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The Worst of the Ballard Restaurant Project 2011

Here we go, the five Ballard restaurants that served us our least favorite meals of the Project. Unless these places step up the quality or change hands, we won’t be eating at these places again.

Neither of us enjoy giving a restaurant a bad review. We tried very hard to go into every place with an unbiased mind. Yes,  we had some negative, preconceived opinions of a few places but as we tried each restaurant, we hoped to be pleasantly surprised. Case in point, Ballard Smoke Shop Restaurant. From the outside, it looks like a seedy, greasy spoon but the great service and good, cheap breakfast changed our minds.

In the end, there were four places over the course of the project that were just not good and only one that was truly horrible. J and I aren’t posting this “Worst of” list with the idea of putting these places out of business … although one has already closed. Honestly, we kind of hope these restaurants read our reviews and try harder. That is really the common denominator of our least favorite Ballard restaurants: it seemed like these places just didn’t care about offering good food.

5. Smokin’ Pete’s BBQ

On this list because Smokin’ Pete’s was the biggest disappointment of the Project. J and I have had perfectly good BBQ at Smokin’ Pete’s before doing our “official” review but that day it seemed like they just didn’t care. Dry, tough meat shot through with gristle. Bland BBQ sauce. Mediocre sides that tasted like they came from the deli at Fred Meyer. Honestly, the BBQ warmed up in a microwave at The Viking was better. Considering the recent influx of quality BBQ available in Ballard (Bitterroot, RoRo BBQ, and The Boar’s Nest), Smokin’ Pete’s needs to step up their quality if they don’t want to be left in the dust.

4. Pho Than Brothers

Neither J nor I were fans of pho when we went to Pho Than Brothers for the Project and it did nothing to change our minds. Flavorless broth. Spongy, bland meat that only bore a passing resemblance to beef. We walked out of Pho Than Brothers not understanding, at all, the fascination with pho and remained that way until we had the outstanding pho at Pho Big Bowl.

3. Any Teriyaki Restaurant in Ballard

The teriyaki choices in Ballard range from okay (Anne’s Teriyaki) to just plain bad (Tony’s Teriyaki and Pho and Sunny Teriyaki). Dry, flavorless meat. Bland or overly sweet sauces. Limp salads. Since there are plenty of other cheap Asian food options in Ballard (Pho Big Bowl, Vietnam Cafe, and Uma Thai), J and I see no reason to ever get teriyaki in Ballard again.

2. Zesto’s

Yes, it is now closed but our meal at Zesto’s was one of the worst of the last year. Flavorless, obviously previously frozen beef patties. Lukewarm French fries. A burger that was barely a step-above McDonald’s. Once upon a time, going to Zesto’s was like taking a step back in time to the burger joints of the 1950’s but ever since they took the car off the roof, the quality disappeared. I have high hopes for RoRo BBQ which will be taking over the building and, supposedly, keeping the old Zesto’s charm.

1. Golden City Chinese Restaurant

Not only the worst meal we had in Ballard last year but the worst meal we’ve had in many years. Where to begin? An egg roll so over-fried that we couldn’t identify the ingredients. Two separate entrees that tasted as if they’d been cooked together. Pork fried rice so horrible that J described it thusly, “It tasted like it had been cooked in an old shoe … a week ago.” Golden City made Louie’s seem like the best Chinese food in Seattle. Unbelievably awful.

In retrospect, we didn’t have too many bad meals over the course of the Project. We’re lucky to live in Ballard where there are far more good to great restaurants than bad ones.

Next up with be our choices for “Best” types of food: burgers, fries, Italian, Long Island Iced Teas, etc.

Pho Big Bowl – 12/11/11

No Website

Location: 2248 NW Market St

Hours:

Mon-Sun: 10am-10pm

Sunday was cold and damp so we decided it was the perfect weather for a bowl of pho. Pho Big Bowl sits at the west end of Market Street, near La Isla and Anne’s Teriyaki. It’s another restaurant on that block that would be perfectly at home in a strip mall. A simple interior of formica tables and the type of chairs I’m beginning to identify with cheap Asian restaurants. Other than a few spring rolls, the menu consists entirely of pho in bowls of varying sizes.

The Service:

The pho came out super quick and the staff was friendly.

The Drink:

Every bowl of pho comes with a can of soda so J had a Sprite. I was kind of chilled so I opted for Green Tea which was pretty bland.

The Food:

J ordered the Pho Tai Chin, noodle soup with medium rare eye round and brisket. Surprisingly good. The meat was flavorful, cooked to a perfect medium rare that continued to cook in the hot broth. Unlike the pho at Pho Than Bros, this meat looked and tasted like beef which gave the already good broth an extra punch of flavor. The small size was the perfect amount.

I chose the Pho Ga, noodle soup with shredded chicken. The chicken was moist and tender. The broth was good on its own but adding Thai basil, lime, and a little Sriracha gave it an even richer flavor. The noodles weren’t mushy. Overall quite tasty.

