Midway between our stay in Vancouver, my family and I drive across the Canada-US border and make our way into Seattle for a 2-night, 3-day stay. Of course when I think of this American city, I think of the cult-hit movie, “Sleepless in Seattle,” grunge, and more importantly, it’s the birthplace of Starbucks, the coffee behemoth of the world.
Though I’ve stopped over at the Seattle airport more times over the years than I care to count, I’ve never been to the city itself. Driving in from the I-5, I’m charmed by the shining skyscrapers and clusters of evergreen trees, as well as glimpses of the waters of Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and Lake Washington which wrap themselves around this city. Far off into the distance is Mount Rainier, a dormant volcano that’s over 14,000 feet tall.
Because this is just a brief stay, my family and I book ourselves into a hotel downtown. I literally screech in delight when I see that the Dahlia Bakery is just across the street, owned by Seattle chef/restaurateur/food personality Tom Douglas. Practically hurling my oversized duffel bag to the hapless porter, I dash over with my sister and we collectively ooh and aah over the bakery goods and then snatch a mini version of the legendary triple coconut cream pie. It doesn’t taste particularly coconut-y but it is good ”“ quality pastry cream piped into a cookie crust and dusted with toasted coconut shards. It’s only after my sister and I have fought over the last bite that we start arguing again because I blame her for my forgetting to snap a photo of the pie. I’m in a state of extreme sugar deprivation because of the lack of desserts in Vancouver, and I fully intend to meet my sugar quota here in Seattle.
Being almost as sugar-obsessed as I am, my sister is game to head back to Dahlia for breakfast the next day. We skip the customary a.m.-treats like muffins and whole grain breads and rush headlong into a refined-carbohydrate feast with a pull-apart cinnamon bun, streusel-topped coffee cake, shortcake biscuit with blueberry jam, and a peanut butter cookie sandwich. I easily forget about the first two items (my own coffeecake is better than this one), but the shortcake biscuit is appropriately flakey. I thrill in taking it apart and popping big chunks into my mouth. It’s the peanut butter cookie sandwich however that’s the star of this whole quartet. Two moist and crater-like peanut butter cookies made chewy with a dash of corn syrup cradle a peanut butter filling that’s been lightened with powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla extract to make for a gooey, eye-rolling experience. Just too good. And Dahlia Bakery’s chocolate chip cookies are in another constellation all their own as well.
Have a coffee, and another coffee … and still more coffee
Seattle’s downtown neighborhood has steep hills — the city is in fact, built on six of them — plenty of retail shops, high-rises, and more coffee shops on every corner than any other city I’ve been to. Waiting to cross the street, I overhear a British tourist say, “My god, there’s a Starbucks here, and another Starbucks right there. How much effort would it take, really! to cross the street to get to the first one?!!” I silently chuckle to myself but I have to agree: Seattle is indeed the coffee capital of America, and it’s not just because Starbucks was born here. According to what I read, Seattle’s winter days are short and cold, so a powerful stimulant is needed to get Seattleites out of bed and through the bleak days of winter. It’s true that it also rains a lot here, and what better way to beat the rainy day blues than with a hot cup of joe?
I will admit unabashedly that I’m a Starbucks pilgrim. I own dozens of their merchandise items from all over the world, and whenever I see a Starbucks during my travels, I can’t help but feel comforted. True, I find their coffee a bit watery and I’ve since found better lattes elsewhere, but I’ll always keep going back to Starbucks — it was them who started the coffee house culture after all. Having said this, you can imagine my sheer elation when I step foot into the very first Starbucks store.
Starbucks is the main reason why Seattle is a city of coffeeholics. This is where it all started, at 1912 Pike Place in Pike Place Market back in 1971. So revered is it that it’s the only chain store allowed in the market. There’s also always a mass of people at the counter, at the shelves where merchandise found only at this original location is being sold, and there’s always, always somebody standing under the “First Starbucks Store” sign just out front. I practically have to wait in line for my turn.
