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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.

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.

Ballard Mandarin Chinese Restaurant – 8/5/11

Website

Location: 5500 8th Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Thurs: 11:30-9

Fri: 11:30-10

Sat: 12-10

Sun: 4-9

After watching a “Foodography” program about Chinese food, J and I decided it was time to try one of Ballard’s other Chinese restaurants, Ballard Mandarin. Located on the corner of 8th and Market, it’s hard to miss Ballard Mandarin’s rather large, yellow building. Oddly, when you enter, it seems smaller. We were seated in the dining area directly inside the door. Off to the right seemed to be another dining area but we couldn’t tell since the lights were out.

Their extensive menu consists of the usual Chinese fare and flavors, chow mein, fried rice, Mongolian beef, General Tao’s Chicken, with a number of dishes I hadn’t seen before. Snow White chicken. Palace beef. Yu Hsiang pork. They also have a couple of dinner combos that give you a choice of soup, entrée and a couple egg rolls. Their prices are on par with other Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood.

The Service:

Our server was a friendly, older Chinese woman who asked after us during each stage of the meal. When we started to order egg rolls and two entrees, she quickly suggested we order the Citron Dinner combo for a better deal. We were even able to use the entrée J wanted, which wasn’t included in the choice of entrée, as part of the combo.

At the end of the meal, she insisted on boxing everything left for us to take home. Even the items we really didn’t want. She had such a grandmotherly manner in the style of “If you don’t clear your plates, you WILL take what is left home” that neither of us could refuse.

The Drink:

Water and a huge pot of molten Green Tea.

The Food:

Our meal stared with an enormous bowl of Hot and Sour Soup. The soup was quite spicy, more warm than burning, with a tangy, vinegar after flavor. A great number of firm tofu pieces floated in the broth with scallions, peas and little bits of corn. Pretty good but way too much for just the two of us.

Next came two very hot Egg Rolls with an orange based dipping sauce. Since I have sensitivity to oranges, I dipped my egg roll in soy sauce. It was pretty good. Crisp on the outside without being greasy. Lighter than many egg rolls I’ve had. The vegetables inside did taste a bit flat, though.

For my entrée I chose the Salted Pepper Chicken with green pepper, onion, garlic and no sauce. The batter-fried chunks of chicken were flavorful and surprisingly moist considering the crunchiness of the exterior. I’ve had other entrees cooked in a similar style that were dry yet pretty greasy. I can easily imagine how well this style of chicken would hold up to a sweet and sour or General Tao’s sauce. The peppers and onions, wok fried in a savory and delicious mix of garlic and pepper, held onto their natural crispness without getting mushy. All in all, a really good entrée.

J ordered the Braised Tofu with Beef, pea pods, corn, cabbage and carrots. The braised tofu had a nice springy texture with just a touch of pan-fried flavor. Otherwise this entrée was not as good as my chicken. The chewy beef and mushy vegetables were drenched in a bland sauce that needed something … garlic, pepper, salt, or some sort of spice … to give it definition.

The Price:

2 Citron Dinner Combos: 12.35 ea

The Verdict:

I’m finding Ballard Mandarin hard to review. On the one hand, the food was mostly good other than the need for a bit more flavor in J’s entrée. The salted pepper chicken was exceptional. Frankly, it was far less greasy than the Chinese food we’ve gotten at Louie’s. J, who is originally from Pittsburgh, described Ballard Mandarin as reminiscent of an East coast Chinese restaurant with less grease and MSG.

On the other hand, the restaurant itself was off putting. The dining room was plain, a bit worn and kind of dirty. Worn benches. Greasy windows. It was sort of off putting to be honest. If we go back, we’ll get our meal to go.

I have a feeling that, while the food is better at Ballard Mandarin, the convenience of Louie’s to our apartment will cause us to skip going back anytime soon. It may be one of those places we go back to every once in a while, whenever the memory of the salted pepper chicken brings it to mind.

