“We’re lucky to live right here where we can travel without a passport: by shopping and eating at a wide world of international markets and restaurants.”
Nancy Leson is an enthusiastic, ever-curious, well-respected professional and personal foodie living the dream in Edmonds. The award-winning, former Seattle Times food writer, restaurant critic, radio personality, cooking instructor (PCC, Book Larder), and public speaker gets to eat all kinds of delicious food from all over the world and write/podcast about it, sharing recipes, stories, and restaurant reviews with throngs of equally avid foodies — her devoted legion of fans.
They love her accessible, clever, O. Henry way with words, where nothing goes to waste and everything is incredibly noteworthy — even take-out SanKai sushi lavishly shared at home during a long, lonely pandemic lockdown, or how often she runs into Ono Poke’s Steven Ono and his family when she’s out eating at some of their (coincidentally) mutually-favorite hole-in-the-walls.
Interesting tidbits slip out in her culinary journey toward that perfectly roasted chicken with tender carrots… the people and places and emotions behind the dishes, sparking endless conversation.
Leson writes and speaks like she prepares a meal, with all the essential ingredients laid out and ready to go, and with open arms, where there’s always an open table and no one is a stranger. Make a comment about her dream life, and she’s off and running, bringing you into her colorful, tasty, humorous world.
“The best part of my work-life is that I get to decide what I do, and don't do. Being on deadline is something I loathed — for 25 years! Being my own boss is most excellent. I highly recommend it, though it certainly helps to have a husband who bought our house when he was 26 (he's 66) and whose mantra is: ‘I'll NEVER retire!’ (To which I always add: ‘Good, because I'd like to!’”
Visit Edmonds got to find out a little more about this feisty foodie and some of her best Edmonds eats.
Nancy Leson Interview
“There’s nothing I won’t eat.”
What got you started on your food-loving adventure?
As I always joke (though it’s the truth): It started when I was a born prematurely, weighing slightly more than a rotisserie chicken. Once I arrived home from the hospital, a cry went up from every mother in my Philadelphia neighborhood: “Oy! Give me that kid! She needs to eat!” Within a year, I looked like a baby sumo wrestler, and later developed a great appreciation for dining out.
After high school, to save money for college I became a waitress – a career that lasted 17 years.
My first gig was at the Victorian-era Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May, N.J., where I learned that a “deuce” was a table for two, and “in the weeds” translated as “So slammed, I wish I’d had an office job.” I later poured piña coladas in a Puerto Rican surfer bar, served tofu in a veggie-themed Santa Barbara restaurant, and served tableside Beef Wellington and Caesar salad at a small, sophisticated dinner house in Anchorage, where I learned to ascertain the difference between grape varietals while watching the sun not set.
How did you become an award-winning food writer?
After moving to Seattle in 1988, I hit every high-end restaurant in town in hopes of finding the best waitressing job. Once I snagged it (remember Saleh al Lago at Green Lake?), I spent my “spare” time earning a journalism degree from the University of Washington, later turning the tables to write about restaurants with the keen eye and practiced palate of someone who knows the business from the inside.
Before taking the lead restaurant critic’s position at the Seattle Times in 1998, I wrote food-focused columns for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Seattle Weekly, and Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, and I’ve written and edited a stack of travel guidebooks for Sasquatch Books and Zagat. My work soon appeared in numerous national and international publications — including (#humblebrag) a four-page spread in Bon Appétit — on the original Herbfarm restaurant — when I’d only been writing for a year.
As someone whose career includes a 15-year connection as food commentator for local NPR member-station KNKX, I’ve learned that not only do folks recognize my literary voice, they recognize my literal voice, too.
I often meet people who say, “I remember your review of . . .” and quote something even I don’t remember writing. Or tell me, “We still make your husband’s recipe for Captain Bay-Schmith’s Chicken!” — recalling the Weber-smoked bird I wrote about in 2008, named for the late sea captain who lived next door to us here in Edmonds. I recently paid a visit to a surgeon who introduced himself then said, “and you’re the Nancy Leson!” noting that as a longtime KNKX listener, he’d have recognized my voice without looking at his patient chart.
What's been your most memorable food experience traveling, maybe hosting one of those international tours?
While there are many memorable food experiences that come about by international travel — standing in a Paris cheese shop for the first time, tears streaming down my face; eating pickled herring (smakelijk!) at a farmers market in the Netherlands; buying octopus from a diver at the beach in coastal Kenya, then grilling it for dinner — I always insist that, culinarily speaking, we’re lucky to live right here where we can travel without a passport: by shopping and eating at a wide world of international markets and restaurants.
What's your favorite food and on the opposite spectrum, more challenging food?
There’s nothing I won’t eat, though I’ve never liked beef liver. As for food favorites? At home, it’s a simple roast chicken, with caramelized carrots that benefit from having been roasted under the bird. When I’m out, it’s at a sushi bar, where I order omakase: putting myself at the whim of my favorite sushi chefs, who highlight seasonal seafood from near and far.
How long have you lived in Edmonds and what do you enjoy about living here?
