Seattle’s International District, nestled behind Pioneer Square and the sports stadiums, can be divided up into three sections: Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon. It’s a dense part of the city, best explored on foot so small storefronts aren’t passed by.
Chinatown is probably the area most people visit. It’s anchored by Uwajimaya, one of the largest Asian grocery retailers in the Pacific Northwest. It’s here that I met up with the owner of Archie McPhee, Mark Pahlow, to spend a few hours exploring his favorite spots in the ID.
We started in the meat department, where Mark said he likes to come for the art. Really. Often, one of the employees creates amazing sculptures out of ground beef. We were out of luck on this particular Saturday—an employee informed us the art takes a backseat when the store is busy. Check out this Tumblr account for some of Uwajimaya’s masterpieces.
Mark also likes to check out the seafood department and the aisle of sauces, where he’ll buy a bottle of something unknown and attempt to cook with it. The hardest? When it’s a particularly potent fish sauce, he said.
The store is worth a visit even if you don’t need groceries: I enjoy trying candy of unknown flavors. I’d also suggest browsing the home and gifts department for beautiful dishes, Asian home décor and Sanrio items.
Also in the Uwajimaya complex, you’ll find the Kinokuniya bookstore, a Japanese chain with seven U.S. locations. Here, browse English, Japanese and Chinese books as well as a large selection of notebooks, pens and pencils and other office supplies and gifts. It’s another good spot for unique souvenirs.
After browsing around Uwajimaya, Mark and I headed over to one of his favorite restaurants, Mike’s Noodle House at 418 Maynard Ave. S. The key to this tiny restaurant is to go early: We just beat the noon rush, with people waiting on the sidewalk for a table. This cash-only spot serves soups and noodles in a huge variety of combinations. Try one of Mark’s picks, the wonton soup, or for vegetarians, try the green onion and ginger noodles. The portion size is enough to fill you up but not make you fall asleep. Service is speedy—no surprise, with a wait out the door at lunchtime—but not rushed.
Next up? We headed to the last remaining fish store in the neighborhood, King’s Discus, at 805 S. King St. The store, like most in this neighborhood, is small, and because of all the aquariums, humid. (It’s a good stop if you’re freezing.) Aquariums are set up in narrow aisles, and the variety of fish is amazing. Tiny to huge, neon to nearly transparent, I wasn’t ever sure what type of fish I was looking at. At the front of the store, Mark explained that one particular tank held baby fish prized by gangsters in Hong Kong—fish that are also popular with the police there, and often found in a tank at the station. As they grow older and larger, they can be worth thousands of dollars.
While walking around the neighborhood, we also stopped at the window of King’s Barbeque House, 518 Sixth Ave. S, filled with chickens, ducks and a few different kinds of animal feet. Mark’s pick is the salted chicken, but they also have roasted duck and barbecue pork, and more. This is another cash-only spot, if you want to sample some Chinese barbecue.
Exploring by foot in this neighborhood is necessary, because otherwise you miss things like Bao An Tang, an herb and grocery store near Seventh Ave. S and S. King St. It’s these “old school merchandising” spots, said Mark, that he loves.
Our final stop for the day is the International District location of Japanese chain Daiso Japan, 710 Sixth Ave. S, a store packed with inexpensive things you didn’t know you needed, like my favorite, chair socks—knitted booties that protect wooden floors from chair legs. Mark spotted an inflatable crow and quickly set it against a plain background: “I gotta Instagram that!”
Other favorites to check out while investigating the ID: the Wing Luke Museum, Shanghai Garden or Fuji Sushi for lunch or dinner and Hing Hay Park, a popular spot for musicians and locals to hang out (on this particular day, there was a man playing the erhu). The park, for Mark, is reminiscent of public squares in Asia, where people relax, play music or practice Tai Chi.
If you’re taking transit in Seattle, it’s easiest to take the Light Rail to the International District/Chinatown station. You’ll come out across the street from Uwijamaya. If you’re driving, Uwijaymaya will validate parking with purchase, there is street parking or a number of parking lots—on the weekends find the lot at the corner of S. Lane St. and Maynard Ave. S, as it’s just $5 (cash only) to park all day.