I thought we were flying to Seattle.
Instead, I found out that morning, we were heading to a small town east of Washington’s largest city city, to a place called Issaquah.
At least that’s what I was saying in my head.
I’ve been to Seattle a bunch of times, even drove as far as Marysville once. But I had never been — or even heard of — Issaquah.
Turns out, it’s quite a city.
I was shocked at how many people knew about it when I posted my travel itinerary on social media. My girlfriend grew up there, her mom works for the school district, and others have lived or worked or traveled through for years.
Where has this place been all my life?
Here’s some background on Issaquah: The population here is close to 30,500. The name, “Issaquah,” is some kind of misspelling of a local Native American word that could mean “sound of the birds,” “snake” or “little stream.” It was a mining town that turned into a lumber town that turned into a highly desirable residential suburb, ranked the second fastest-growing ‘burn in the state by Forbes.com.
And it’s gorgeous, surrounded on three sides by the Issaquah Alps: Cougar, Squak and Tiger mountains. To the north is Lake Sammamish.
We were here visiting a relative — and just for about 48 hours.
I thought, at first, that would be more than enough time to see this charming little town.
Boy, was I wrong.
That wasn’t enough time to just EAT in this city, packed with old-fashioned diners and cozy restaurants.
So if you ever find yourself heading to Issaquah and you’re wondering what to do, look no further. Here’s your travel plans:
1. Get breakfast at Issaquah Cafe
Issaquah Cafe (1580 NW Gilman Blvd., 425-391-9690) is one of those hometown restaurants in a strip mall — and it’s so worth the visit. It was just a comfortable place to get a hearty breakfast. I can see why it’s so popular.
Here’s the chicken fried steak — a tenderized piece of steak (often round steak) doused in fried chicken batter — with that same gravy. You can’t get this back in Hawaii, so we ate as much of it as humanly possible.
2. Tour the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery
There’s a government-run salmon hatchery right in downtown Issaquah (125 W. Sunset Way, 425-392-1118). You can tour it during daylight hours on your own. Most times there are docents available to show you around. But we went at possibly the worst time ever — a Sunday morning in the summer, when not much is happening. Still, it was interesting to learn what happens here.
Fall is the most active time at the hatchery, when adult chinook and coho salmon return here. The staff begins trapping adult salmon for brood stock in September through November, collecting eggs and milt, fertilizing eggs, and getting them settled into incubation trays. The hatchery also raises rainbow trout.
In early October, the hatchery — and really the entire town — celebrates the salmon return with Issaquah Salmon Days Festival (www.salmondays.com), a two-day block party of sorts in downtown Issaquah with workshops, live music, food and more. (It’s on my bucket list.)
3. Get a root beer float from XXX Root Beer Drive-In
According to the company, XXX Root Beer Drive-In (98 NE Gilman Blvd., 425-392-1266) was the first drive-in in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1930. The combination of the XXX brand of root beer and food worked and the concept spread across the country. There’s only two XXX drive-ins left — here and in Lafayette, Ind. It’s been in this location since 1968. And car shows here are a regular thing.
The drive-in’s got an extensive menu, with its burgers as the highlight. The Incredible XXX Burger is touted as the juiciest and messiest around, with three different cheeses, grilled onions, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles with the drive-in’s homemade dressing and freshly baked buns. If I hadn’t just eaten breakfast, I would have devoured this — and suffered later!
We just wanted to try the root beer, for which is what this place is known. The recipe dates back to 1930 and still made the same way. The float uses premium Darigold ice cream, and you can order them in frosted mugs. Perfection!
4. Lunch at JaK’s Grill
We happened to be there just in time for Sunday brunch, so we tried the JaK Bene, its take on the classic eggs Benedict but with its signature potato pancakes, grilled filet mignon and poached eggs topped with a Béarnaise sauce and served with freshly baked brioche bread.
They were still cooking the barbecue pork, so we settled with the steak sandwich, made with marinated Nebraska aged New York steak, grilled to order and served on a steak butter toasted roll with the house au jus.
5. Stop at Boehm’s Candies & Chocolates
The company was founded by the Swiss-Austrian Julius Boehm, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1940. He and partner George Tedlock opened the first candy kitchen in the north end of Seattle, then moved the company to Issaquah in 1956. He built the Edelweiss Chalet (photo above this one) and an alpine chapel. He lived here until he passed away in 1981. Today, Bernard Garbusjuk runs the company, having worked with Boehm for 10 years. The focus is still on handcrafted chocolates and candies.
Boehm’s featured a nice range of products, too, from these molded chocolate medallions to decadent, European-style truffles to classic chewy caramels and nut clusters. And the staff gives out free samples!
6. Eat (again) at 12th Avenue Grill
This place was packed on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe it’s because you can order breakfast all day long. (That’s always a draw.) Or maybe it’s because this neighborhood diner serves up classic comfort food like warm Belgian waffles, homemade buttermilk biscuits topped with white sausage gravy, blueberry pancakes, loaded baked potatoes and hearty chili topped with cheese, onions and garlic bread.
Not bad, Issaquah, not bad!