Super Sandwiches from WiseGuy Italian Street Food


It’s been several years that I’ve passed by the stand that sells Italian sandwiches at the Issaquah Farmers Market. I’ve tried most of the other food vendors’ fare, and none of them has left a lasting impression. That was about to change. WiseGuy Italian Street Food serves two hot hero sandwiches: sausage and pepper and Italian meatball. There are big pans of each filling cooking over stoves that attract passersby. Though WiseGuy at the market operates under a canopy, it normally is a food truck operation that roams the east side of Lake Washington.

Sausage and pepper filling

Sausage and pepper filling

Meatballs

Meatballs

How better to sandwich both fillings than using Le Panier‘s baguette, a wonderfully light bread with a thin, crackly crust. It could almost be suitable for banh mi. (Le Panier’s pastries and sandwiches, served at Pike Place Market, are fantastic in their own right.) Each sandwich uses one-third of a loaf.

The foundations of the best Italian meatball sandwiches are flavorful, succulent meatballs, a great marinara and the right bread, neither too soft nor thickly crusty. WiseGuy delivers on all counts. The bread is sliced in half horizontally like a book, packed with humongous meatballs and sauced. The marinara is terrific with no dominating herbal notes. Instead of using mozzarella, grated provolone is sprinkled along the cut length. Not a bad thing, just different. The only problem, if I can call it that, is the colossal size of the meatballs which are difficult to sink your teeth into; the sauce acts like lubricant that slides the meat down the bread. Only taking a bigger than normal bite or attacking the sandwich from above makes any progress. Unhinging your jaws works, too. Apart from that, what a great sandwich, as good as we’ve had in a long time. (☆☆☆☆)

Meatball sandwich with marinara

Meatball sandwich with marinara

The most popular sandwich seems to be the sausage and pepper hero. The way the sandwich is constructed is interesting. A plastic rod nearly as wide in diameter as the bread is pushed into the cut end but not all the way through, forming a deep pocket into which is stuffed the filling. The technique may seem gimmicky but it is quick and an inspired way to keep the stuffing contained. The sausage flavor is excellent, the red bells perfectly cooked and the filling spicy from dried red pepper flakes. The sandwich is the ideal combination of bread and savory, zesty and spicy Italian flavors. (☆☆☆☆)

Sausage and pepper hero

Sausage and pepper hero

We enjoyed these last week, enough so that we made it a point to go back to the market today and try some variations.

An alternative to the sausage hero is a combination of sausages and meatball. The same hollowed-out baguette is mostly filled with the sausages and peppers. The last couple of inches is plugged with a single giant meatball. I’ll call it The Corker because it doesn’t appear on WiseGuy’s menu. Many customers order it this way. Whether in the future I have The Corker or not will depend on my mood that day. (☆☆☆☆)

To address the slipping meatball problem, my wife got the option wherein—you guessed it—the meatballs are instead stuffed into an excavated loaf. So as not to skimp on the sauce, the server drizzles a spoonful of marinara in between each ball. Sure enough, no more slippage. But even so, part of the ecstatic pleasure of eating a meatball sandwich is the marinara itself, lots of it, which clearly a stuffed sandwich severely restricts. You trade convenience for sloppiness. In yet a third variation, you can get the traditional sliced bread with meatballs cut in half.

WiseGuy Italian Street Food
Issaquah Farmers Market and food truck

Liberty Bell Mountain, North Cascades Highway


The North Cascades Highway has many jaw-dropping spectacles, but none more dramatic than the glacier-carved Liberty Bell pinnacle that anchors the hairpin turn on Washington SR 20. This photo was taken from the Washington Pass Overlook.

The Hiking Trails and Wildflowers Around Sun Mountain Lodge (Winthrop, WA)


The first time my wife and I stayed at Sun Mountain Lodge over a decade ago, there were abundant wildflowers on the trails nearby. In spots, they were so profuse that the ground was covered with them. It was an experience that stayed in my memory, one only matched by the wildflower displays on the Big Quilcene trail in Olympic National Forest and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over a month ago, I planned our current arrival for an estimated peak flower display in mid-May, a few weeks earlier than normal because of this winter’s low snowpack and unseasonably warm weather recently. When we arrived on Monday afternoon, I was a little let down when the receptionist informed me that the flowers had blossomed earlier and the best show was behind us. Not to worry though because there was still plenty to see.

