Seattle Chow, Part 2: Pike Place Market, a Culinary Hub

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Pike Place Market
1531 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101
Web: Pike Place Market
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"Deferring to Bourdain's culinary wisdom, we sampled three flaky pastries... All were good enough to make us want to revisit; none would keep us awake dreaming of them at night."

We won't claim to be experts on Seattle's Pike Place Market, but it's quite possibly one of America's most interesting destinations for foodies. Where else can you see two guys tossing around whole fish, visit the country's first Starbucks, and try Russian snacks recommended by culinary heavyweights such as Anthony Bourdain? A brief look at some of Pike Place's charms - particularly the pastries - forms the second part of Buffalo Chow's visit to Seattle.

As the signs outside suggest, the core of Pike Place Market is a farmers market, albeit a sophisticated one: the businesses inside are not all the sorts of forgettable table operators so often found at such places, but rather established small storefronts that make their marks with unusual yet not exotic fresh foods. In addition to cheese and oil specialists, there are seafood and vegetable stands aplenty, offering massive lobster tails and scallops the likes of which most people have never seen, and mushrooms of varieties they have likely never imagined. Then you come across Uli's, the sausage maker whose work is done on site, despite eclectic offerings - German bratwurst with cranberries, English bangers, South African boerewors, Spanish chorizos, hot links, and linguicas - that span more than a dozen countries.

The mere sight of such items might be enough to capture your attention, but if not, you'll be enticed by aggressive, often funny hawkers who use charms and the prospect of snacks to convince you to stop and make a purchase. Occasionally, they go further; the employees of the Pike Place Fish Market intermittently toss whole huge fish back and forth to enrapture passers-by, drawing perhaps more cameras than paying customers. Want a better shot? Buy a fish, the tossers tell people, to get their stunt fish flying again.

Pike Place isn't just this central market. It includes adjacent stores, vegetables dangling from ropes in their entryways, and pastries calling out to you from streetside countertops. There is Piroshky, Piroshky, the Russian bakery featured in Anthony Bourdain's 2006 sweep through the Market - the snarky chef's seeming spit in the eye of the neighboring, famous Pike Place Starbucks store. Deferring to Bourdain's culinary wisdom, we sampled a Beef and Onion Piroshky ($4.40), an Apple Cinnamon Roll ($3.40), and the Marzipan Roll ($3.80), three flaky pastries that all seemed to have been recently baked and packed with their spotlighted ingredients. All were good enough to make us want to revisit the place; none were memorable enough to stay awake dreaming about at night.

Piroshky Piroshky on Urbanspoon

Why had Bourdain picked this place over its 25-year-old, locally loved neighbor, the "very French bakery" Le Panier, which served us tasty chocolate croissants and apple pastries? Perhaps it was Piroshky's homegrown look, its author-owner, or the fact that a Russian bakery made for a more interesting story than yet another French one. We'd put our money on all three. But in any case, it would be hard to go wrong at either of these bakeries despite their different styles; both offer baked goods that no semi-hungry person would pass up.

On the other hand, there's the Mee Sum Pastry shop, which was amongst the only places that stood out on a list of the Market's shops we consulted before our visit - we actually were excited to see how Chinese baking was represented at Seattle's most famous market. The answer: decently. Mee Sum was heavily pushing Hom Bows ($2.30 each, shown), baked buns filled with pork, ham, and other savory flavors, as well as steamed pork or chicken buns, sesame balls, and cookies. We tried and enjoyed the Curry Beef Hom Bow, a puffed pastry with just enough spicy meat in the center to be appropriate to the price, but didn't think much of the steamed chicken bun, which despite its huge size was substantially shiitake mushrooms and not very tasty. None of the items on display struck us as memorable, and neither of the things we tried made us want to return.

There's much more to Pike Place Market than we could do justice to in a single visit, or a brief article. But we're devoting a separate story to its most famous inhabitant, Starbucks, in part 3.

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