So I realized that, along with my Adobe buddies, I've been eating several lunches a week at restaurants in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood for nearly a decade. Sometimes I think about doing full reviews of them, but lunch isn't the best test of a restaurant. Still, this is a substantial sample, and a popular neighborhood, so I thought I'd do a roundup of every one I've eaten at more than a few times, all in one swell foop. Of course let me give the obvious caveat that I'm a vegetarian, so I'm reviewing the vegetarian option(s) at each of these spots, foodwise. But even if you are strictly a meat-eater, I can probably clue you in on the atmosphere, service, price and general quality.
Please add a comment at the end if you want to amplify or disagree with any of these reviews. I'd love to hear from you!
Baguette Box offers a modernized take on Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. If you aren't a Banh Mi afficionado, you probably just haven't tried one yet. Crispy-crusted, French-style rolls are offered with a variety of fillings, always topped with pickled vegetables and cilantro and usually a mayo-based sauce. Add your own hot sauce. Baguette Box is owned by the same folks as the much fancier Monsoon. Sandwiches run about $6 and are quite filling. There are two vegetarian options but I always go for the coconut-tofu and avocado. Very delicious and satisfying. Service is at the counter with several communal tables to share, or take your carryout down to the steps overlooking the ship canal on a nice day.
Blue C serves kaiten sushi, which means the food comes around on a conveyor belt. The atmosphere is very informal and fun. You sit at the bar and watch the chefs make big batches of each item and put them on the belt. Each plate is color-coded to indicate the price. Press the blue light and your server will come over and tally up your bill. You can also request items that aren't currently up on the belt. There are a few booths and tables where larger parties and sit face-to-face. Quality is a bit variable. Sometimes everything will be really fresh and stellar, and other times it can be only fair. I usually get out of there for around $12 after tax and and tip. One great thing about Blue C is that if you are in a hurry and there is no wait for a table, you can be in and out in like 25 minutes, because you can start eating the moment you sit down. Favorite item: the green bean tempura rolls. The combination of crispy tempura and soft rice is killer.
Chiso is much more upscale than Blue C. Table and sushi-bar service are offered. There are a few delicious vegetarian options, including tempura (skip the non-veggie sauce), sushi rolls an a nasu eggplant stiry-fry. But I almost always choose the veggie chirashi sushi. A big bowl of sushi rice is topped with avocado, cucumber, kaiware (radish) sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and optionally egg, and served with pickled ginger and wasabi, like the more familiar rolled sushi. $10.50. Tremendously good. Service here is paced more to a traditional business lunch, it will usually take slightly over an hour.
Jai Thai, back before they doubled in size, is where I first fell in love with Thai food. Service was fast, and they treated regulars great. They have a wide variety of the vegetarian standards, including stir-fries, noodle dishes, and all of the curries, salads, fresh and fried rolls, etc. With the curries you have to be sure and ask which ones may have shrimp paste or fish sauce in them. Since they expanded, service has deteriorated in my opinion, both in friendliness and speed. Honestly, if I lived anywhere that didn't have so many good Thai places, I'd still be in love with Jai Thai. But since I have a pick of multiple spots in just a few block radius, it is no longer my favorite.
Kwanjai's service is astounding. They take your order the moment you look even vaguely ready, and the food comes out about 2 minutes later, piping hot and tasty. The vibe here is really informal. Waitresses joke around with customers, the door is open if the woks get too smoky, and everyone is usually having a good time. It kind of feels like you have a Thai aunt whose house you get to visit. I like their peanut sauce dishes better than most places, and also the Massaman curry. They don't really venture outside the standard dishes much, but what they do, they do fast, well and inexpensively.
Lucky Pho is only a few weeks old as of this writing. The vegetarian pho was just ok. A decent selection of vegetables and enough tofu, and a fine garnish plate with the herbs, bean sprouts, jalapeno and lime. But the broth was blandish. I had to stir in a lot of hot sauce and hoisin to amp up the flavor. I'd have it again, but it didn't rock my world. The tofu banh mi was fresh and flavorful, and very traditional. Could have used a bit more salt.
Tawon is probably my overall favorite Thai restaurant in town. They offer a wider variety of dishes beyond the standards, including a killer noodle soup called Kao Soi (with a housemade chili paste), Tawon noodles (with cashews and pieces of sauteed Romaine lettuce, trust me!) and pumpkin curry. I don't think I've ever had a bad meal here. Service can be a hair odd, like sometimes 3 out of 4 people at a table will have their food and the last one might wait 5 more minutes. But for lunch, who cares, right? Just dig in and enjoy. My usual tab here is $11.50.
You might not expect that a Teriyaki place is going to have many vegetarian options. And you might worry that a place with the somewhat unfortunate-in-English name "Yak's" might be sketchy. You would be wrong on both counts. Yak's actually cranks out a good array of basic stir-fried rice plates and noodle dishes, and has recently added an ok bibimbap (my standards are high for this dish; no stone bowl here). I think the spicy asparagus and tofu is their best dish, especially when asparagus is in season locally. You'll get out of Yak's for around $8.
I don't make it to 35th St. Bistro often. It is pretty spendy for lunch and does traditional French fare without many vegetarian options. It is about 180 degrees apart from the hippie bounty of Still Life, the former occupant of that space! But everything I've ever had there has been beautifullly prepared. Good salads, good frites. Go if you are a Francophile or need a short European vacation.