Louie’s Cuisine of China – 1/30/2001

Website

Location: 5100 15th Ave NW

Hours: Mon-Thurs: 11:30-11

Fri: 11:30-12

Sat: 4-12

Sun: 3-10

According to my mom, when my family visited Seattle in 1978 from Texas, my great-aunt, Stella, took us to Louie’s Cuisine of China for what was, as far as I remember, my first taste of Chinese food. I doubt it has changed very much in the intervening 33 years.

Louie’s is what I would call “American” Chinese food. No odd ingredients. I doubt anyone comes out and chops the head off a goose a la “A Christmas Story”. It’s the type of place you take a 7 year old and her meat and potatoes dad and brother to introduce them to Chinese food. If you want authentic Chinese, go to the International District. If you’re in the mood for perfectly good but tame Chinese food, Louie’s is your place.

Our trip to Louie’s was the brainchild of a couple of friends visiting Seattle from Portland with their new baby, Theo. Louie’s is probably one of the few places in Ballard that was able to accommodate our party of 11 adults and one baby. They have at least one private room with a table that was large enough to comfortably seat our party.  I think the only couple of issues with the room were an air conditioning pipe that kept dripping on J and the temperature fluctuation. Neither of these were a big deal.

The Service:

I was told that the person who took the reservation for our large party was really friendly. We did have to wait a few minutes while the room was prepared. I would not be surprised if the one waitress, of the two who were assigned to the room, served my family when we visited back in 1978. Both were helpful.

It did take a couple of requests to get water for the entire table but after we received our glasses, the servers were quick to refill them as needed. I think the only issue I saw was that our main dishes didn’t come out all at once. The first batch of food came out and it was nearly 5 minutes until the next batch arrived then the remainder of the dishes arrived a few minutes later. This left half the table trying to be polite and wait for everyone’s entrees to arrive before eating, all the while the air conditioning in the room caused those first dishes to start getting cold.

The Drinks:

J had rum and coke and I drank a glass of merlot. Both were perfectly fine.

The Food:

Appetizers: J and I ordered the Crab Rangoon served with a tangy, plum sauce. The won ton wrap wasn’t too greasy, which is a problem I’ve found with other versions of this appetizer. The dipping sauce was sweet with a bit of tang that complimented the cream cheese and crab mix inside. I’ve had better crab Rangoon but this was good, especially for the number of pieces per order.

Others at the table ordered pot stickers and egg rolls. I tried both. The pot sticker had a nice crust on the bottom and the flavor of the pork was good. The egg roll was serviceable as well.

Entrees: J ordered Chow Fun with beef, a dish with wide egg noodles, Chinese broccoli and brown soy sauce. He really liked the Chow Fun. I took a taste or two and found it very good. Nice soy flavor without being overwhelming.

I ordered the Mandarin Beef with peppers, onion and Szechwan peppers on a bed of crispy rice noodles. Mine was one of the dishes that came out first so it was a little cold by the time I started eating. The beef was just spicy enough for my taste. I’m a sucker for onions and peppers sautéed in brown soy sauce and these did not disappoint me. The peppers were still a bit crispy and the onions hovered in that great area between not quite done and caramelized. The only thing I could have done without was the bed of crispy rice noodles. They had the consistency of little pieces of styrofoam and quickly became limp in the sauce. I think I would’ve liked the dish better if it had been served on the wide egg noodles.

The Price:

Rum & coke: $4.50

Merlot: $7.00

Crab Rangoon: $7.00

Chow Fun: $8.75

Mandarin Beef: $10.50

The Verdict:

The most appropriate adjective for Louie’s Cuisine of China is good. The atmosphere is good. The service is good. The food is good. If you have a large party, Louie’s is the place to go in Ballard. If you want to introduce someone who’s never had Chinese food to the cuisine, Louie’s probably is the best place to do so. It’s non-frightening, American Chinese food.

Is it the best, most authentic Chinese food in Seattle? No. If you want that, go the International District. Is it the best Chinese food in Ballard? Possibly. We still have two Ballard Chinese restaurants to review. I’ll give our verdict on that question when the time comes.

We will most likely go back to Louie’s for our immediate Chinese food needs. We’ve gotten take-out from them before. But if we want something special or authentic, we’ll hop a bus down to the ID.