The Price:

Pho Tai Chin: 4.85

Pho Ga: 4.85

Green Tea: 1.00

The Verdict:

Pho Big Bowl totally surprised us. After our visit to Pho Than Bros, neither of us was particularly looking forward to another pho restaurant. The fresh ingredients and flavorful meat completely changed our minds about pho. I can understand why a bowl of piping hot pho would be lovely on a cold, winter day. I know I’d like to try the vegetable pho for it variety of veggies so we will be back.

If you have the choice between Pho Than Bros and Pho Big Bowl, choose Pho Big Bowl. You won’t be sorry.

Categories: Restaurants Tags: , , , ,

Jhanjay Vegetarian Thai – 11/12/11

Website

Location: 5313 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

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

Hours:

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.

Golden City Chinese Restaurant– 10/22/11

No Website

Location: 5518 20th Ave NW

Hours:

Daily: 10:30-2

Golden City Chinese Restaurant sits between Market Street and 56th on 20th Avenue. The front spans three doorways underneath a fading red awning. Door number one leads to Golden City, the restaurant. Door number two, goes to Golden City, the dive bar that was picked out of all the Chinese restaurant dive bars in the city to be mentioned in the Seattle’s Best Dive Bars book. The third door, where once there was a Scream barbershop, opens to a gaming off-shoot of the bar, a long room with ping pong tables and video games.

To be honest, we’d heard tales of Golden City that made us leery of eating there for the project. Bad service. Stabbings. The type of place taken right out of a John Woo movie. With this in mind, we chickened out, by-passing the bar for dinner in the slightly less sketchy restaurant that looks like every Chinese restaurant ever depicted in movies or on TV. Bright white walls with dark wood accents. Red vinyl booths and Formica tables. Wall decorations straight out of whatever restaurant store caters exclusively to Chinese restaurants across the US.

The menu has all the usual cheap Chinese restaurant suspects. Chow Mein. Pot stickers. Egg rolls. General Tso’s chicken. Sweet and sour pork. All available in various permutations of combos. You could go to virtually any cheap Chinese restaurant west of Mississippi (barring San Francisco) and find exactly the same menu.

The Service:

Our server was super friendly, answering questions and making suggestions. Our order came out at a pretty good pace.

The Drink:

We both just drank from the large pot of hot Green Tea. It didn’t taste as grassy as some green tea I’ve had. Kind of a generic green tea.

The Food:

J ordered Pot Stickers as an appetizer. The plate arrived with six large pork pot stickers. After taking one bite, J said they reminded him of the traditional pot stickers he’d gotten on the East coast. The exterior dumpling had a nice contrast between the doughier top and a nicely seared, crispy bottom. The pork filling wasn’t too greasy and actually tasted like pork.

For my meal, I ordered the Garlic Chicken Individual Combo which included egg drop soup, an egg roll, BBQ pork, pork fried rice, and chicken and vegetables in a garlic sauce. The Egg Drop Soup tasted like it had come from a can with a heavy, salty broth, strings of egg white, and translucent, flavorless, orange-colored chunks of what I assume were carrots. J and I split the small Egg Roll. It was greasy and over fried to the color of cardboard. The filling consisted of limp, hot cabbage or lettuce … couldn’t tell which … and some unidentifiable meat. It came with a large bowl of red, sweet sauce that was oddly bland. With the egg roll came four pieces of BBQ Pork that was actually okay. The red rimmed and moist slices looked and tasted like pork.

My main dish was Garlic Chicken, chunks of chicken breast, carrot, onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and dried chips of garlic in a brown sauce. Initially, the dish tasted okay but after a few bites, the overly sweet tomato base turned me off. The thick, syrupy sauce overwhelmed everything it touched to the point that I could barely distinguish the other elements, except for the garlic chips, which tasted spoiled and funky. The chunks of chicken were moist and the vegetables weren’t overcooked which is pretty much the only good thing I can say about this entrée.

My garlic chicken came with a huge scoop of Pork Fried Rice. Terrible. Awful. I took one bite and left the rest because it was musty, dry, and two minutes away from being spoiled. J tasted it and declared, “Tastes like it was cooked in an old shoe. How can you screw up fried rice? This is an abomination.”

J chose the Chef’s Special Lo Mein, chicken, pork, and shrimp over noodles. He has been searching for good Lo Mein ever since moving to Seattle from Pittsburgh … and continues his search. This dish tasted as if they had cooked our two entrees together, added pork, shrimp, and broccoli to half and called it the Chef’s Special Lo Mein. The worst part was, instead of using actual lo mein noodles, they merely poured the meat, vegetables, and sauce over spaghetti noodles. He hated it.

The Price:

Pot Stickers: 6.50

Garlic Chicken Individual Combo: 10.50

Chef’s Special Lo Mein: 8.25

The Verdict:

J made an interesting observation after we left Golden City, “It’s almost worse when a restaurant does one or two things well and the rest is horrible than when a place is overall bad. It means they just don’t care enough to try to do everything well.” Golden City didn’t even try. The horrible pork fried rice. The “garlic” sauce that was interchangeable. The over fried egg roll. The spaghetti lo mein. This place made Louie’s seem amazing. Needless to say, we won’t ever go back.

