Royal Grinders

tl;dr: I love the Italian grinder (pictured below), but you really can’t go wrong here. There are two things you can do for free that will make your experience even better: adding whole basil leaves to your sandwich and getting a cup of yin sauce on the side.

A good sandwich is greater than the sum of its parts. A structural marvel, capable of stunning any who are fortunate enough to cross its path. Good sandwiches come from good people who understand that each ingredient is an integral part of the sandwich experience: the bread, the construction, each individual part of the filling.

When thinking about the good sandwiches around our fair city, people expect Paseo (and now, Un Bien) to be the one we talk about. Phenomenal sandwich experiences to be sure, but they have been written about quite enough. With 6,035 Yelp reviews between them at the time of this writing, they don’t need any more accolades thrown their way. Here at Calling All Fats, we’re about the underdogs. The little guys quietly making some of the best food you’ll find. The unsung heroes making our heroes.

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Royal Grinders, situated right behind the giant Lenin statue right in the heart of Fremont, is the home of very well thought out sandwiches. From top to bottom, the care that goes into each one is evident. First, the bread. The amateur move is to either forget about the bread completely by using a soft, industrial bakery bun, or to focus on the bread too much, using a chewy structure killer like ciabatta. At Royal Grinders, we find neither. The top of the bread, crispy and crackly, still has enough give that the roof of your mouth isn’t ripped apart. But it’s texture isn’t it’s most defining characteristic. That honor belongs to the garlic bread-esque seasoning Royal Grinders puts on the outside. Herby and buttery without being greasy, they’ve turned the bread into a flavor component rather than just a structural necessity. They’ve found the bread sweet spot, easy to eat while still being flavorful.

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The rest of the sandwich is, of course, incredible. As a whole, the amount of toppings is generous, yet each is applied with restraint. Royal Grinders knows their sandwich math. If you felt like leaving your sandwich fate completely in their hands, no one would blame you. Each one is crafted with the perfect amount of each topping, and in yet another sly addition of flavor, each includes a sort of pepperoncini and herb tapenade as an extra cherry on top. If you wanted to add ingredients to the already stellar options, the list of free extras is long and somehow includes whole basil leaves. I was, and still am, astounded that basil is a free addition to any sandwich, and will continue to add it until Royal Grinders comes to their senses and charges me for it.

If all of that weren’t enough, Royal Grinders somehow knows the quickest way to my heart: a housemade dipping sauce. I’ve explained in previous reviews that unique housemade sauces speak to the quality and effort of an establishment. It’s too easy to just buy a pretty good ranch and a pretty good marinara and call it a day. Royal Grinders goes a step further and mixes them together, in an invention they call yin sauce. Free on the side with any sandwich, forgetting to grab a cup of this won’t ruin your meal, but you’d miss out on switching back and forth between bites with yin sauce and bites without. I’m not sure which is my favorite.

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One of my favorite ways to spend my money is to give it to good people who are good at feeding me. Even though I’d buy these sandwiches from grumps who don’t care if I’m there or not, walking into Royal Grinders means walking into a place where the guys behind the counter actually care about you and the meal you’re about to have. They’ll take their time, walking you through the menu, sharing their favorites, helping you build the creation you’ve always dreamed of. We’re lucky they take sandwiches seriously here.

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Mountain Room Bar at Sea-Tac

When you’re sitting down at an airport bar, you’ve resigned yourself to accepting a few facts. One, you’re going to be in an airport for longer than most people would prefer. Two, you’re going to be paying a lot for the privilege of boarding an airplane with a stomach full of hot food and a buzz. And three, the bar you’re going to be sitting in will be crowded with people trying to drink away the lingering annoyance of dealing with the TSA. Luckily, if you’re in Sea-Tac airport, you only have to resign yourself to the length of time you’re spending between security and takeoff. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you, the Mountain Room Bar of Terminal A.

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Two moving sidewalks and seven minutes of walking takes you all the way down to the end of Terminal A, a place I’d never been until a four hour delay turned Sea-Tac into my sister’s and my playground. Once we found out about the delay, we knew we had two choices. We could wallow in sorrow, hoping we would eventually find our way onto a plane before we ran out of reading material, or we could catch a buzz and hit the ground running in San Francisco. If the Sleepless in Seattle nightgown in my closet is any indication, the latter seemed like a sweeter way to start our vacation.

We started walking, knowing we’d eventually find a bar where we could spend a few hours. We passed the busiest bars closest to security with a quickness. We had time to spare, but we weren’t going to spend it waiting for beers. We needed something further in the depths of the airport. We walked towards Terminal B, and came across the overtly racist Africa Lounge, which offers such African favorites as a Caesar salad or a BBQ bacon cheeseburger. A bit like Goldilocks, we kept on trucking, knowing in our party hearts that we could do better. We would find the platonic ideal.