Though the first store is a revered touchstone for Starbucks pilgrims like myself, the shop itself is a bit underwhelming: there are no chairs or tables to sit at and sip, the narrow storefront is unassuming at best, and the floors creak mercilessly. Still, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and reverence at the place. I don’t buy any coffee here but I do treat myself to a souvenir mug and tumbler.
Along with an umbrella and good walking shoes, a paper cup of coffee in hand is part of a Seattleites’ uniform. I can’t help but snap a photo of a Seattle’s Best Coffee store ”“ its décor an inundation of red, red, and more red is picture-worthy. I can’t help but think that sipping a cup of Seattle’s Best Coffee in Seattle would be so apropos, but there are lots more local brands here that I want to try.
Such as Tully’s. Part of a chain that’s biting at the heels of Starbucks in terms of popularity and number of stores, it bears that same “stay a while” vibe that Starbucks espouses. Their merchandise could use some help in my opinion, but man, they serve a good cappuccino! I do think it’s quite impossible to have a bad cup of coffee in Seattle. It’d be a crime, really.
Walking through the rain for a dessert breakfast
One of my non-negotiables in Seattle is visiting the Macrina Bakery, named after a 4th century Greek saint. Even a rainy morning isn’t going to stop me, so armed with a large umbrella and a soon-to-be soggy map, I walk several blocks north from the Pike Place Market. Inside, among wooden counters, mismatched chairs, and blackboards proffering today’s specials, I’m enveloped in the fragrant warmth of freshly-baked bread and sweets glistening from behind the glass counters. I inhale deeply and immediately get giddy: flour, butter, sugar ”“ this is what I love and when I’m happiest.
Flirting with the distant possibility of ordering one of everything from the menu, I decide on a simple buttermilk biscuit and a café brevé. The morning rush has gone at this time of the morning, save for some stragglers. I settle into a table by the corner and guided by the biscuit, meditate myself into bliss. While the biscuit itself isn’t warm, it’s wonderfully flaky, with a lightness only achieved by a touch of yeast. Aromatic of flour, the biscuit’s blandness is punctuated by a burst of strawberry jam that gilds its top. I alternately use my hands and a fork to cut off thick wedges, the crumbs making a magnificent mess that litter the tabletop and my shirt.
No travel of mine to the States is complete without cupcakes, so several hours after trekking around downtown, I head to New York Cupcakes for a sweet breather. Spoiled by the cupcakes in San Francisco’s Citizen Cake and Chicago’s Sweet Mandy B’s, the paltry display at New York Cupcakes actually makes me turn around and go back outside just to make sure I’m in the right place.
I am. But cupcake place this sure isn’t ”“ it’s sterile and dismal enough to mistake it for a hospital cafeteria. What’s worse is the large board they have announcing all their flavors, of which less than half are available. Bad. Thank god my cupcake flavor standard is here ”“ a vanilla cupcake with vanilla buttercream. The white chocolate curls are a sweet plus and the cake itself is terrific. But my goodness, this place needs a good interior designer.
Only in Seattle
Browsing through a gourmet supermarket, I chance upon a box of Fran’s Smoked Sea Salt Caramels, a luxury at $10.99 plus tax for a mere 2.45 ounces! I only mull it over for a few seconds before marching to the cashier and plopping down the money. Fran Bigelow is an esteemed Seattle chocolatier and I’d read enough about these legendary, award-winning caramels of hers to let them pass me by. Besides, they’re the perfect salty-sweet treat.
I would gladly pay more for these nuggets of caramel enrobed in milk chocolate. My teeth sink into a soft bed of butter and sugar burnt ”˜til golden, how caramel should be. The burnished harmony-flavor lingers on until it’s followed by sparks of sea salt smoked over oak wood. The saltiness shoots from the back of my teeth and throat. Ay-yay-yay! I reach for another one.