This story opens The Stranger’s 2017 Guide to Food and Drink (International Edition), which includes recommendations of more than 100 restaurants serving tastes from around the globe.
I'm waiting in Amin International Grocery and Deli for my order of a gyro salad with spaghetti. Somali men are watching CNN on a flat-screen TV that hangs high on the wall next to a poster of Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. The big story of the day is that US attorney general Jeff Sessions lied under oath about never having met with Russians during the presidential race. The attention of all the men in the deli is commanded by the screen. Everything said by the commentators, reporters, and anchorpersons is of great moment to them. And with good reason. Donald Trump, the American president who picked the attorney general, recently issued an executive order that blocked Somalis from entering the United States. He placed their native land on a list of seven "terrorist-prone" countries. Though a judge in Seattle halted this executive order, it still means that documents issued by US immigration cannot be trusted if one is from a Muslim-majority country. A visa is no longer as good as gold*. The caprices of a mean-spirited president have become a cloud at the border. Will you get in or not? During the entire time my order was prepared (10 minutes), the men in Amin do not speak a word.
Amin International Grocery and Deli is located across the street from the Othello Light Rail Station in Rainier Valley, in a small strip mall called King Square. From the Amin window, one can see the trains come and go, and women in hijabs walking from the station toward the laundromat or the section of Amin that offers money-transfer services. When my order is ready, the man who rings me up does not notice me at all. His mind is on CNN, on Sessions's troubles, and on what these troubles might mean for the future of Muslims in this country. When he hands me the receipt, I break the CNN spell by saying, "You guys are really into the news?" And he responds in agreement: "Yeah, things are crazy right now."
At that moment, I recalled something that director Alex Rivera pointed out when he explained the thinking behind his 2008 science-fiction masterpiece Sleep Dealer. Migrants almost never travel as a complete family. It's always a father with one or two of his children, a mother with one or two of her children, or just the parent, or just the children. A part of the family is always left back home, and this is why immigrants keep sending money back to their countries, and why they are quick to adopt new financial and communication technologies. Migrants are, almost always, not only trying to build a new life, but also trying to rebuild the family they lost. So when the American president bans your countrymen and religion from the United States, rebuilding the family becomes very difficult, if not impossible.
The gyro salad with spaghetti is out of this world. Who came up with the idea of putting these two things together? It works like this: roasted halal lamb/beef slices on top of spaghetti, which is on top of a simple bed of lettuce. With the gyro meat tasting exactly like gyro meat, and the spaghetti exactly like spaghetti, one would expect a collision of flavors. Somehow this is not the case. It does not come together, it is not harmonious, it is not a match made in heaven—but nevertheless, it tastes great. I have ordered this dish several times with the hope of solving the mystery: Why does it work? And I wondered what kind of mind, culturally speaking, was needed for the lines of these two distinct dishes to intersect and, after that moment of illumination, to start this new line that has entered a kitchen near Othello Station. But isn't this how all international dishes work? Lines of imitation crossing and triggering new directions in flavor.
Now, if you drop into Le's Deli & Bakery—a Vietnamese place on the ground floor of the Station at Othello Park apartments—you can purchase one of the best breakfast sandwiches ever imagined. This innovation brings French baking, Vietnamese layering and ingredients, and American favorites (ham and eggs) into one situation. It's called a "Cha & Trung/Ham & Egg Sandwich," and it costs only $4.95. The bread is lightly toasted, and as you eat it, crumbs fall all over you like bits of cookie from the mad mouth of the Cookie Monster. It's a happy mess. The other dishes in the place are fine, but if you want a better beef stew, you only have to stroll over to Huong Duong (Sunflower), which is situated in the same strip as Amin. The beef stew there is better than what's offered at Le's Deli; Huong Duong's is a little thicker and sweeter. Both are not bad, it's much more a matter of taste. The beef stew at Saigon Deli in Little Saigon, for example, is just too sweet and thick for my taste, the chunks of carrot too big. Huong Duong's carrots are just the right size, the beef is boiled to ideal tenderness, and not all the wateriness is surrendered to the soupiness.
Othello Station is also near a really great Thai/Lao restaurant modestly called Amazing Thai Lao Cuisine, and a pretty decent Mexican joint, Huarachitos Cocina Mexicana. And there is so much more. Othello Station reminds me of Spinoza's face of God. (Spinoza is the greatest European philosopher, who lived and died a long time ago.) This face has the whole universe on it, and this is what a great city is all about: the face of humanity. The more details on this face (halal and Vietnamese delis, Argentinian steak houses, dim sum places, taco joints, sushi bars, and so on), and the more cosmopolitan and expansive that it has become, the more the city resembles the face of this, our only world.
* Trump has since issued a revised travel ban that does not apply to individuals from the Muslim-majority nations who already have valid visas, although it does ban the issuance of new visas for citizens of these nations for 90 days.