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Finally, we reached the end of Terminal A and found our beacon. Next to Gate A18, the Mountain Room Bar. Neither outwardly racist nor even close to busy, we sat down at one of the many, many empty tables. On the beer menu, a sign of what was to come. With any beer, a shot was only $3. Vacation was beginning. Our Coronas and shots of tequila went down without much trouble, but soon we realized how necessary it would be to focus on longevity. This was a marathon, not a sprint. We needed food.

My sister and I are very different people, but there has always, always been one thing we’ve agreed on. The best bar foods are wings and nachos, no question. Our order was settled within seconds. The nachos, fully passable, were better than what I would expect from an airport, but the real star of that delay was the wings. Breaded and fried to a craggy, crunchy finish, they were easily the most intensely crispy wings I’ve ever bitten into. The breading held the rendered fat in the wing, making each bite juicy and crisp at the same time. Bigger wings always make me nervous, because the number of undercooked wings I’ve encountered in my life is far too high, but Mountain Room Bar seems to understand that there is really no way to overcook a chicken wing. In my two trips there, none of my wings were even close to undercooked.

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It feels a little bit silly to sing the praises of an airport bar, but being delayed in one of the most uncomfortable places on earth means you search for the small things that make you feel a little bit better. Sometimes it’s the outlet that’s the perfect charger cord distance to your seat, but other times it’s a few shots and wings with your sister while you wait for the debauchery to really begin. I haven’t fully scouted the first one, but I can guarantee you the Mountain Room Bar has the second one covered.

 

Homeskillet

tl;dr: the pulled pork tater tot hash is worth driving to Bellingham for. From wherever you’re starting. The biscuits and gravy is $7.50 and therefore a fine palate cleanser to order for the table.

The conversations we have surrounding food are based on the kinds of questions that are tough to answer. The kinds that are almost philosophical in nature. What’s your favorite food? Favorite restaurant? Favorite meal ever? If you could eat only one thing forever, what would it be? What’s your death row meal? Your desert island food? If you could eat a meal with five people, living or dead, who would you choose?

Most of the time, these questions are essentially impossible to answer. Even when you come up with an answer that feels right, you still don’t feel like you’re doing the question justice. There’s always that waffley thought in the back of your head, that wishy washy ehhhh but maybe I haven’t fully thought this through. Ever since eating at Homeskillet in Bellingham, I can confidently say that I know what my favorite meal ever is. The pulled pork tater tot hash cannot be beat.

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I’ve eaten a $120 6 ounce steak, more than once. I’ve been graced with the presence of the Salty’s buffet, and even eaten there for free. I once had a meal with two friends, four courses, cooked just for us by a chef on her night off. I’ve had duck confit in Paris, Thai from Lotus in Vegas, and Di Fara pizza in Brooklyn. I’m not saying all of this just to brag (though, damn, looking back on my food life ain’t too shabby), I’m giving my resume, to show that I know the gravity of what I’m claiming here.

There is nothing like this dish. You think, when you hear the phrase “pulled pork tater tot hash” that you have an idea of what you’re in for. You think that you can probably figure out how these ingredients work together enough to venture a guess as to how it’s going to taste. You can’t.

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The guy behind the grill at Homeskillet has invented something that every other pork dish, and every other tater tot dish, wishes it could be. The blackened pork, potato, and onion combines together to make something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts, it’s actually sort of unsettling. You take a bite, and then you sit back, wondering how the fuck you’re going to manage driving to Bellingham every weekend for brunch. You wonder, how the hell do you order anything else from this place? How is this not the most talked about dish on the face of the planet?

I don’t know. But I’m doing my part by telling all of you. Take a mini road trip. Drive up north. Go to Homeskillet, and get this breakfast. Then lament all the years you spent living without it.

Mel’s Market

I learned today that my favorite lunch place, Mel’s Market, is taking burgers and fries off of their menu. They’re expanding their salad counter, which makes sense, given that the line for salads is always ten people deep, while the lone burger guy yells to nobody in particular, “Burgers and fries! We got burgers and fries over here!” His charm is wasted on a lunch choice that fell out of favor after everyone learned that yes, you need to eat vegetables and no, you won’t live forever if you eat a burger everyday. After losing 85 pounds (and keeping 55 off for eight years), I’m almost always in the salad line too. I can’t fault them for their smart business decision, but damn, I’m going to miss those burgers. For more than just how they taste.