Asteroid has gone through a lot of gyrations since it moved from its tiny home on 45th to a relatively cavernous space on Fremont Ave. It was closed recently for a few days and a lot of folks thought it was out of business. Not, but it did change owners. I haven't been in since, but will update when I can report on whether the usually excellent food has changed.
Addendum 4/9/09: Costas Opa (Greek) – see review here.
Pub / Burger / Deli
Homegrown is the newest restaurant in Fremont and is generating a ton of buzz. They self-describe as a sustainable sandwich shop, and live up to that billing with mostly local and organic ingredients. They are doing a brilliant job, because all that backstory is there but the focus is on how that can make your food delicious. Vegetarian options include a sweet-potato and black-eyed pea cake, a grilled portobello sandwich, and a hummus and avocado deal, plus salads. I had to try the portobello because of the chimichurri. It was rich and satisyfing, and I enjoyed piling slaw on top of it like bbq. The sweet-potato cake sandwich was great (basically along the lines of Hoppin' John), but could have been a little larger. I expect Homegrown is going to be a permanent favorite.
Blue Moon offers regular or southwestern Gardenburger patties as a replacement on any of their regular burgers, which range from the normal cheeseburger to some fairly outrageous combinations involving pineapple and blue cheese. Fries are thin and crispy as they should be. I can only eat this sort of thing occasionally because I feel like I have to go to sleep afterwards, but Blue Moon does a solid job.
Brouwer's has an outrageous selection of European beers, and knowledgeable bartenders who can tell you all about them. Unfortunately for me, drinking at lunch isn't really an option since I have to go back and mind-meld with a computer afterwards. The space is a really cool modernized warehouse, with nice architectural details. I would describe the menu as "creative pub". Vegetarian options will usually include a pasta and sometimes a falafel-burger thing. Last time I was there, the portion on the vegetarian special was surprisingly small, but the flavor was good. For me, this place is a good mix-in for variety but not a mainstay.
Dad Watson and the Red Door are so similar I thought I'd combine them. Both are busy day and night. Food is pretty much standard bar fare, veggie burgers and fries, salads. Dad's also has a tofu burrito, and the Door has some sort of hummus plate. Server's are usually nice and reasonably efficient given the crowds. Just good, normal places.
Roxy's Deli works in a classic New York Jewish deli mold. You can get breakfast all day, veggie burgers, bagel sandwiches, egg salad, matzo brei. I thought they had a veggie reuben but I don't see it in the online menu. Dr. Brown's sodas, so you can get your dose of Cel-Ray or cream. Quality, service and portions are all good. I should eat there more.
Mexican / Latin
I've written about Flair Taco before. They do a really nice job with very authentic Mexico City style tacos and tortas. The tofu adobado option is delicious. A taco is only $1.50, so order 3 or 4 and eat 'em while they are hot for a fast and tasty lunch.
Paseo is a small Cuban place with a few tables and long carryout lines. They are always jammed because the food is ridiculously good. Vegetarian options include a killer tofu sandwich and some variations of beans and rice. If you go for the sandwich, don't wear your best shirt, or plan to eat it while leaning over a drain (or your worst enemy).
Taco Del Mar is bad. Here's a Taco Del Mar story. I ate at the Lake City Way location once, and even though there were only 3 customers it took them like half an hour to produce the food. So I emailed the corporate office to complain, and they sent me a coupon. I then tried to use it at the Fremont location and they accused me of trying to pass a fake coupon! The food is flavorless anyhow, so why bother? Walk a couple more blocks and go to either Tacos Guaymas or Flair Taco instead.
Tacos Guaymas goes with more of a San Francisco Mission-ized style of Mexican food, loading up the tacos with rice and beans. Very different than Flair Taco (above), but equally delicious. They have an excellent bar full of house-made salsas and condiments. Look for the smoky red one and the thin avocado salsa. The tacos here are huge; two vegetarian ones will fill you right up. Fine burritos. A plate of enchiladas or chili relleno and you might have to sleep off the afternoon, happily.
Flying Apron is a vegan bakery and cafe. The baked goods are about as good as any vegan ones I've had (which is to say, ok if you prefer vegan, but dairy really makes much better treats). I only ate lunch here once because it was really… not… good. Like, super slow service, undercooked, underseasoned root vegetables. Yucky.
Mad Pizza busts out a daily selection of about 4 pies available by the slice. The style is a relatively thin, soft crust and lots of cheese. Nothing earth shattering, but a satisfactory piece of pizza. They also have quite good house salads, including one with pecans, apples and blue cheese. Service is fast.
I've written about Nana's over here. Healthy, modern-hippieish soups, salads and sandwiches.
Qazi's puts out one of the better Indian lunch buffets in the city. Indian food is much better suited to a buffet than say Chinese or Vietnamese cuisines. Many places don't rotate or change the dishes enough, so after a few trips you are too bored to go back. Qazi's does better. There are usually 3 vegetarian curries and a couple of dals. The components might not change that much, there will usually be something with potatoes, something with peas and so on, but at least there is a little variety. Their homemade carrot pickle is delicious too, if you like mustard oil. The buffet is $9. If you are lucky, the family's adorable 2 year old daughter will take your money and wave goodbye.
Silence-Heart-Nest is run by the Sri Chinmoy folks, in the former location of the lamented Longshoreman's Daughter. The menu is entirely vegetarian, and offers a range of diner favorites, or lunch, including all-day breakfast with pancakes, omelettes and scrambles (both egg or tofu). More lunchy stuff includes "neat loaf sandwich", veggie burgers and so on. They have an Indian plate lunch, with one curry, rice and dal which is one of the better choices. The food is fine but a little on the bland side.