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>Two Finds in Seattle: Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee, Seattle Deli

>This is a re-post from my blog on mySpace.

I lived in Seattle from 1999-2001. Since then, I’ve spent a fair amount of my time in New York City. In that period, I’ve found that while Manhattan and Brooklyn are full of neat places to discover, Seattle is the city I think of when it comes to uncovering real show-stoppers. The dives here are real dives (Hurricane, Hana Teriyaki, Sonya’s), the hidden treats are almost magically hidden (ZigZag, ReBar, The Hideout, Mai Phim), and the jewels are worth recommending over and over (Tenzing Momo & World Merchants in Pike Place Market, Tanh Bros. on Broadway, Mesob on Cherry, Thai Tom on University Ave).

What sweetens this pot even more is the fact that these gems are paired with the perfect setting: Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains to the East, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to the West, Mount Ranier to the South. As atmospheric conditions fluctuate, the views from Seattle’s hilltops fade from brilliant panorama to blank, misty grey slate. Some days, you won’t even think to look beyond the vibrant green moss on the sidewalks and walls. Other days, the mountains will stun you into forgetting about everything but the sun glinting off of their snowy caps.

Since moving away from Seattle, I’ve come to rely on my friends to sniff out the latest treasures in the Emerald City. Each of my annual visits is augmented by a rolling tour through the fresh newbies and the old standards. Today, thanks to the Very Lovely Kay Morrison, I’ve got two additions for my list of favorites: (1)Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee, and (2)Seattle Deli.

Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee: A New Hidden Treat

In the International District on Main Street, just east of 6th Ave

This year I confirmed that Seattle’s reputation for great coffee is more than just cliche. Last week I was falling asleep at a seminar and was forced to resort to pulling a cup of joe from the urn in the back of the room. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be the best cup of coffee I’ve tasted in months. Yes, it’s true: Forgotten urns at seminars in Seattle dispense better coffee than most coffee shops in Manhattan. Hands down. With Seattle’s coffee market thus inundated with quality java, what is left for the enterprising business to do? The answer is tea. There are very few places to purchase qualtiy tea in Seattle and there are even fewer good places to consume it. Gladly, there is one new establishment that is looking to fill that void.

The Panama Hotel is hidden in a part of the International District that was, until recently, all apartment buildings and empty store fronts. In our search for this place, my companion Kay and I spent some time wandering around the flat part of 6th and 7th Avenues down by Uwajimaya. Finally, we gave up on that and crossed Jackson in order to trekk up the hill on the downtown side. I was surprised to find a number of restaurants up there on that hill, many of which seemed quite nice. (To be honest, I think I remember hearing a rumor about an amazing Japanese restaurant in this area, but I digress…) We reached main street, turned right, and there it was: a faded neon sign from the mid-20th century with “Panama Hotel” painted on it in white on baby blue. A newer sign on the sidewalk confirmed that we were in the right place. In we went.

The interior of the shop has fresh paint on the walls and shows the signs of a talented decorator with a passion for local history. Touches of exposed brick are pared with dark hardwood moldings, sturdy wooden and wicker furniture, refinished hardwood floors (old, original wood), and plaster walls painted in a rich cream color. The walls are lined with Black & White photos chronicling the history of the International District. Many of the photos are labeled with post-it notes naming buildings and shopkeepers (mostly Japanese-American). Others have notes written directly on the pictures and the glass framing.

The furniture is sparse, giving a sense of space that is lacking in most coffee shops. We will see if the number of tables increases when patronage starts to rise. Thanks to free Wi-fi, most of the tables had at least one laptop user quietly tapping away. About 50 percent of the people in the room were speaking either Japanese or Chinese. The music was sedated and tasteful, set at a volume level where you could hear it if you listened but could just as easily ignore it altogether.

The tea menu is not extensive, but the selection is sure to satisfy any palate. We ordered a pot of “Bombay Market”, a black tea blend whose perfume is like passion fruit with soft hints of spices. The tea was brewed to perfection and brought to our table in a glass pot along with sandblasted glass teacups on bamboo coasters. Everything was exemplary. We polished off the tea while Kay pored over spreadsheets and I wrote this review.

I’m a sucker for well-crafted experiences and overall that is what Panama Hotel provides. This place is sure to become a Seattle Favorite, though I worry that it might lose its real beauty when the crowds start to arrive.

Seattle Deli: Let Vietnam Spoil You

12th Ave, just north of Jackson

I can’t believe I never ate here before. The Seattle Deli is a little nondescript storefront on the west side of 12th Avenue. The jumble of food piled up in this place is absolutely delectable. From Vietnamese Tofu Sandwiches to rice and goodies steamed in banana leaves, the options are so numerous that I froze up when I arrived.

The counter is piled with spring rolls and rice noodle salads wrapped in plastic on styrofoam platters. Each plate disctinct from the next and all of them ready to eat. No microwave required. For those who require something hot, there is a steam table offering mouthwatering tofu, sides of spicy chicken, whole fried fish, and more obscure dishes like whole shrimp stir-fried in a spicy sauce along with giant cubes of bacon. There’s something for everyone amidst the piles. I could eat there every day for a week without getting bored. It wouldn’t put much of a dent in my wallet either. A light lunch for two cost less than $5 and a 3-course feast for three could easily top off at $12.

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