Found: Big John’s PFI – Seattle’s Best Hidden Grocery Store
If you are anywhere near in-the-know about finding great food stores in and around Seattle then you probably know about Big John’s PFI in the SoDo neighborhood. The PFI stands for ‘Pacific Food Importers’ and they specialize in Mediterranean foods and have been for the past ~45 years. It is hidden in an unlikely location – just off of 6th Ave S in a gully housed in the back of a nondescript brick building under the shadow of CenturyLink field.
As far as I can tell, they do little to no advertising outside of their website (which intermittently works) and they rely on the restaurant trade and people who know their food. Mind you folks – this is not some hidden away slick operation like DeLaurenti’s in Pike Place Market with all its frills and fanciness (and high prices). It is as basic as can be inside – concrete floors, little decoration, no piped in music – just an amazing selection of fine foodstuffs from all over the world. It is a treasure trove of exotic culinaria, a pot of golden pasta at the end of the rainbow, and a cache of spices that is nearly unrivaled in this town.
Playing Hide and Seek with Food
Big John’s PFI is not a place where you go to do your daily shopping – that is, unless you intend to subsist on pasta, cheese, olives, salumi and wine all week. Now wait a second – that doesn’t sound half bad…but I digress. The beauty of Big John’s PFI is that you absolutely must walk around it 2-3 times before you can truly comprehend the selection of items. Things magically present themselves on crowded shelves which you did not notice the first or second time around the block. After my third trip there, I have finally discovered a whole Middle Eastern section that I never knew existed – not knowing how I missed it.
I’ve also developed a mini-ritual for shopping there which goes like so:
Step 1 – I arrive with a small list of items that I think I want – knowing that I will buy at least double the amount of things on the list
Step 2 – I take the first pass around the store which, for me, is always about taking inventory.
- Are the things I saw here before still here?
- Is there anything new that intrigues me?
- Must I have this thing?
- Do they still have the thing I want that I bought here last time?
Step 3 – The second pass is more cerebral – now I’m shopping and thinking about what I’ll make with the new things I’ve found.
- Why exactly are there 5 kinds of pasta flour and what could I do with each?
- Do I need ground calabrian chili pepper at $54 a pound? (Yes, yes I do)
- Should I do a taste test and compare 4 different kinds of bucatini from various Italian pasta producers? I mean – there must be 100 types of pasta from different producers in this place. Wow.
- What do I do with pomegranate syrup? I must buy it and find out.
- Do I need $6 a can tuna in olive oil from Sicily? Probably.
Step 4 – The third pass is always for butter, salumi, olives and cheese.
- Is buying a half pound of butter from the Camargue worth $5? Abso-f’ing-lutely
- Do I need a pound of that cheese? Why not.
- Are these the best, briniest olives I’ve ever had? Yes, quite possibly. At least in this country.
You must know that buying some things at Big John’s PFI have a bit of a protocol assigned to them. For example – you don’t play around ordering cheese in little packages or tiny wedges. You simply order by asking for ‘some of this’ and ‘some of that’. You get what you get – and you should be happy about it. Olives also have a particularly nice benefit that comes with ordering them. If you bring your own container the kind folks behind the counter will give you some extra brine in it. Sweet!
Enjoying the Spoils with Friends
I always get excited coming home with my score from Big John’s PFI. I want to try some of the new things I found. I want to share the delicious discoveries like the canned cherry tomatoes that work so well in bucatini all’Amatriciana with fresh guanciale I’ve cured in my basement. I want to eat the olives right out of the bag on my drive home – unable to curb my enthusiasm.
Recently, my family and I took a trip to the Hood Canal with some friends for an annual adventure we affectionately call ‘Oyster Weekend’. We generally pick the lowest tide of the year, harvest (legally) enough shellfish to satisfy our appetites, and gorge ourselves on other fine culinary creations we churn out of the kitchen.
This year, it seemed like everything we made had some component from Big John’s PFI. Problem was, no one could remember the name of the place. Someone would ask, “where did all this amazing cheese come from?” Another would respond, ‘Big Dick’s BFD.” Later, someone would say, “these are the best damned olives I’ve ever eaten. Where are they from?” And the reply would be something like, “oh, they are from Big Joe’s PBJ.” And so on. We had a good laugh about it and I’m now certain that none of our guests know or remember the real name of this place.
Giddy Up Go
The good news is – it’s very affordable. You’ll find yourself going over budget not because of high prices but because there are so many things you’ll want to buy. I recently scored some beautiful pasta from a small artisan Italian maker for $3 a package. Any shape or size – same price. Cheese prices seem to be about 20-30% less than the usual suspects. And the selection of canned and packaged goods from the Med simply cannot be beat.
By last count there were over 40 different kinds of olive oil, 25 different kinds of canned tomatoes in various shapes and sizes, and a multitude of dried beans and bulk grains to boot. If you want to call yourself a true food aficionado and you live in the Seattle area then you must get down to this joint. Go there, buy something you’ve never seen before, and learn how to cook with it. Now!
* Note – sadly, Big John Croce passed away at the age of 92 on August 23rd, 2015. RIP Big John – and thanks for all the goodies.