Frankly, Ballard just doesn’t have a good Chinese restaurant. Louie’s is clean and has okay food. Ballard Mandarin had good food but was not particularly clean and Golden City was terrible. Since clean trumps good food, whenever we’re too lazy to take the bus down to the International District, we’ll probably end up at Louie’s when the craving for Chinese food hits.

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Sunny Teriyaki – 10/7/11

No Website

Location: 2035 NW Market Street

Hours:

Mon-Sat: 11am-9pm

As this project enters the home stretch, J and I are regretting leaving so many of the restaurants we weren’t exactly thrilled about on the list. So, in an effort to cross these off the list, we got dinner from Sunny Teriyaki, located in a little strip mall on the corner of Market and Leary.

Over the course of this project, Sunny Teriyaki closed for a few months then reopened under new management. I had take out from Sunny Teriyaki a couple times when I first moved to Ballard six years ago and thought it was mediocre. I was hoping under new management the food would have improved. At the very least, the interior seemed cleaner and better organized than it had been. The clear menu, consisting of teriyaki, yakisoba, and a few Chinese dishes, hangs over the order counter. There are a few tables for eating in the brightly lit restaurant but neither of us felt like eating there so we took our dinner home.

The Service:

The lady at the counter was friendly and our order came our relatively quick.

The Drinks:

J and I each had a can of Coke.

The Food:

J chose the Pork Yakisoba, pork, yakisoba noodles, broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, and white rice. The noodles and sauce were okay, even though the portion size seemed rather small compared to other teriyaki joints. The pork just wasn’t good, tasting like the refrigerated, red barbeque pork found in grocery stores rather than like freshly cooked pork.

I ordered the Mongolian Beef, strips of beef, onion, scallions, and thai peppers with rice and a salad. Even though the salad was actually cold and crisp, the dressing was rather bland. I still don’t get why they include salads with teriyaki …

The Mongolian beef was okay, though there wasn’t a lot of it compared to the huge amount of rice they gave me. The sauce was spiced just right and wasn’t too sweet. The onions were cooked well without being mushy. The beef tasted kind of like beef but had strips of gristle running through it.

The Price:

Pork Yakisoba: 7.99

Mongolian Beef: 7.99

The Verdict:

Having running through all the teriyaki joints in Ballard, we have come to the determination that it’s impossible to find good teriyaki in this part of town. It’s just varying degrees of meh. Sunny Teriyaki was slightly less mediocre than Tony’s Teriyaki and more mediocre than Anne’s Teriyaki. None of these places are restaurants to which we would return. Frankly, if we’re in the mood for cheap Asian food, both Uma Thai and Thai Thani provide food far, far superior to any of the teriyaki joints for a comparable price.

Tony’s Teriyaki and Pho -9/24/11

No Website

Location: 6315 15th Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Fri: 11am-8pm

Saturday: 11am-7pm

As we enter the last few months of this project, J and I are forced to visit the, shall we say, sketchier restaurants in Ballard. Places we wouldn’t normally go to unless a friend claimed the food was amazing. We try to keep an open mind about these places with the hope that we’ll be pleasantly surprised. We had this in mind when we went to Tony’s Teriyaki on Saturday.

Tony’s Teriyaki is located on 15th, near Zesto’s. The building looks like it used to be diner or coffee shop. Square with a weird overhanging roof. The interior is just as plain. A few tables and chairs. A big cooler with canned soda. The menu of teriyaki, pho and other combos hangs above the order counter, written in faded, dry erase pen.

Although the place looked clean, neither J nor I felt like eating at there so we got our food to go.

The Service:

The woman at the order counter was friendly and our food came out relatively quick.

The Drinks:

J had a can of Coke while I finished off a bottle of red wine from Wednesday’s dinner at home.

The Food:

I chose a special combo, Beef Short-Ribs and Chicken Teriyaki with rice and a salad. This particular salad was tiny, too warm, made up of limp lettuce and carrots, and the dressing was flavorless, much like every other salad I’ve had in a teriyaki joint. Why do teriyaki joints need to add a salad to their entrees? The some of the portions for the rest of my combo were huge. Two big scoops of white rice and a ton of serviceable chicken teriyaki. The chicken pieces weren’t dry and were even slightly caramelized on the edges. The teriyaki sauce was okay as well. Not too sweet. The portion of beef short ribs was rather small and what was there was flavorless and tough.

J ordered the #18 Combo, Chicken Teriyaki with rice, salad, and 4 gyoza. The gyoza were overcooked bricks that barely finished two because they were so awful. He said he’s had better frozen gyoza. He didn’t particularly like the chicken teriyaki either, saying it was too dry. Not to mince words, “It sucked”.

The Price:

Beef Short-Ribs and Chicken Teriyaki: 8.25

Chicken Teriyaki and Gyoza: 7.50

The Verdict:

Frankly, Tony’s Teriyaki turned out to be exactly what we had assumed it would be when we first saw the place. Sub-par teriyaki. From the awful gyoza to the bland short-ribs and limp salad, nearly everything was either bad or terrible. For me, the only saving grace was the serviceable chicken teriyaki.

Needless to say, J and I won’t be returning to Tony’s Teriyaki … but at least one of the sketchier places has been crossed off the list.

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