Skillet Diner, Seattle, WA

Throughout the meal, a single thought was running rampant through my head. Damn. We’re in public now, but when I take you back to my hotel, I am going to eat you like I’ve never eaten before. And in complete truth, I wish that I could have publicly done what I did later that night, bathed in the glow of Seattle dusk, paradise by the bathroom light. I didn’t just eat.

I fed.

And it was the best damned fried chicken I’ve ever had.

That’s the angle of Skillet Street Food, a company I’ve had a constant cross-continental flirtation with ever since the introduction of their famed bacon jam, my go-to pork condiment. When I heard that they’d traded in the Airstream for a physical location in Seattle, I knew I had to eat there at least once. What I didn’t expect is that in 40 hours, I’d go there twice and spend the other 35 hours thinking about it.
On my first visit to Skillet, with co-panelists April and Lil, I had pored over the menu ahead of time, no idea what to get or where to even start. I was overwhelmed by the bustle, the frantic dance of the plaid-draped servers, and the enticing scents coming from the open kitchen. Whoever is making their playlist is a genius with songs- Outkast, Rick Astley, and Bob Seger made good company with the cuisine. As soon as we sat down, though, one thing was definitely fixed in my mind: any place that has an agua fresca of the day is worth forgoing Walla Walla Riesling for. My hunch paid off with an enormous Mason jar full of the daily libation: jalapeno, agave, cucumber, and coriander provided a cool, even drink to quench my thirst with.

Both Lil and April had vocalized their dietary restrictions ahead of time, and looked like they were very pleased with the service and quality of their plates. Lil ordered a salmon salad, and April, the pork shoulder and corn succotash with a grapefruit and mint salad.
Both looked awesome. April also ordered a cocktail- at this point, I’d been satisfied with the portion sizes of both the food and drinks, but I’d advise going virgin if you check out the restaurant. Unless the size of the glasses provided a strange optical illusion, they looked frugally small, no larger than four ounces for all alcohols, beer included.

For my main course, one item stuck out like a blinking, neon sign. Fried chicken with clover and black pepper honey, mustard root veggie and potato salad, and a cornmeal waffle. Do want. One order included three huge, tender pieces with a sweet and substantial crust. I was pleased to see that they were all white meat portions held together with the smallest bones. Skillet Diner sources chickens that could be easily employed at Hooter’s from the looks of it. The waffle was dense and enormous, with a thickness and texture that held up to the deluge of toppings I crammed on top, and absorbed the tangy mustard dressing atop the potatoes for a wonderful contrast.

I asked for a side portion of stinging nettle chimichurri, a condiment I saw on another dish but couldn’t resist trying. It had a sweet, almost pear-like flavor and subtle spiciness.

I had such a wonderful time that almost immediately after I finished my leftovers post-conference on Friday, I decided to go back for a solo dinner. It was so crowded that I had to sit at the bar, but the slight inconvenience was made up for with the sweetest, kindest bartender I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Each order and delivery was punctuated with a “my darling” or “my dear,” a small bit of comfort in a strange city. I started with another agua fresca, this time featuring mint, jalapeno, and apple. There was a more aggressive tingle in this one than the night before, but the apple didn’t add as much flavor as the cucumber had.

I was feeling more like a sandwich that night, so despite the allure of the Friday night cornbread and short rib special, a lamby joe was on my mind. Indian spiced lamb, fried onions, and garam masala aioli on a soft, squishy bun. It came with luscious poutine, too. The sandwich was ephemeral, with a lightness that defied the homey messiness of its composition. The meat was such a finely ground blend that it was impossible to distinguish from the sauce, and had a spicy, sweet, ultimately comforting flavor, bolstered by the creamy aioli on top.
The poutine was righteous. Atypical from its Canadian counterpart, but delicious in its own fashion, it came in an enormous portion covered in Beecher’s cheddar, homemade duck gravy, and green onions. A cross between cheese fries and traditional poutine, the crispy fries soaked up the condiments but were easy and flavorful enough to eat by the forkful. With bites of the meat crumbles from the sandwich, it was the perfect meatcheesefriedbunsauce combination that I adore. A delicious mess.

I was stuffed and knew I’d be taking home leftovers, but I still wanted some sort of dessert. It was a battle between good and evil- good being the blueberry bread pudding with almond milk creme anglaise, oatmeal almond crunch, and homemade Cool Whip, and evil being the Elvis cake- banana peanut butter cake with peanut butter bacon sauce and candied bacon on top. The bartender recommended the blueberry, so I went with that. Not to say that there weren’t other desserts I would have loved to try. One could eat an entire meal of desserts here, from the homemade pie to the thick milkshakes to the fried waffle bacon caramel sundae.

But hot damn, this was the right decision. I wrecked this. I just killed it. It was the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, so smooth and custardy that a fork seemed superfluous. Unlike regular bread pudding, it didn’t segment in chunks and was served in thick slices with an airy, macaroon crust, bracketed with homemade almond granola and fresh, warm blueberries. The homemade Cool Whip turned me into a convert, this coming from a Reddi-Whip disciple. It was gently salted and vanilla-heavy, with a silky texture and an airy melt. The sweetness of the pudding was tempered from the granola’s bold salinity. It was a beautiful, hearty melange of textures and flavors with exceptional balance.

Two blocks away, I realized that I’d forgotten my leftovers at the restaurant. In any other situation, I might have called it a loss, but I sprinted back, wildly looking around for the box where I sat. It was gone! Hope abandoned, I trudged back to the door, nightmares of tepid buffets and Starbucks dancing through my head, when my server appeared behind me, leftovers in hand. Wordlessly, he handed them over to me. Our eyes locked, and with a fist-pump of solidarity, he nodded, and said, “Success.”

And in my hotel room at 1:45 in the morning, anxiously wolfing down the last of my lamby joe before catching my flight out, it seemed fitting that my final bite of Seattle was this carefully prepared, quirky little dish.  
Success indeed. Screw you, Bayless, I thought to myself. Your airport food can shove it, internally canceling my plans to check out Tortas at O’Hare. This, this sweet, raw emotion on a plate, was truly the epitome of travel and transcendence.

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