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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.

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Zesto’s Burgers – 11/26/11- Closed

Website

Location: 6416 15th Ave NW

Hours:

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.

Red Mill Totem House – 10/30/11

Website

Location: 3058 NW 54th St

Hours:

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.

The Sloop Tavern – 10/29/11

Website

Location: 2830 NW Market St

Hours:

Mon-Sun: 11am-2am

One of the things we’ve learned over the course of this Project is that there are more pieces of Old Ballard left than you might think. Fine dining and hipster hangouts have not taken over all of Ballard. Saturday night, J and I walked the length of Ballard from our apartment on the east side of 15th to visit one such holdout.

The Sloop Tavern has been a Ballard institution for over 50 years. Located near the Ballard Locks, the seaman themed painting on the side of the unassuming cinderblock building lets you know immediately who the clientele of the Sloop is, if the name didn’t already. The interior has that interchangeable community bar look that’s the same across the country. A long bar along one wall. Numerous TVs showing two or three different sports games. Tatty Formica tables and red vinyl booths or beat up wooden chairs. There are a couple of pool tables, a pinball machine, and a few video games opposite the bar.

The menu at The Sloop matches the décor. Typical pub fare. Burgers. Sandwiches. Fried seafood. They have 9 beers and one cider on tap. Their claim to fame is the ability for customers to “Sloopersize” their draft beverages to a 33.8 oz, frosty mug that may take two hands to lift.

The Service:

It wasn’t busy at all when we went to The Sloop. Just a few people watching football or chatting. At one point, a couple dressed as Calvin and Hobbes came in, obviously for the Halloween party that was to take place later in the evening. The bartender, who also acted as waiter, was friendly and our food came out amazingly quick.

The Drinks:

J and I chose to Sloopersize our Stongbow Ciders, a nice, dry cider. The mug was so heavy that I had to use two hands to lift it. It took us so long to finish our ciders that we were able to finish and write our preliminary thoughts about our meal.

The Food:

J ordered the Fish and Chips. He said the fish was really fresh and surprisingly good considering he doesn’t usually like beer batter. Usually the batter overwhelms the flavor the fish but that wasn’t the case here. The fries were okay. He was glad he chose the seasoned fries option because otherwise they would have been rather bland.

I chose a BLT with a side of potato salad. This was BLT prime. The BLT from which all BLTs are descended. A BLT in its purest form. Lightly toasted, plain white bread. Mayonnaise. A pale tomato. The brilliant choice of shredded lettuce, thus keeping the other ingredients from sliding out from between the slices of bread. The salty bacon was fried to perfection. Crispy with just a slight chewiness. All it needed was a little yellow mustard. Was it a gourmet, fancy BLT? No, but it captured the essence of a BLT. The potato salad was a little too sweet. I think they used Miracle Whip rather than Mayonnaise. I added yellow mustard, salt, and pepper to make it more to my taste.

The Price:

Sloopersize Strongbow Cider: 2 @ 6.50

3 Piece Fish & Chips: 8.75

BLT with Potato Salad: 8.75

The Verdict:

We really liked The Sloop Tavern. It didn’t feel as insular and cliquey as the other old school Ballard bars we’ve been to over the course of this project. People were friendly. The atmosphere was comfortable. The food was better than most dive bars and a Sloopersized Strongbow Cider was awesome. We’ll definitely take the hike back.

 

Ballard Restaurant News – September

Twin brothers reopening Bad Albert’s in October.

New Vietnamese Restaurant to open on 15th.

Piada Italia/Seattle burger Company closed before we made it there. Too bad, a friend claimed the burgers were awesome.

Seattle Weekly talks Manhattans at Paratii Craft Bar.

Harlow’s Saloon closes … only to open soon as a Scottish themed bar.

Two empty storefronts in Ballard have liquor license applications in their windows:

On Leary, across the street from Sunny Teriyaki: Belle Clementine

On Ballard Ave, across the street from the Tractor Tavern: Bardot.

Wingmasters Sports Bar & Grill – 9/23/11

No Website

Location: 5811 24th Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Fri: 11:30am-2am

Sat-Sun: 10am-2pm

Wingmasters Sports Bar & Grill felt like an old school sports bar. The type found all over the United States where the only things to tell you what city/state you’re in are the posters on the wall, the games on the TV, and the theme of the menu. Dark wood paneling. Worn and torn vinyl booths. A couple of pools tables. A big elk shooting game in one corner. Pull tabs at the bar and peanuts by the handful for a quarter from a defunct gumball machine. It’s the type of place that has a bunch of regulars who hang out at the bar, watching ball games. The night we visited, a college football game, a Mariner’s game, and a soccer game were showing on the multitude of TVs.

Wingmasters, as one can guess from the name, specializes in chicken wings, offered with a choice of sauces. The menu also includes the usual array of bar food, salads, burgers, and fish and chips along with beer and a full bar.

The Service:

Our server was the only one, other than the bartender, working so service was pretty slow. Once we had finished our meal, J eventually had to stand at the bar for a few minutes before being able to pay our bill since our server never came over to cash us out.

The Drinks:

I had a pint of Widmer Hefeweizen, which turned out to be rather smooth with very little bitterness. Quite nice, actually.

J ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, which packed a punch but had too much tequila.

