s recent Restaurant Guide debut made for busy Portland restaurants, so I skipped town, landing at the Seattle Vietnamese eatery
just minutes before closing time on a recent Saturday night. I was weary from the four-album drive and usual Seattle gridlock, but chunks of cow tongue (the filet mignon of the lesser parts) braised in lamb stock and simmered alongside taro root with white beans in a slightly briny yet barely sweet yellow curry made me forget all about my commute. "When the French colonized Vietnam, they brought white beans; so we adopted them as our own," Monsoon chef-owner Eric Banh said from the other side of the chef's counter, where we sat alternating bites of curry with another dish full of bits of catfish and onions caramelized to a puzzling complexity in a clay pot.
France showed her face yet again in a moist banana cake soaking in a sauce of coconut milk and salty butter. But that wasn't until after we sucked marrow from pork ribs specked with fresh ginger, and savored spring rolls loaded with silky fibers of Dungeness crab folded into green-leaf lettuce. If there's a better Vietnamese eatery than Monsoon anywhere in the Northwest, I haven't found it. Homegrown and laid back yet polished and well lubricated with wine choices, Monsoon is what Pok Pok might be if Bruce Carey owned it.
So, why am I teasing you with a report from our northern neighbor? Well, Banh says he has contemplated a colony of his own—in Portland. His second restaurant, Baguette Box (1203 Pine St., Seattle, 206-332-0220) , is a Capitol Hill landmark serving footlong upmarket banh mi sandwiches on crunchy French baguettes. If you visit, try his drunken chicken baguette, with tender chunks of battered boneless birdie tossed in a sweet and briny goo; or the red-wine-braised pork shoulder with pickled carrots and daikon radish; or the crispy tofu, sweet from a coconut-milk bath. Also don't miss his crispy truffle fries, whose excellence Banh attributes to the marvels of peanut oil. As I mentioned, Banh says he thinks Baguette Box would work in PDX. Consider Eat Me in his cheerleading section already. His top-notch sandwiches would fill the void of inexpensive dining options left in PDX's city center once the food carts close. Anyone else listening?
Speaking of invasions, Stumptown Coffee Roasters debuted a duo of Seattle cafes in October, marking the PDX caffeine kingpin's entry into Capitol Hill, a neighborhood seen by its inhabitants as the coffee center of the universe (and the center of the universe in general). With venerable cafes like Victrola, Cafe Vitta and latte-art pioneer Espresso Vivace in the neighborhood, Stumptown Coffee's Pine Street cafe (616 E Pine St., Seattle, 206-860-2937) is in great company. Next door to the original Rudy's Barbershop, the sleek space marries intimate to elegant under high ceilings in a room filled with molded-plywood Eames chairs, custom modern cabinetry and graphic art. A second Seattle location (1115 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-323-1544) features a roasting facility just a few blocks away. Zip code notwithstanding, Seattle's version of Stumptown remains the place we all know and love, staffed by gregarious and inked-up coffee geeks.
So, how do Seattlites feel about Portland's invasion? Of four Seattle baristas surveyed, one was annoyed, two were stoked and, in proper Emerald City fashion, one said he hadn't noticed.