Twenty-five years. And, despite my misgivings about being “so far” from Seattle when I moved in with my husband (who bought our house 20 years earlier) — “Where will I get Chinese soup noodles? A bowl of pho? A decent cocktail!”) — I’ve since become the envy of friends who made fun of me for moving to “Deadmonds.” The joke’s on them: Now they wish they lived here.
I love most everything about our city: the view of the mountains and the Sound; the fact that I can’t go anywhere without running into someone I know; the Edmonds Bookshop and our terrific library; our world-class ECA; the summer farmers market and Country Farms; the ever-growing number of restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets that allow me to eat and cook across so many cultures. And now that the Edmonds Senior Center thrift store is steps away from Edmonds’ Goodwill, why would I want to live anywhere else?
Having spent the better part of three decades as a restaurant critic and food writer, I’ve been asked a zillion times, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” The answer is, and has always been, “My favorite restaurant for what?” That answer depends on my mood, the weather, the time of day. Am I dining alone, or with family or friends? Business meal or big occasion?
A better question for me is: Where do you go the most? And the answer inevitably has a distinctly Asian accent. Here in Edmonds, that list is long (hello, Ono Poke and the temporarily-closed Wonton Noodle House!) and includes the following:
Sure, Korean food is all the rage everywhere — now. But Hosoonyi captured my fancy long ago.
This bright café is where my son had his first taste of soondubu — a bubbling mini-cauldron of soft tofu afloat with meat and/or seafood — while he was still in a high chair. As a teen, he drove his pals from Edmonds-Woodway High School here to introduce them to favorites like haemul pajeon (a shareable seafood-and-green-onion pancake), sizzling platters of pork bulgogi, and the colorful assortment of banchan, the small side dishes that accompany every Korean meal.
When he returns from his home in British Columbia, this is always one of his first stops, where we share all that and more, fighting over who gets the last slurp of bibim naengmyeon (spicy cold noodles), or come summer, its icy cousin, mul naengmyeon.
This Thai-accented gem is little more than a (strip mall) hut, yet I couldn’t love it more. OK, I lied: I’d love it more if it were open all day, every day, rather than the ephemeral hours it keeps, so I could stop in every time I have a taste for hot basil noodles properly charred at the edges (see: all the time). Or the House Noodle Soup, an aroma-therapeutic assault on the senses known elsewhere as Boat Noodles and defined by the 20-plus spices that add to its fragrant funk. Maybe a curry from the specials board and, if I’m lucky, coconut milk-sweetened rice, purple with butterfly pea flower, for dessert.
Gone are the handful of tables where I’d sit and chat with owner/chefs Sarah and Sone — when they weren’t too busy with the wok or the (ever-ringing) phone. Now it’s takeout only, which is as they envisioned it when they and their main man, Charlie, relocated from a much larger restaurant space in Everett.
I can still recall when the first Than Brothers pho shop opened on Highway 99 near Green Lake, impressed that I could find a bowl of Vietnam’s national dish north of Seattle’s Little Saigon. A quarter-century (and a chain of Than Brothers) later, strip-mall shops specializing in rice noodle soup are as ubiquitous as teriyaki joints. Edmonds’ long-standing branch remains my go-to close to home (Yeh Yeh’s in Lynnwood is my other). Lightning-fast service and complimentary cream puffs seal the deal. My pho is fashioned to fit my fancy (you do you): a broad bowl with thin slices of beef brisket, garnished with fresh basil, onion, bean sprouts, jalapenos, and a shot of lime, plus a generous squeeze of hoisin and Sriracha.
When I introduced Edmonds’ restaurant kingpin Shubert Ho to one of my favorite sushi chefs, Ryuichi Nakano, I had no idea I’d fostered a match made in my own personal heaven. I’d known Shu since he was a 20-something (and Bar Dojo, let alone MAR•KET in Seattle, weren’t yet a glimmer in his eye). Ditto for young, fresh-faced Ryu, who tended the sushi bar at I Love Sushi on Lake Union back when I was a working waitress (elsewhere). By the time Nakano-san opened Kisaku near Green Lake, I was a super-fan. And 16 years later, when he sold it — and soon partnered with our mutual friend to open SanKai — I just about lost my mind.
SanKai is everything a neighborhood sushi bar should be, with a pro at the helm, and his family (wife Yuka and son Toru) working alongside him. Open only briefly before Covid struck, this is the restaurant my husband and I turned to during the dark days of the pandemic for take-out-sushi extravaganzas enjoyed at home. We look forward to many brighter days ahead, seated at the sushi bar at SanKai.
I’ve been eating at T&T since its inception as a tiny Shoreline café and was thrilled when owners Tony Mann and Theresa Lam moved to Edmonds — taking an anchor spot at the then-new 99 Ranch Market shopping center.
I appreciate their sprawling Cantonese-leaning menu, live seafood tanks (try the House Special Crab or seasonally available spot prawns), barbecue duck, and stalwart staff.
And I danced with joy more than a decade ago when they expanded into the store-next-door and installed a dedicated dim sum kitchen, offering roving carts and a dazzling line-up of daytime dim sum (shumai! shrimp paste-stuffed eggplant!) that I take advantage of often, but never often enough.