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A countdown, for those of us in mourning

In weight loss terminology, non-scale victories, or NSVs, are the most gratifying way to find out that you’re making progress. NSVs can be anything that is related to losing weight but isn’t the number on the scale going down. Looser jeans, a workout that finally feels easier, picking the healthier option for lunch, seeing a picture of yourself and thinking you look good. After the first few pounds come off, NSVs are what keep a person motivated to keep working. Seeing a number go down on a scale over and over loses its luster after a while, but NSVs are evidence that your life is changing right in front of your eyes, due to your own hard work. NSVs are what stick with you after the weight has come off, and NSVs are what help you maintain weight loss.

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My usual lunch from Mel’s: grilled chicken, blue cheese, dried cranberries, strawberries, and extra spiced pecans

The victory that sticks in my mind the most is when I realized that I was able to trust myself around food. Losing weight wasn’t terribly hard for me, but the first couple years of maintaining weight loss was very tough. The habits that helped me gain weight were well-suited to the obsessive lifestyle that calorie counting requires, but terrible for the maintenance that comes afterwards. It wasn’t until I read the book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, PhD (I could not recommend this book more enthusiastically) that I realized I had to completely relearn how to eat. If I wanted to remain the weight I was, I had learn how to eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and choose foods that made me feel good after I was done eating them. I had to learn how to make choices based on my intuition, rather than an impulse. Learning these skills took years, and I experienced setback after setback. Each NSV felt hard-won, like getting to the top of a hill in the middle of a marathon. Filled with relief, but realizing there is still some distance to cover.

The exact moment I realized I could trust myself around food felt like finally crossing the finish line. I was starving, so I picked up a breakfast sandwich on my way to work. Upon unwrapping it, I found that it was too big to eat in one sitting, so I re-wrapped half of it for the next day. I didn’t have to barter with myself in order to do this, I didn’t think about the other half for hours until I just gave up and ate it, I just put it in the fridge without a second thought. I didn’t even realize what I’d accomplished until a couple hours later. Honestly, I went into the bathroom and did a little fist pump for myself. I finally felt reassured that I was actually going to maintain my weight loss. This victory meant that I’d actually learned how to trust myself around food without even thinking about it. I had autonomy over my choices. I could trust myself to choose the salad counter instead of the burger counter.

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The bacon cheeseburger and fries that will be leaving us soon

So when I found out that Mel’s was getting rid of their burgers, at first I was sad because their burgers are fantastic. Housemade sauces, ample vegetable application, melted cheese, and solid bacon, there’s a lot to love. This sadness gave way to the realization that their burger section is often pretty slow, so it was likely a good decision for the owners to make. But that realization was tempered with selfishness. I’m going to miss the tiny bit of triumph I feel every time I choose a salad. I’m going to miss the opportunity to exercise self-control each time I walk through those doors, because now that it’s easy, it’s a little bit fun. I’m going to miss being reminded that I’m actually pretty good at this eating thing now. And oddly, I’m going to miss all of those things more than the burgers themselves, which might just be the greatest NSV of all.

An imperceptible passion

The other day, a prominent member of the food community, whose work I respect immensely, asked his Twitter followers if they would rather eat bad nachos or a bad hot dog. This sort of question is one of my favorite parts of talking about food. Who chooses the hot dog? Who chooses nachos? What is the reasoning behind their choice? And the root question I love to ponder: why is there such a wide range of choices and reasons? I love talking about food preferences, especially junk food preferences. I knew exactly what my answer was. I think about this stuff a lot.

Nachos are my jam. One of my favorite foods, probably. I like all versions of nachos, from decked out fancy ones to clear plastic ballpark trays full of semi-stale tortilla rounds and a compartment for nacho cheese. Hot dogs, I’m pretty lukewarm on. If I find a hot dog cart when I’m drunk, I’m down to eat one, but I’m never going to search one out. I’ve never craved a hot dog, but I’ve certainly craved nachos. I answered the poll, and I also tweeted, “though I will say I would also rather eat bad nachos than a good hot dog”.

He replied with “you haven’t had a good hot dog.”

This interaction left me feeling a little surprised and disappointed. It felt unnecessarily assumptive, like I was being weeded out of the very exclusive group of People Who Know What Tastes Good. There is no conceivable way to enjoy bad nachos more than a good hot dog. The hot dog was the correct answer and I was wrong.

The problem with that is that food preferences are never wrong. This interaction really cemented this idea for me. Preferences are not like knife skills or picking good produce. You learn preferences, but there is no correct set of preferences. There is no one way to appreciate food. Some people are more adventurous than others, some people believe they have a more refined palate than most. Regardless, the tastebuds of people with less refined palates and a love of simple foods are no less important. Loving shitty nachos doesn’t disqualify you from some Elite Food Smarty status. People know what tastes good to them, and respecting that is an important and exciting part of learning about food.

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There are probably a couple people reading this essay right now thinking, “But what about the strips, Erika? You’ve talked shit about people choosing chicken strips over fried chicken. I can find the posts, there are a lot of them.” To this I say, yeah, I was wrong. And I’ll assuredly be wrong again. Such is the curse of words existing forever on the internet. When I received that tweet, I realized how people who aren’t very interested in food must feel when they’re told their preferences are wrong, silly, immature, or fussy by someone who knows more about the subject. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and it made me want to discontinue the conversation altogether. I realized this was the exact opposite of how I wanted my readers and commenters to feel. I want conversations about food to be accessible to everyone. As a veritable spokesperson for food, especially food on the simpler end of the spectrum, I shouldn’t have told someone their preference was incorrect, no matter how delicious chicken skin is.

Though I now disagree with the way I approached it, I learned a lot about what people value in food from talking about strips versus skin. Someone who values chicken strips for their convenience and ease of eating will have different opinions about restaurants and meals than someone who loves messy, inconvenient, bone-in chicken because they get to have some chicken skin. Neither opinion is invalid or wrong, but each one gives insight into different overarching themes people look for in a food experience. Though I wax poetic about my specific food preferences, they are not gospel. When I say I have found one of the best cheeseburgers in Seattle, this does not apply to everyone. I have found one of my favorite cheeseburgers in Seattle, and at the very least, I think you will enjoy it too.

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A while back, I posted an essay about that cheeseburger. In that essay, I described the litany of reasons why I prefer shredded iceberg lettuce on my burgers. A friend commented on my Facebook politely disagreeing with me, which led to one of my favorite food conversations ever. We went back and forth for a bit about her reasoning before she said “…I think I just don’t like shredded lettuce. I am having more feelings than I anticipated.” She didn’t even anticipate her feelings about shredded lettuce, but they were at least as numerous and passionate as mine. Her own thoughts and feelings toward a pile of unremarkable roughage surprised her, and that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

This is what makes the world of food so interesting to me. People have latent food thoughts and feelings that guide their decisions everyday. Our brains are quietly, almost involuntarily passionate about the subject, and I think there is nothing more fascinating. We’re all born with the same set up. We all have a tongue, covered in tastebuds. We all have to eat to live, but the spectrum of choices we’re able to make in a day is staggering. It is incredible to me that one person enjoys their coffee black while another loves five Splendas and a quarter cup of soy in theirs. I find it interesting that there’s one guy in my office who eats burgers for lunch, while another guy makes himself a fruit platter. I am intrigued by the idea that so many pizza toppings exist and everyone’s favorite is different. I love that every single person making every single food choice has a reason behind that choice, every single time.

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Even the staunchest anti-food person has well-thought out reasoning behind their preferences. A lack of preference is still a preference. Their thoughts about food, like everyone else’s, are informed by a lifetime of emotions, tastes, and memories. Some people look at their relationship with food as a journey, others have never needed to tend to their feelings about eating. Some people can’t afford more than three bowls of Top Ramen per day, others eat Wagyu steak for lunch. Some (like me!) care more about food than any other part of their day, others wish they didn’t have to bother with it at all. No matter your feelings toward food, they’re easily the most compelling part of what you’re eating. There is no subject more vastly relatable, no category further reaching. Everyone has a history, a set of beliefs, some dealbreakers, even if they’ve never given it a second thought. Isn’t that fucking cool?

Dick’s Drive In

Dick’s is where I formed the pillars of my passion for restaurants. It’s where I realized that cheap and consistent are my two favorite adjectives, it’s where I came to appreciate the “we have enough customers, so fuck you kinda” business model, it’s where I developed my love of the squishiest fries. I learned how to love restaurants at Dick’s, because they take food and service seriously.

In my 29 years of eating at Dick’s, I can’t think of a single bad experience. That fact alone deserves an award. Their consistency of food and service is impressive in a way that almost seems impossible. I’ve gone to Dick’s at all hours of the day and night, I’ve eaten everything on their menu (besides the five cent onion cup), and I’ve been to all six locations. I’ve interacted with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of Dick’s employees over nearly three decades, eaten hundreds (maybe thousands?) of burgers, shakes, and fries, and have never, not even once, been disappointed (except for lack of cheese, but we’ll get to that in a bit). I can’t imagine there is another restaurant can make this claim. One person experiencing thirty years of good service seems like proof that Dick’s is top tier.
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Dick’s customer service is essentially firm, but fair. They’re there to churn out consistently delicious food quickly, without incident. This is not to say that Dick’s service is rude, but you always get the sense that the cashier is the one in charge of the transaction. They’re the one steering this ship, you’re just lucky to be on it. Considering their clientele of aimless high school students and drunk idiots, this is the way you want it to be. There’s no need for extra niceties or small talk when a cheeseburger that good is waiting on the other side of that window.

The consistency of service at Dick’s is a shining example of what you get when you treat your employees like they’re human. One of the reasons I’ve been a patron at Dick’s for so long is because I know that they treat their employees well. I have three good friends who have worked at Dick’s at various points in the past, and all three look back at their time there with nostalgia and appreciation. Dick’s pays their employees well, offers scholarships for tuition, pays for childcare, offers excellent benefits, and teaches their employees the reward of an honest day’s work. Unlike any other fast food place, I’m happy to give my money to Dick’s, because I know it’s going to good people who take care of their employees and in turn, their customers.

So before we move on to talk about the food, let’s get one thing straight. Ordering a burger that doesn’t have cheese on it from Dick’s is a mortal sin. Most of the time, I have a pretty solid “live and let live” approach to food. You want to eat something terrible? Most of the time, you won’t hear a peep out of me. But a Dick’s burger without cheese? Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. This is not debatable. Any burger from Dick’s that doesn’t have cheese also doesn’t have cheese paper, which is easily the best part.

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Cheese paper is a well-known Dick’s phenomenon that is the result of the restaurant using rectangular (that is, non-square) American cheese. Some of the cheese almost always hangs off the edge of the patty, melts in the steam of the wrapper, and attaches to the paper. Wiping this cheese off the paper with your finger and sticking it straight in your mouth is the Dick’s version of an amuse bouche. Getting a burger without cheese paper is denying yourself the full two course Dick’s experience.

When you get a burger at Dick’s, you get the burger they want you to have. As a policy, they do not allow any special orders. I’ve heard that this is so the Dick’s team can always work at maximum efficiency, but I like to believe it’s because you cannot improve upon a Dick’s burger. No matter if you order the cheeseburger or the Deluxe, the ratio of bun to beef to cheese to condiments is sublime. The ingredients are solidly high quality, well seasoned, and almost always pretty close to fresh off the grill.

On the cheeseburger, you’re getting the most pared down example of a good burger possible. Bun, beef, cheese, ketchup, mustard. I’m normally not a ketchup and mustard girl when it comes to burgers. I think the intense flavors of ketchup and mustard normally distract from the rest of the components. But somehow, Dick’s has found the exact ratio of ketchup to mustard that works. The ketchup tames the mustard, and the mustard amplifies the ketchup. Mixed together, they work with the beef, cheese, and bun to create one of those foods that is good simply because the ingredients are good. Nowhere else can you find a burger with this few ingredients that is this satisfying.

If you’re in the mood for more food (and I often am), a Dick’s Deluxe is where you want to land. There is no other restaurant where I willingly order a two patty burger, but the Deluxe is, again, perfect in its ratios. The greasiness of the slightly larger amount of beef is perfectly foiled by the mix of tartar and iceberg lettuce. The cheese to everything else ratio is somehow high enough, which is often my biggest complaint with a two patty burger. The bun is always toasted, and the cheesepaper is often accompanied by tartar/lettuce paper, which is also welcome as an appetizer. The Deluxe, to me, tastes like childhood, and I feel lucky that I got to grow up on such a delicious example of what junk food should be.
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Of course, the fries and shakes are nothing to sneeze at either. The fries are somewhat controversial due to their squishiness, but that’s exactly what I love about them. Any fry that can’t be held straight horizontally is the fry for me. The shakes? The chocolate is the absolute gold standard to which I hold all other shakes. It’s chocolatey enough that there’s no mistaking what flavor shake this is, but it’s not so rich that you have to take breaks. It’s a solid chocolate fix, but if you want a mountain of chocolate, look no further than the hot fudge sundae.

The hot fudge is ridiculously plentiful, and comes on top of any ice cream flavor you want. My personal favorite is the peppermint, but I’ve had great success with every flavor on the menu. Every single bite of the sundae is absolutely covered in hot fudge. This is not a sundae made by some stingy corporate fast food joint. This is a sundae made by an employee empowered to absolutely drench your tastebuds in fudge. This is a sundae made for the people, by the people. Just like everything else at Dick’s.

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