The lodge maintains an extensive network of trails, approximately 40 miles in total, with the help of the Forest Service and other organizations. A free handout of the trail system is available at the front desk, the Activities Center and here. If you plan on taking any of these, the Activities Center is a good source of information, where the staff will tell you where the best wildflower viewing is on any given day.

The Kraule Trail is splendid for breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys that conjure up European alpine scenery.

alpine scenery

Because of the relative shade along this trail, I was informed that there would be a better chance to see flowers that haven’t yet begun to disappear, unlike Sunnyside Trail that is mostly exposed to full sun.  The yellow, showy arrowleaf balsamroots were already dying down almost everywhere, but there were plenty of lupines to admire. Aside from these two which comprise the most prolific flowers, there were many less conspicuous, more sparsely scattered ones that revealed themselves if you looked closely.

We took Sunnyside early next morning to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Almost right away, a vast field of meadow death camas greeted us alongside a stand of birch trees.

Meadow death camas

Meadow death camas

Sunnyside and the parallel View Ridge Trail afford the best view of Patterson Lake. The trail continues for a distance with very few stands of trees, although as we got closer to the Hough Homestead (where outdoor breakfasts or dinners are held during horseback tours), the tree cover population thickened and along with it, scores of dive-bombing mosquitoes. These pests are commonplace in the forested areas here, so repellent or tenacity is advisable. Repellent can be purchased at the Activities Center.

Patterson Lake

Patterson Lake

After reaching the Homestead, we turned around and took Yellow Jacket Trail back to the lodge. Without question, this was our favorite; it had more profuse wildflowers than any other trail. Not only were the balsamroots and lupines abundant, not to mention Indian paintbrushes, but we came across small gems like the rare and tiny calypso orchid, no more than 2-3″ tall, and old man’s whiskers, which look like tiny upside-down tulips.

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Yellow Jacket connects to Rodeo Trail that skirts the edge of Beaver Pond.

Beaver Pond

Beaver Pond

We’ve never taken any of the more challenging trails, but doubtless that the ones at higher elevation, such as Thompson Ridge Road that rises to 3,600ft, would have their own treasures.

The following is a gallery of some of the flowers we saw on all the trails combined.

Ponderosa Pine, Sun Mountain Lodge (Winthrop, WA)


With their reddish and crackled bark, ponderosa pines are easy to identify in Eastern Washington. There are many along the hiking trails around Sun Mountain Lodge, up in the mountains above Winthrop. Normally growing straight and tall, this one, on what I believe is called One Tree Hill, has been subjected to the punishing forces of nature but is all the more remarkable for it.

More Disappointment at Wolf Creek Bar & Grill (Winthrop, WA)


For all the other niceties that surround Sun Mountain Lodge—spectacular views of the North Cascades and alpine meadows, beautiful building and grounds, spacious and nicely appointed rooms, all the spa services you’d ever need, a fine network of hiking trails, world-class dining room—its Wolf Creek Bar & Grill continues to amaze me at how inferior the food is. (A previous review is here.) It shares the same kitchen as the dining room where we’ve had memorable meals before. Unfortunately, the dining room is open for service only on Fridays and Saturdays during the off-season, which meant we either had to drive back into town (about a half hour’s drive) or eat at the bar & grill. Expediency won out.

Let’s start with Wolf Creek Salad. The menu description sounded enticing enough: mixed greens, roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, red peppers, winter squash, caramelized onion, candied pecans, feta cheese, cranberry vinaigrette. Of these, the roasted butternut squash didn’t work. It was too soft and mushy. The other ingredients were fine, but that was before dressing it with balsamic vinaigrette, which we opted for instead of cranberry. We asked that it be served on the side. The vinaigrette was so emulsified that it was as thick as mayonnaise, which meant that it was impossible to dress the salad lightly. It became an aesthetic nightmare weighed down by globs of dressing. (☆☆)

Wolf Creek Salad

Wolf Creek Salad (before dressing)

