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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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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.

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.

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.

Categories: Restaurants Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Malena’s Taco Shop – 6/25/11

No Website

Location: 2010 NW 56th St

Hours:

Tues-Sat: 11am-9pm

Sunday: 12pm-7pm

We needed something quick yet filling for lunch on Saturday since J was headed to a friend’s house for a guys-only afternoon/evening of gaming and drinking. We chose Malena’s Taco Shop mainly for its location and price.

Malena’s is located a block north of Market Street in a spare space that reminds me of a teriyaki joint. Lots of tables. Large menu on the wall. No nonsense service. Authentic but slightly Americanized food. I suppose their primary customers come for the food not the atmosphere.

The Service:

You order, pay (Malena’s only accepts cash and check) and get your drinks at the counter then they will bring your food to you. The woman at the counter was a bit brusque but our order did arrive very quickly.

The Drinks:

J and I ordered fountain drinks.

The Food:

Our meal came with chips and a very good fire-roasted tomato salsa. I also requested a side of guacamole, which was fresh but bland. The only thing in it seemed to be avocado and a bit of cilantro. It definitely needed salt, pepper and some cumin.

J chose the Carne Asada Burrito with guacamole. The burrito was huge, stuffed to the gills with seasoned beef and veggies and wrapped in a homemade tortilla. J told me the ingredients were great but the burrito wasn’t wrapped tight enough so halfway through eating, it fell apart.

I ordered the Steak Fajita Combo, which came with beans, rice, and tortillas. The steak tasted nice with the spicy char I expect from fajitas. The mix of onions and peppers were cooked perfectly, leaving them with a nice crunch. Otherwise, I really wish I could order fajitas without beans and rice. I rarely eat them and the ones at Malena’s were not particularly good. Also, the tortillas, once they cooled off, got very dry and brittle.

The Price:

Fountain Drinks: 2 @ 1.75 ea.

Guacamole: 1.50

Carne Asada Burrito: 7.75

Steak Fajita: 7.00

The Verdict:

Malena’s Taco Shop serves acceptable, cheap Mexican food that is far above the normal fast food options. The ingredients are obviously fresh and reasonably tasty. It’s relatively authentic but obviously slightly Americanized. I think if Malena’s opened now, it would most likely be as an okay taco truck rather than a brick and mortar restaurant.

Frankly, if I’m in the mood for quick Mexican food, I’ll go down the street to the El Camion taco truck where I can get better tasting and more authentic Mexican street food for only a couple of dollars more.

I honestly don’t think we’ll go back to Malena’s Taco Shop. It wasn’t horrible but not really good enough for a return trip.

Categories: Restaurants Tags: , , , ,

Scooter’s Burgers & Shakes – 6/20/11

No Website

Location: 5802 24th Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Sat: 11am-9pm

Sun: 12pm-8pm

J and I were craving a simple, no nonsense burger that wouldn’t cost much. Of the many non-fast food burger options in Ballard, Scooter’s Burgers & Shakes was the obvious choice.

Scooter’s is a small burger shack located next to the QFC on 24th. It’s apparent from the limited seating that this is primarily a take-away burger place. There are a few seats inside along a bar under the windows and three picnic tables outside. Luckily it was one of those rare (for this “summer” at least) sunny Seattle days so J and I snagged a table outside.

The Service:

The girl who took our order was friendly if a bit frazzled. I got the impression it was her first day on the job. Other than that, the service was okay. Our order seemed to have come out very quickly.

The Drinks:

J had a Coke.

Scooter’s offers a smaller sized version of their milkshakes so I ordered a Mini Chocolate Milkshake. It was half the size of a regular milkshake and the perfect size for me since I usually leave at least a quarter of a normal sized milkshake. The shake itself was quite good with a nice, rich chocolate flavor thought not quite thick enough for me. I like my milkshakes to be so thick that you collapse a lung when drinking them.

The Food:

J chose the Bacon Cheese Burger Combo, with French fries. He liked the burger well enough but felt that the patty was a bit thin. The fries were passable … although I thought they were pretty good when I tasted them.

I noticed a specials placard next to the cash register advertising a Guacamole Burger so I chose that along with a side of onion rings.  I liked the burger. The thinness of the patty didn’t bother me as much since the beef was surprisingly flavorful for a burger shack burger. The guacamole was fresh and chunky. I could have done without the “special burger sauce” but otherwise it was a pretty good burger.

The onion rings tasted good as well. Not too heavy or greasy with a light, crunchy batter.

The Price:

Mini Chocolate Milkshake: 1.95

Guacamole Burger: 5.15

Onion Rings: 2.25

Bacon Cheeseburger Combo with French Fries and a Medium Coke: 7.59

The Verdict:

Scooter’s is a good, fast burger shack that serves burgers, fries and onion rings that are miles above the crap you’d get at McDonald’s or Burger King. If I want a fast, good, fresh burger on a nice day, I could totally see going back to Scooter’s. Not the best burger in Ballard but better than at least one I’ve had so far.

I especially like the idea of a mini-sized milkshake. To be honest, I’ll probably go back on a hot day for a different flavor of mini milkshake before I go back for a burger.

Categories: Restaurants Tags: , , , ,