America's most widely consumed vegetable, the potatoe (as VP Dan Quayle spells it) is Washington state's third-largest cash crop, almost a billion dollars worth, behind apples and wheat. Store-bought French fries, the kind you buy frozen in a bag at the supermarket, barely qualify as potatoes. By the time they've been sliced and washed, fried and coated in a patented spray of fat (so they'll turn golden when defrosted and refried at home, or simply dumped into the deep fryer at a restaurant kitchen), they've been tortured beyond recognition.
Potatoes are also widely grown in northern and eastern Europe, so they were a natural ingredient to use when it came time for special holiday foods. In Jewish culture, particularly at Hannukah season, potatoes were grated, seasoned, and fried. The resulting potato pancakes, called latkes, were traditionally served with apple sauce and sour cream.
Please note that these aren't “hash browns,” which are probably dehydrated, pulverized, extruded, and frozen at a vast processing plant somewhere on the Oregon-Idaho state line. A line cook dumps them onto a puddle of grease on the kitchen's flat top and there they sit, held down by a steak-and-bacon weight until someone orders the combo breakfast.
Grate ordinary Russet potatoes in a food processor and drop the ribbons into cold water until you're ready to proceed. Squeeze gently, but not too much (you want to preserve the starch), then whirl them a couple of times with the regular blade to incorporate onions, an egg or two, matzoh crumbs, salt, and pepper, leftover mashed potatoes even, depending on whose grandmother's recipe you're using. Drop three or four generous scoops into a pan of hot vegetable oil; flip once and remove to a cooling rack.
When you're making latkes, don't be tempted to squeeze the life out of the wet potatoes or to moosh them into little golf balls and flatten them with a spatula. They should drip off a ladle into the pan, almost as gooey as pancake batter. They are, after all, potato pancakes, not meatballs.
Every diner serves hash browns, but few places serve latkes. They're real “east-coast” deli food, and Seattle—proudly Scandinavian in its heritage, fashionably “farm-to-table” in its menuese—doesn't have a lot of places like that. Two come to mind: Goldbergs' in Factoria, and Roxy's in Fremont, at 462 N. 36th. On the eastside, they charge you four bucks for a latke; at Roxy's, it's $6.25 for three, apple sauce and sour cream included.
I stopped in for breakfast the other morning and added eggs & bacon; quite the meal. They must use a bit of leftover mashed potato in the latke, to keep the center so soft. It was early in the day, so the oil was fresh and the latkes were hot and crispy on the outside. I'm not going to pretend that it tasted “just like Zabar's” because, shoot, I didn't grow up in Noo Yawk and didn't eat in a real deli until I got to college. But the latkes were on a plane as elevated (for Seattle) as the rest of the menu at Roxy's: honest, unpretentions, tasty. I've always enjoyed coming here at lunchtime and fighting for a seat at the counter; it's a real diner, not a fancy restaurant pretending to be a diner, with a giant menu a varied clientele (as befits its Fremont neighborhood). Twelve bucks for a pastrami on rye, pickle included, and if that's not enough, get the “N.Y. Size” for $15.95. Remember, though, Roxy's is a diner, a New Jersey-style, working-class diner at that, not a Lower East Side deli like Katz's.
Roxy's owner, Peter Glick, makes regular trips back east; most recently, he discovered a joint called The Meatball Shop, whose owners make a lot of Fourth Grade anatomical references but whose business model (just meatballs) is working just fine. Glick's online-only “Meatball Revolution” offers meatball buffets to corporate clients around town. Doesn't fit the bill? How about his Let's Taco service? Not quite right? Try Pete's Fremont Firepit, a barbecue delivery option. And to make sure no one slips out to the Whole Foods or Met Market for a quick trip around the salad bar, Glick also runs The Salad Station.
Meantime, a chef named Jonathan Silverberg has announced plans to open a “real” Jewish deli in Seattle, once he finds a space to prepare his ingredients. So far, Silverberg (whose food truck is called Napkin Friends) has been constrained to catering gigs.
Ronald Holden is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing. His most recent book, “Forking Seattle, A Critical Guide to Local Food & Drink,” is available through Amazon.