Monday, January 12, 2009

Big John's

One of Seattle's best kept secrets (in my humble opinion, of course) is hidden at the back of an old brick warehouse on Airport Way, only a few blocks south of Uwajimaya, yet a world apart. The location, to say the least, does not inspire confidence in the uninitiated.

"Why are you driving down here?" Michael asked me as I pulled into what appeared to be a merely a parking lot down a gravelly hill by a decrepit building.

"This is it," I told him. "This is PFI!"

PFI, or, if you want to get technical, Big John's Pacific Food Importers, is a small shop crammed with all manner of Italian and other European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern imported foods, most sold at lower prices than can be found elsewhere in town - if, that is, you can even find some of these items elsewhere. Of course, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Italian pasta are sold everywhere nowadays, but is your local grocery mart going to offer frantoia olive oil or spaghetti noodles that are three feet long? No, I didn't think so.

And the cheese counter at PFI will make any lover of the curds salivate. Cheeses that sell for $25 a pound at Central Market of Whole Foods might be $15 per pound here. And if you, like Michael and I, are a kalamata olive snob and only like the unpitted kind (believe me - pitting the olives before selling them noticeably decreases their flavor; we know, we've tested this theory), this is one place you can always reliably find them. The catch: with bulk chesses and olives, you must buy at least one pound, making PFI a kind of Costco of the specialty food world.

I regret to say that this was the first time I had made it back to PFI in more than a year. Its location, coupled with the fact that I don't technically need most of the things they sell here, inadvertnatly led to a PFI dry spell. Now, finally, I was going to get that good bottle of balsamic vinegar again, after having subsisted on the cheaper Trader Joe's version for at least a year. Life has been hard, what can I say?

Today I was also in luck because the other item I really needed - fresh mozerella - was on sale, and I snagged a three pound tub for five dollars. Unheard of!

"This is still OK?" I questioned the woman at the cash register. I was going to use it on the pizzas I was making for our neighbors who came over for dinner tonight. The dinner was, in part, a way of thanking them for the help they'd given in patching up our broken window while we were gone at Christmas (see the blog post, "When Winter Trees Begin to Fall"), and passing on the gift of food poisoning wasn't really what I had in mind.

"It's fine, it's just that they were dated for yesterday, so you should eat it soon," she told me.

No problem. For five bucks, that didn't even register as a risk, in my opinion.

Michael and I headed to the car with our purchases, and I pulled out the can of San Pellegrino Limonata soda I'd found for him. We traded sips as we drove home.

"It's such a strange place," Michael told me. "It's kind of run down, and there were some weird smells in the back."

I reminded him of the not-so-distant past when one had to use a ten gallon bucket as a shopping basket; that, along with four ramshackle shopping carts in various stages of falling apart, were all they had on hand.

"If they fixed it up too much, they'd probably charge more," I countered. Then maybe Big John's would be secret no longer. And really, feeling like you're one of the ones in the know is half the fun.

No comments: