected considering the crowd.

The Drinks:

I chose a Chocolate Milkshake, which had a mild chocolate flavor. It wasn’t quite the “collapse a lung” thickness I prefer but pretty good none the less.

J had a Strawberry Milkshake, made with chunks of real strawberry. Really good.

The Food:

I ordered the Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger, with lettuce and tomato on a Kaiser bun and fries on the side. I am not a fan of “special” sauces so I requested no Mill sauce. I know there are lots of fans of Red Mill burgers out there but I’m just not one of them. The beef patty was so thin and flavorless that all I could taste were the toppings. The bleu cheese was a bit too sharp even for me. The bun was forgettable. The only good things were the really fresh tomato and the peppery bacon. Red Mill bacon is awesome, I will give them that. The fries were pretty good as well. Thick without being greasy and having a nice potato flavor.

J chose the Double Bacon Delux Cheeseburger, two beef patties, bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, American cheese, and Mill sauce. Even with two patties, he made mention that the burger was still thinner than one at Norm’s. Possibly because he had double the meat, J said he could taste the beef. He really liked the bacon as well. A quintessential, classic bacon cheeseburger. He had onion rings on the side. Good but nothing special.

The Price:

Chocolate Milkshake: 3.39

Strawberry Milkshake: 3.39

Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger: 6.79

French Fries: 2.09

Double Bacon Deluxe Cheeseburger: 6.99

Babe’s Onion Rings: 3.19

The Verdict:

This is one of the few times J and I disagree. When it comes to fast, cheap burgers in Ballard, I preferred Scooter’s and J liked Red Mill. My problem with Red Mill centers on the flavorless beef. Why would I want to eat a burger in which I can’t tell there’s even beef in it? Might as well eat a salad. J really enjoyed his burger though so we might go back someday. If we do, I’ll try something from their new fish and chip menu instead.