Wild Boar Sausage Pizza sounded interesting. Again, the menu description raised our hopes: Roma tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, red and green bells,  red onions, Mozzarella, “crust rubbed with olive oil, black pepper, salt, garlic.” First, the toppings were applied too thickly. When will we get away from the idea that more is better? Almost every bite sent something falling off the crust. There might’ve been some salvation if the flavors coalesced but when you put lots of raw vegetables on a pizza crust, all that happens is that they soften, get watery and taste like—raw vegetables. To add insult to injury, the crust had the consistency of freezer pizza, with none of the crackery surface and incomparable inner chew of the best examples. (☆☆)

Wild Boar Sausage Pizza

Wild Boar Sausage Pizza

We will likely have dinner at the bar & grill again on our last night, only because we don’t want to make the drive to Winthrop. At least, the beers on tap are good and the cocktail menu seems interesting and original. We could just have pretzels.

Wolf Creek Bar & Grill
Sun Mountain Lodge
604 Patterson Lake Rd
Winthrop, WA 98862

Monitor Hot Rod Café (Wenatchee, WA)


I groan on those rare occasions when my GPS fails me. Give it an address in a small town or country road, and the probability is greater than zero that the unit will not be able to find it. We tried to find Anjou Bakery in Cashmere to have lunch and to eat its legendary marionberry pie, but no dice. As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway because the bakery is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Poor planning on my part.

What to do but find the nearest diner. We saw Monitor Hot Rod Cafe across the highway. Why not? Besides, we wanted to get back on the road ASAP to Winthrop, another two hours away.

The restaurant gets points for its Route 66 ambience. Hot rod parked on the roof. Old style Texaco gas pump inside. Vintage Washington product posters lined just below the ceiling. Black-and-white “tile” linoleum on the floor.

On the surface, the menu looks no different than another roadside diner’s: burgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, fries, onion rings, fish and chips. But, look closer, and you’ll notice some modern-day tweaks, like veggie burger (called the Prius), burgers adorned with up-to-date ingredients, salad bar, garlic fries.

I admit to being a dyed-in-the-wool chilehead, which is the reason I decided to try a burger called The Burn Out. Spiciness comes from chipotle mayo and fresh halves of raw jalapeño peppers. The patty itself may have been cooked a bit too well, but the freshness of the lettuce, tomato and onion, and the tender wheat (yup, wheat, not white—either is an option) bun, with the bite from the chiles and savor from the mayo and pepper jack, was more than enough to make for an enjoyable (if much too tall) sandwich. (☆☆☆)

The Burn Out burger

The Burn Out burger

Even if the fish pieces were previously frozen, they were tender enough in my wife’s cod fish and chips, and there were a generous five pieces of them. At first, we thought the batter was extra thick, but it was quite thin and amazingly smooth. It was also too oily, or rather had a glistening sheen. (☆☆½)

The fries that accompanied them were surprising. Hand-cut, they had a nice chew with no mealiness. More than that, they were coated with something prior to frying that gave them good texture and flavor. (☆☆☆½)

Cod Fish & Chips

Cod Fish & Chips

There seems to be extra effort by the management to provide more than the usual grub that one gets at a roadside diner. Kudos to them for the effort, for the fun (and very clean) atmosphere, for the warm and friendly service. And, they serve Umpqua ice cream.

Monitor Hot Rod Cafe
2960 Easy St
Wenatchee, WA 98801
509.470.8345

‘Dim Sum’-ing at Tray Kitchen


A unique aspect of eating at dim sum restaurants is the constant flow of carts that roll past your table, filled with a variety from which you can choose. This type of dining qualifies as culinary instant gratification; right away you can eat what sounds or looks good to you. Chef Heong Soon Park embraces this concept at Tray Kitchen where servers bring trays to your table rather than carts (a not uncommon dim sum method of service). Instead of Chinese dim sum, the small plates are filled with eclectic nibbles, most with Asian influences, some Korean, all seasonally prepared. In dim sum fashion, when you pick something, the server will put a mark on the paper menu in one of six boxes that represent prices (tonight: $3, $5, $6, $7, $9 and $10). And, as also happens at dim sum restaurants, the frequency varies throughout the meal, depending on how quickly the kitchen, which is open-air and visible from any table, can put out the dishes. There is also the impression of a slow-down as the meal progresses, because I got the feeling that servers keep a mental note of what’s already been shown at your table and won’t bring them again.

