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Originally published Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nancy Leson | Restaurants

Budget-priced restaurants that offer great ethnic cuisine

One woman's "ethnic" food is another's home-cooking, and there's little I like more than eating like the natives — wherever those...

Seattle Times food writer

What are your favorite ethnic restaurants around the region? Head to Nancy Leson's blog to share tips and read responses from others.

One woman's "ethnic" food is another's home-cooking, and there's little I like more than eating like the natives — wherever those natives may hail from, and whatever they're likely to eat. I'll often stop at small cafes throughout Greater Seattle in an effort to please my palate and expand my global vision. Sure, those places lean more toward funky than fancy. And yes, sometimes there's a language barrier. But I consider those attributes, and count the many riches found along the way: delicious, "exotic" and inexpensive meals that may cost less than $10 per person, offering a passport to another country and a close-up look at another culture. Here is a handful of places to jump-start a summer journey:

Cafe Selam

2715 E. Cherry St., Seattle

206-328-0404

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Note: Closed June 22-July 21 for kitchen remodel.

Selam is dominated not by aesthetic (it's adjacent to a rundown body shop), nor by its décor (a handful of tables, three counter seats and a TV), but by owner Abebu Wondem, an Ethiopian cook (whose cafe will close June 22 for a month while she remodels her kitchen). She leaves the meet-and-greet to her cousin Martha, a welcoming waitress who might encourage you to sample an Ethiopian pilsner, or come back for breakfast and try the fava-bean-and-feta-based foul.

This Central District spot caters to Seattle's growing population of East Africans — and those of us who love their fragrant stews and bold spices. Here, a $10 meal — including bite-size bits of beef or lamb tebs, or a combo platter of seductively seasoned legumes with sautéed greens and a bright jalapeño-spiked salad — can feed two. Wondem's housemade injera is among the best I've eaten, and first-timers should know that the huge, spongy, slightly sour bread doubles as both plate (soaking up sauces) and eminently edible utensil (break off pieces of the folded rounds served alongside and "catch" your meal bite by bite).

Hosoonyi

23830 Highway 99, Edmonds

425-775-8196

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Lucky me. Hosoonyi, one of the many Korean restaurants that dot the strip-mall landscape north and south of Seattle proper, sits minutes from my front door. Which is only one of the reasons I've long been a regular at this Edmonds "hot" spot where service is efficient to the point of brusque and I'm often the only non-Korean in the house.

I'd come for the banchan alone — feasting on the multitude of side dishes: pickled and marinated vegetables (daikon and kimchi among them), dried fish or dried "dofu" served (free — with refills!) with the meal. In winter, I favor a mini-cauldron of soondubu (custardy soft-tofu soup with meats, seafood, dried seaweed and a raw egg that cooks in the bubbling broth), or a stew prepared with hunks of black cod served afloat with its skin, bones and intestines. You may prefer some of my other favorites: a sizzling platter of caramelized kalbi ribs or squid and veggies tossed with gochujang, a sweet/hot chili bean paste.

Pacific Market

12332 Lake City Way N.E.,

Seattle

206-363-8639

Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays.

I've been stopping by this Lake City storefront for 20 years to buy Persian-pantry staples such as pomegranate molasses and limou omani — the dried limes needed to create a proper khoresht ghormeh sabzi. Most often, I take out Persian-food favorites like dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves, sweetened the way I like them, with a simple syrup), torshi (puckery pickled vegetables) or kashke bademjan (roasted eggplant garnished with Iran's version of sour cream).

But when I don't have the time or energy to cook, and am looking to practice my fractured Farsi with owner Shahram Moghaddam, there's always a seat at a prettily oil-clothed cafe table. Sitting there, I might sip a cup of chai or a restorative bowl of ash reshteh (yellow split pea soup). Or go for the full-meal deal and eat a plateful of koreshte ghaymeh bademjan: fragrant beef and eggplant stew served with basmati rice and lavash.

Sichuanese Cuisine

15005 N.E. 24th Ave.,

Redmond

425-562-1552

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

1048 S. Jackson St., Seattle

206-720-1690

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily.

I recently paid a visit to Redmond's bustling Sichuanese cafe, whose smaller (and I'd say even better) Seattle sibling sits just off 12th and Jackson. Two fans oscillated as the air hung humid in this crowded joint (waaaah! no beer!) while other fans delved into the bubbling broth of their spicy DIY hot pots, cooking up thin slices of raw meat, aromatic vegetables and rice noodles. Still others dove into delicious bowlfuls of raw, garlicky Sichuanese cold jelly (think: Jell-O with hot chili oil instead of whipped cream) and shared beef and pork "miscellany," from whose depths one might encounter Western-palate-whatzats including tripe and tendon.

For those new to Sichuan cuisine, dry-cooked string beans, chili-pod-laden cilantro chicken and cumin-scented Sinkiang lamb should light up your life.

Tsukushinbo

515 S. Main St., Seattle

206-467-4004

Hours: lunch 11:45 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, dinner 6-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

If the kid behind the sushi bar looks familiar, you may have seen him working at I Love Sushi, where he clearly learned some modern techniques. Now he's "home" full-time at his family's cozy Chinatown International District cafe, where, for most of his young life, his parents have been making the locals feel at home by cooking country-style eats at lunch and offering izakaya-worthy "drinking" dishes come evening.

As of last month, Shota — "Sho" to the regulars (and they are legion) — took over for his dad, Mike, at the sushi bar, so they're now offering sushi at lunchtime, too. But you can get that everywhere, right?

Here you might sample sautéed chicken gizzards sprinkled with sesame seeds. Or a clutch of baby sardines, mouths agape, grilled to a char and vaguely bitter. Or okura tofu with bits of octopus and viscous slices of okura (say it slowly). Lunch is a major bargain. At dinner, check the whiteboard for specials — perhaps a whole grilled squid or nuta salad (raw fish and spring onion with miso and mustard), and know that this is a family affair: That's Sho's mom, Sayoko, in the kitchen, and his sisters, Ruika and Marin, taking orders. After a couple visits, you'll be family, too.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. To read her blog, go to www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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