The Food:

I chose the Buffalo Chicken Strips and Fries. The chicken strips were of uneven quality. Some were moist while others were bone dry. The Buffalo sauce tasted pretty good with a spiciness that crept up on me. I also liked the extra crispy breading that covered the strips. The French fries that weren’t directly under the chicken strips were crispy but as the fries cooled, they turned greasy and limp.

J ordered 12 Chicken Wings in Buffalo Sauce. It should be mentioned that J has been to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York where Buffalo wings originated, so his bar for chicken wings is set very high. He took issue with how the wings were made. It seemed like they poured the sauce in the bottom of the paper-lined basket, and then placed the wings in it, without tossing the wings in the sauce. He said the wings on top were too dry while the ones in the sauce were merely okay. He was not impressed.

The Price:

Widmer Hefeweizen: 4.25

Long Island Iced Tea: 8.00

Buffalo Chicken Strips and Fries: 7.95

12 Chicken Wings with Buffalo Sauce: 12.95

The Verdict:

There were a number of things about Wingmasters that didn’t impress us. The atmosphere of the place was very insular. J especially felt this when he went up to the bar to pay our tab. It took him a few minutes to get someone’s attention, and when he did he felt like he was intruding on a private club. The wings were really pricey for the quality and quantity. King’s Hardware offers tastier wings for a better price, especially on Mondays when wings are .28 cents apiece. Really the only thing that was good was my beer.

Neither of us sees a reason to go back to Wingmasters. We can get better wings elsewhere and I can get Widmer Hefeweizen at the grocery store.

For those who might be wondering, in J’s opinion Norm’s, in Fremont, offers chicken wings that are the closest to the Anchor Bar’s original Buffalo wings.

The Counter – 9/2/11 – Closed

Website

Location: 4609 14th Ave NW

Hours:

Sun-Thurs: 11-9

Fri-Sat: 11-10

On our continuing search for the best burger in Ballard, J and I stopped in at The Counter, one of the newest of Ballard’s burger joints.

The Counter is a national gourmet burger restaurant located in the Ballard Blocks, next to Trader Joe’s. It’s large, open interior is sparse with white walls, metal chairs and tables and a bar along the far wall.

They specialize in burgers with gourmet ingredients. When you order, you’re given the choice between constructing your own burger from a list of meats, cheeses, veggies, sauces and buns or pre-constructed burgers. They also offer various styles of French fries, soda, a full bar and milkshakes.

The Service:

J and I were there for a late lunch so there were very few people in The Counter. Our server was friendly, helpful and the burgers came out pretty quickly.

The Drinks:

Both J and I chose bottles of Ace Apple Cider, a crisp, dry hard cider that is one of our favorites.

The Food:

As an appetizer, I chose the Fried Dill Pickle Chips, thick sliced dill pickles dipped in a corn meal batter then fried with an apricot sauce on the side. I liked the idea of fried slices of dill pickle as opposed to the fried dill spears I’ve had at the People’s Pub but the batter was too thick and a little tough. The molten hot slices kept sliding out of the batter coating and burning our chins. The dipping sauce was nothing special. In fact, I ended up dipping the dill chips in the sauce that came with my burger instead.

French fries come a la carte at The Counter so J ordered the Parmesan Fries, shoestring French fries tossed with Parmesan, rosemary, parsley, and garlic aioli. Fabulous. Amazing. The huge pile of fries were brought to us on a large, hot plate that kept the fries hot for longer than I expected. Tossing the garlic aioli, herbs, and cheese with the still hot fries was a brilliant idea that made sure that each fry was coated with salty, cheesy goodness. We are already planning on returning to The Counter for a drink and these fries sometime in the future.

I chose the Market Select Signature Burger, a 1/3 lb. lamb burger topped with fried pepperocinis, roasted red pepper and feta spread, mixed baby greens, red onion, tomato and tzatziki. A pretty good burger. The delicious lamb patty was so juicy that it squirted juice all over my shoulder with the first bite. The fried pepperocinis were and interesting addition like spicy onion rings. The tzatziki sauce tasted clean and refreshing with notes of dill. While the roasted pepper and feta spread was okay, I thought it could’ve been executed better with a couple of slices of roasted pepper and chunks of feta. The toasted bun wasn’t quite sturdy enough to stay together through the entire meal though. Next time I might choose a heartier bun or go with their “burger in a bowl” option.

J ordered the Counter Burger, a 1/3 lb. beef patty topped with provolone, crispy onion strings, lettuce blend, sautéed mushrooms, and tomato with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. The patty had a good beef flavor that stood up well to all the toppings. J liked the use of the lettuce blend rather than a full lettuce leaf because the blend kept the burger together rather than sliding all over the place.

The Price:

2 Bottles of Ace Cider: 4.25 ea.

Fried Dill Pickle Chips: 4.29

Parmesan Fries: 5.29

Market Select Signature Burger: 11/49

The Counter Burger: 10.79

The Verdict:

The Counter offers a darn good burger. The meat and toppings were fresh and very flavorful. The Parmesan fries alone will bring us back. They were that awesome. The Counter also offers something called “Adult Shakes”, which I assume are milkshakes with liquor in them. I am intrigued by this idea …

J still likes the burger he had at Hamburger Harry’s better but I preferred The Counter’s Greek style burger. We both think King’s Hardware has the best burger in Ballard so far but the best French fries, so far, are at The Counter.