Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the Southcenter Mall (technically called Westfield Southcenter): These are the two main reasons you might find yourself in Tukwila's Southcenter, home to swathes of strip malls and a seemingly endless parade of chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Buffalo Wild Wings. Don't give in to temptation. On Southcenter Boulevard, where the bulk of the action is, there's a better way to treat your tastebuds: a trio of Asian dining options worth the trip in and of themselves.
Bai Tong Thai
A good place to begin is with a restaurant that actually has history with the airport. Bai Tong Thai, the story goes, was conceived by a former Thai Airways flight attendant who recruited some chefs from Bangkok to open a restaurant by the airport, which had a built-in audience of flight crews and travelers who wanted authentic Thai food. The restaurant was a hit, and after moving and spending some time north of the airport on International Boulevard, it eventually relocated to Southcenter Boulevard.
Bai Tong has a classy feel for a strip mall spot. Newer Thai restaurants may have surpassed it in quality, but the food at this classic establishment remains quite satisfying. Some stop in for gai hor bai toey: pandan-wrapped chicken thighs fried in hot oil, so delicious you might not need the sweet soy and ginger dipping sauce that comes with them. Others are seeking seafood dishes like chao phraya garden (a salad that includes deep-fried whole trout) and hor mok, still made by the original chef, who spends mornings wrapping salmon and red curry in banana leaves for steaming.
Across and down the street in another strip mall is a Japanese gem: Arashi Ramen. Arashi opened two years ago, and was successful enough to spawn a new branch in Seattle proper this spring, when a Ballard location opened. The chef is from Kyoto, but the focus of the restaurant is tonkotsu-style ramen associated with Kyushu.
While waiting for your ramen, skip the frozen takoyaki (octopus fritters) in favor of the house-prepared karaage. There's a honey garlic iteration of this Japanese fried chicken, but the regular version is more authentic, made from bite-sized pieces of thigh meat.
Be prepared for your ramen to come pretty quickly. The porky tonkotsu broth is available in shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, and spicy miso varieties, with black garlic a good twist on the tonkotsu miso option. You can substitute thicker, wavier noodles for the default thin straight noodles; more importantly, ask for firm (katamen) or extra firm (barikata) noodles to avoid the default overcooking to slightly soft.
Seafood City and Grill City
Onward to the northeast corner of Southcenter Mall (which does indeed have a Southcenter Boulevard address), where you'll find Seafood City supermarket. This grocery store, part of a chain, is Filipino-focused, though the scope of products extends far beyond the Philippines into general Asian territory with items like durian, Japanese curry, and gochujang. As you can guess from the name, seafood is a major draw, especially on Fridays. From clams to catfish to cod, there's an extensive selection, including fish that are favorites of Filipinos: tilapia, bangus (milkfish), and pompano. If you don't feel like cooking for yourself, save the oil (and intense kitchen aromas) by taking advantage of the store's very popular frying service.
Also popular, particularly on weekends, is the Grill City food area. Slide your tray along the counter and expect to see such Filipino delicacies as pork or chicken adobo, pinakbet (a vegetable "stew" with shrimp paste), and dinuguan (pork blood stew with various pork parts). But what crowds really lines up for are the pork and chicken BBQ skewers. Much like teriyaki, and terrifically tasty, these are sticky sweet yet not cloying; you'll want an order of rice to accompany them. Also highly recommended: chicken inasal, which is chicken with a citrusy vinegar annatto marinade that's grilled and served with a superb vinegar sauce.
And that's not all: Joining Grill City will soon be Crispy Town, moving all of the fried food goodness to a separate station. There's no set opening date yet, but this crispy, crunchy paradise could arrive in the fall. When it does, look for bagnet (crispy pork belly), lumpia (fried egg rolls), chicharon bulaklak (crispy chitlins), and fried fish — from smelt to milkfish. You might want to request that they fry up a Lipitor tablet for you, while you're at it. Failing that, you're well-positioned to do as much mall-walking as necessary to burn off these delicious calories.