The paper menu that keeps track of your orders likewise lists the a la carte items, which are more main-course-ish (and more expensive) though in a few cases the distinction wasn’t clear. Four of us had dinner here on a Saturday night for a special occasion. The restaurant is located in the part of town increasingly referred to as Frelard (or Balmont), the area that straddles both Ballard and Fremont in Seattle. The interior is minimalist, modern, vaguely Asian and surrounded on six sides by hard surfaces, responsible for the extreme noise level that can build with a full house. More than once, both we and servers had difficulty hearing each other. It was bad enough that a conversation could barely be carried on at your own table. Really, do we need this?

From the menu, we selected two entrées. K.F.C. (aka Korean fried chicken) comes in two portion sizes, 3 or 6 wings. Each is an entire wing. These weren’t puny ones either, but big and meaty. The potato starch batter was extraordinarily crispy, burnished to a golden brown from double-frying and nicely seasoned. But, they were thickly covered in a sweet and spicy sauce, which needed scaling back for a less messy eating experience. (☆☆☆)

K.F.C. (Korean Fried Chicken)

K.F.C. (Korean Fried Chicken)

Also from the menu was the poached halibut entrée. Extremely moist and flaky, the fillet appeared to have a partial swathe of skin still attached. A closer look made me think instead of lots of very finely ground black pepper. It was actually minutely flaked nori that complemented the fish’s subtle flavor. Seaweed (kombu) lent flavors of the sea and shimeji (cooked) and enoki (raw) mushrooms, flavors of the earth. Add to this sweet rice crackers for crunch and tiny purple blossoms for striking color. Tying it all together was a rich dashi, resulting in one of tonight’s outstanding dishes. (☆☆☆☆)

Poached Halibut

Poached Halibut

The first tray dish was a steak tartare complemented by flavors of sesame oil, sesame seeds and a touch of honey and mixed with bits of minced jalapeño chiles and nashi (Asian pear). The mince is supposed to be scooped up by housemade lavash crackers. But the crackers were too thin, the meat easily breaking them apart. The flavors were fine but the kitchen should have used more care to remove occasional pieces of muscle sheath. (☆☆½)

Steak Tartare

Steak Tartare

Next was roasted cauliflower paired with ‘drunken’ raisins (cooked in wine) and toasted hazelnuts. Of all cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower reigns supreme when roasted. It develops a wonderful nuttiness. Charring brings out even more sweetness and pairing them with perfectly toasted hazelnuts and macerated raisins is divine inspiration. The contrasting flavors and textures were remarkable, my other choice for the best dish of the night. (☆☆☆☆)

Roasted Cauliflower with Oregon Hazelnuts

Roasted Cauliflower with Oregon Hazelnuts

The concept of an Asian Caesar salad seemed promising. Instead of romaine, use crunchy shaved Brussels sprouts, togarashi for ground black pepper and Chinese doughnuts for croutons. Good but a bit weak on the wow factor, an example of leaving well enough alone. (☆☆½)

Shaved brussel sprouts

Shaved brussel sprouts

Octopus can be tricky suckers to prevent from overcooking. Grilled octopus in a salad is something I’ve never come across. Combined with nicely cooked white beans (cannellini?) and greens, the salad conjured up thoughts of Spain or the Mediterranean. A grilled lemon quarter could be squeezed over the salad, for some diners necessary to subdue octopus’ strong taste. (☆☆☆)

Octopus

Octopus

More Korean in substance were rice cakes tossed in kojuchang sauce, suggestive of a cold, more humble version of eundaegu jorim, though baby octopus takes the place of black cod. Baby bok choy provided nice crunch. (☆☆☆)

Baby octopus

Rice cakes with baby bok choy and baby octopus

As inventive and well executed as the menu and tray items are, I agree with a few reviewers who’ve commented that taken as a whole, the dishes lack harmony—some are strongly assertive, others are subdued, some are forthrightly Asian, others are not. There is no unifying style or vision that ties everything together. That doesn’t mean that the dining experience wasn’t fun and didn’t keep us all guessing what surprises the next tray was going to bring. We enjoyed ourselves. But, damn that noise!

Tray Kitchen
4012 Leary way NW
Seattle WA 98107
206.557.7059