Exploring neighborhood diversity with tastebuds

South Seattle is no newcomer on the food scene. The Rainier Valley and points south were once farm and pasture lands for Italian and Japanese families who grew produce which they sold at Pike Place Market and for dairy folk supplying milk to the growing city.

Today in the South End, food is sold by a vibrant mix of people throughout an area reaching from the International District to Rainier Beach. Pass the fast food places and stop in at a neighborhood restaurant.

Beacon Hill will feed one very well on Chinese, Mexican or Philippine cuisine; a bit east along Rainier Avenue South Columbia City radiates turn-of-the-century charm from a host of stunning restaurants, offering both ethnic and 'steak house' fare.

Martin Luther King Jr. Way South takes one near a large Somali neighborhood at S. Orcas St where eateries feature 'Halal' meats eaten by the Moslem community. Continuing southward, one finds many Southeast Asian restaurants and cafes among African American establishments featuring time-honored dishes from the American south.

These proprietors are gracious dining professionals dedicated to making guests feel comfortable and providing tasty foods in a congenial atmosphere. And while each offers a unique menu, every one is happy to introduce his or her cooking heritage to all of Seattle.

Abdul Gafoor Halal Restaurant and Deli opened in the early 1990s when few Halal eateries existed in Seattle for the Muslim community. This shop serves not only the roughly 400 Cham families from Vietnam but the larger Somali Muslim community. Responding to the tastes of Cham and Somali youth, Gafoor also offers hamburgers, Jo Jo potatoes and pizza, all Halal. Teenagers and young adults dressed for the soccer fields filled the shop with bright smiles on a recent Sunday. A native of Vietnam from the Cham community, Gafoor caters to those on the go.

But this is not 'fast food'; savory 'yellow rice' spiced with cumin, pepper and ginger can be had with chunks of melt-in-your-mouth curried lamb as well as lemon grass baked chicken, barbecued chicken and honey wings. All are served with white rice.

6051-53 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South 722-7931.

Restaurateur Neguse H. Girmai is the energetic proprietor of Dahlak Eritrean Cuisine, a simply but elegantly furnished Eritrean restaurant in North Beacon Hill. One can eat in a spacious dining room graced by colorful Eritrean artworks or order food to go from a menu which features chicken, lamb and beef entrees. Spicy sauces of garlic, onion, hot chilies and minced tomatoes dress many of these dishes. The famous injera, a large, somewhat spongy flatbread accompanies each dish.

Don't overlook a dish as simple as the delicious foul, a Middle Eastern staple. Dahlak's preparation features black-eyed peas instead of the more commonly found fava beans. Salty and very rich, this aromatic presentation includes finely minced white onion, chopped tomato and green pepper on the side.

Spaghetti, a remnant of the Italian occupation of Eritrea, is available with or without meat, as is whole fried trout. A refreshing vegetable dish of green peppers filled with spinach, onion, tomato and garlic is offered as well as tomato and potato salads.

Dahlak features a full bar but specializes in the strong and aromatic Eritrean coffee which is not to be missed. 2007 South State St. 860-0400.

Art filled El Sombrero is painted in deep, vibrant colors; the high-ceilinged rooms lend an air of elegance. Diners clustered at cozy tables are here for the broad menu of Mexican specialties Seattle diners have come to love.

Soups including Albondigas filled with tender pork meatballs, Tortilla and Caldo de Pollo, a savory chicken broth make a meal in themselves. And while well-known 'combination dinners' like tender, cheese-filled chilies rellenos with rice and beans are on the menu one might venture more into less familiar dishes such as Camarones con Crema.

There is food for salad lovers, vegetarians, daily specials and light desserts along with beer and mixed drinks. 4868 Rainier Avenue South 725-1424.

Betty Gray is tall, slender and elegant. She moves authoritatively around the busy kitchen and take-out window at her restaurant of 16 years, Rose Petals.

A former Boeing employee, Gray was driving home from work one day when she and a co-worker spied a boarded up building. The women envisioned a restaurant on the site.

The plentiful breakfast menu satisfies with ham, sausage, hotlinks and eggs; but one finds catfish and eggs as well as snapper and eggs. These come with grits or hashbrowns. Pancakes lovers are not neglected either. Sandwiches hold their own here including bacon and egg or pork chop.

Dinners feature tender oxtails, succulent pigsfeet or juicy neckbones as well as chitterlings, pork chops and meatloaf. All dinners include two vegetables, and sides of greens, yams, fried okra and corn or rice complete a savory array.

And it's important to save room for peach cobbler, ice cream and cake or pie. 6901 Martin Luther King Way South721-3123.

Imagine a springtime garden blooming with delicate baked goods in bright colors; this is Tammy's Vietnamese Bakery and Cafe. Located in a busy, modern shopping center, the bakery offers a wide assortment of beautiful French-style gateaux covered in whipped cream in flavors such as mango, mocha, pineapple and yes, durian. These delectable cakes can be ordered ahead and are also sold by the slice.

An assortment of breads and rolls fills another bin along with delicate cookies and large cookies in animal shapes with bright icings for the small fry crowd.

Owner Tammy Le, who established the bakery in 1993, and her daughter Julie Duong noted that shoppers come from the entire community, including the Thai, Cambodian, Somali and Ethiopian communities.

One end of the shop is entirely dedicated to Vietnamese savories both hot and cold for take-out orders. Banh Bau, fluffy buns filled with barbecued pork and steamed, fried rice, pork ribs, chicken and scallion-filled omelets are all hot and ready to go.

Order a coffee or tropical fruit drink and sit down at the wrought iron table in the center of the bakery where one can watch Vietnamese drama on the large television. 7101 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South 760-1172.

Stepping into Viengthong Restaurant is like walking into a serene cloister. Pale pink walls are bathed in soft light from small, cobalt blue fixtures hanging high from the ceiling. Quiet servers carry shiny trays loaded with steaming soup tureens to waiting diners, and a Southeast Asian theme is achieved with bamboo plants and bamboo-print draperies.

Thong Soun, chef since its opening nearly 13 years ago, is a native Lao and well versed in Lao and Thai cookery. She took time to chat about the wide-ranging menu at this small gem of a restaurant located near the Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Way South intersection.

The menu features old standbys like Phad Thai, which comes in vegetarian (with egg) or in pork and shrimp versions. Try the Phad Lao, a tasty version offered with chicken, pork or beef along with the delicate and colorful egg strips distributed over slightly sweet rice noodles. 2820 Martin Luther King Way South 725-3884.[[In-content Ad]]