In Ballard, burgers meet fish and chips for a happy 'fast-food' meal
Red Mill Burgers' proprietors John and Babe Shepherd preside over a happy merger of burgers with fish and chips at the longstanding Totem House in Ballard.
Special to The Seattle Times
|Babe's onion rings||$3.19|
|Bacon deluxe cheese||$5.99|
|Chicken club burger||$6.99|
|2-piece cod and chips||$9.89|
Red Mill Totem HouseFast food
Red Mill Totem House
3058 N.W. 54th St. (Ballard)
Red Mill Burgers
312 N. 67th St. (Phinney Ridge) 206-783-6362
1613 W. Dravus St. (Interbay) 206- 284-6363
Hours: 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday (all locations)
Prices: $ (burgers $3.79-$6.99, fish and chips $7.29-$11.49)
Drinks: Shakes, malts, lemonade, iced tea, soft drinks
Parking: On street; limited parking in lot.
Sound: Moderate to loud
Who should go: Top-notch "fast food" for those who don't mind waiting.
Credit cards: Cash or checks only
Access: Accessible but tight quarters at Ballard and Phinney stores
On the first true weekend of summer, my family and I headed for Red Mill Totem House along with what looked like half of Seattle and most of Ballard.
"Why are you reviewing this place?" my daughter asked, in the middle of our 20-minute wait to order. "It doesn't look like they need it."
Why? Because for the many fans of Babe and John Shepherd's well-stacked burgers and outstanding onion rings a new Red Mill is cause for salivation, but also because at Red Mill Totem House the brother-and-sister team are keeping that Seattle icon's fish-and-chips tradition alive.
The familiar totem pole still rises opposite the Ballard Locks above the funky log cabin, now spruced up in Red Mill's signature colors: red umbrellas shade the picnic tables in front of the blue and yellow-trimmed building.
Maybe it was the sunshine, or just the innate politeness of Seattleites, but no one got testy over the lengthy wait to order, followed by another (shorter) wait for the food.
The alert staff appeared equally unperturbed. With practiced moves they kept the burgers (beef, chicken and veggie), fish, fries, onion rings, lemonades and milkshakes flowing.
"Sorry, I'm a little flustered," said the young woman expediting orders who bagged one to go instead of putting it on a tray. I would never have guessed it from her Grace Kelly cool.
A heap of bacon stacked like cordwood attests to the popularity of those excellent rashers: rigid, smoky and peppery. Add some to the burger of your choice, or just order bacon, as I saw one young man do, leaving with a handful wrapped in paper and a blissful expression.
I added bacon to the signature Verde Burger, a patty already smothered with roasted green Anaheim chilies. The beef patties are a thin, but distinctive presence. Cooked medium-to-well (unless you tell them otherwise), they have a pleasing char.
Some burgers are served on a soft, sesame-seed bun, others get a firmer kaiser roll. You can ask for either, but heftier sandwiches, like the verde or the bacon-and-blue-cheese burger, work best between the kaiser. Both buns were toasted just enough to keep them from wilting under the lettuce, tomato, red onion and pink "Mill sauce," house-made mayonnaise with a red-pepper zing.
Basil mayo swabs the buns of the verde chicken burger and chicken club, both featuring moist, meaty breast tenders with flavor you seldom find in the fast-food realm. The house barbecue sauce tastes like smoky ketchup and makes a nifty dip for fries as well.
Given the superior quality of Red Mill's classic-cut fries and the brittle, sweet goodness of Babe's onion rings, I had no doubt they could pull off a fine version of fish and chips, and they have, though the batter-dipped battalion may not agree. The breading on these thick fillets of wild Alaskan cod has a gritty crunch, subtle spice and plenty of salt. Extra pickle-y tartar sauce makes a great double dip for both fish and fries.
Chase an order of those with a super-thick chocolate malt — or a strawberry lemonade with fresh berries bumping against the plastic lid — while basking in unrelenting sunshine, and really, who could be grumpy.
Because it's been awhile, I visited Red Mill's two other locations, where checkerboard floors, red swivel stools and doo-wop music create a mid-20th-century vibe. Even on a rainy Sunday people were lined up at the Interbay store shortly after noon, many dressed in churchgoing finery. The chicken and beef burgers there were as good as the ones I enjoyed in Ballard.
But at the Phinney Ridge original, opened in 1994, the beef patties were inexplicably awful one night. They tasted boiled, not broiled, and the red-onion jam had an unpleasant chemical taste. Had it been my first Red Mill burger, it would have been my last, but I went back and was rewarded with a burger that was truly "deluxe."
You can tell the Red Mill virgins. They are the ones who stop in their tracks at the "cash and checks only" notice on the door. The signs helpfully direct you to the nearest ATM, information every Mill-maven already knows by heart.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on 97.3 KIRO FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.