Best of Skagit 2018
With a love for the likes of Fleet Foxes, Dawes, and Neil Young, the Sky Colony’s self-described “dream folk” manages to pay homage to its late-’60s Laurel Canyon influences while still sounding like a band rooted firmly in the Pacific Northwest’s neofolk movement. This likely has something to do with the band’s collective experience level—each member was already a musical veteran before coming together to form the Sky Colony in 2011. With their refreshingly real vocal harmonies and ever-widening appeal, they remind us that there’s a whole world of Skagit County music to be found outside of Anacortes.
Kelley’s BBQ & Catering
Heavens and holy smokes, I about fainted when I drove up to Kelley’s little red wood pit, the barbecue smelled so sweet and savory. They do it up Ole Miss style, slow cooked and delicately crisped, moist and falling from the bone. I ordered the No. 5 Family Combo—a wonderful sampler, with a rack of spare ribs, pulled pork, half a chicken and cowboy-style baked beans. There was plenty to take home.
Where: 805 W. Division St., Mount Vernon
Best Clothing Store:
Skagit takes their rugged outdoorsin’ serious, right down to their long johns and underpants. Heavy-duty Bogs mud boots, Filson shirts stiff as sailcloth, Carhartt jackets, and Dickies rain gear. There’s nothing the river country can throw at you you can’t weather. You’re good to go.
Where: 821 Metcalf St., Sedro-Woolley
Best Auto Repair:
The Ford Ranger had a worrisome shudder, and the guys at JP Automotive took me right in. Gave me a loaner so I could tool around town while they worked. The repair didn’t hit my wallet too hard, but the guys told me it could have been avoided with some regular maintenance. Well, I’ve been back ever since.
Where: 1304 Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon
Info: (360) 336-3496
Best Stop on the North Cascades Highway:
It’s cold and wet. My mates and I have been high up on the highway, milepost 134, where the snows have closed the road until late spring. Coming down, we pull into the Birdsview. The place is jammed, duffers old and young in their Carhartts are hiding out from the rain, the high hewn-hardwood rafters buzzing with their tall tales and laughter. Our crew orders the whole spectrum of craft brews, from a pale Pils to a hearty malty Scotch ale. Brats are sizzling on the grill. Looks like the skies are lifting, or maybe that’s just our spirits.
Where: 38302 State Route 20, Concrete
Eight. That’s the number of times, in a row, that Calm Water Massage has dug deep to win this category. And it’s certainly not without competition—Traci Fralic is just that good. She offers traditional Swedish massage as well as deep tissue, hot stone, pregnancy and the ever-popular Raindrop technique. There’s healing magic in those hands, and you deserve a little magic in your life.
Where: 312 Pine St., Mount Vernon
Best Music Store:
Hugo Helmer Music
In recent years, music stores—especially large ones that offer a wide selection of instruments and accoutrements—have gotten a bit of a bad reputation. But Skagit mainstay Hugo Helmer is different. Their staff is knowledgeable, but not forceful or intrusive. Their service department takes great pride in standing behind their work. But the big draw is the incredible array of music instruments and equipment the expansive one-stop shop offers, as well as a customer-service ethos that encourages patrons to try before they buy. That’s how you stay in business for 80-plus years.
Where: 1025 S. Goldenrod Rd., Burlington
In April alone, Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre will host performances by Six Gun Sal, Jet City Improv, high school jazz bands from around Skagit County, the SVA Rainbow Alliance Drag Show, and a return engagement by perennially popular comedian Paula Poundstone. Additionally, a big-screen viewing of The Kid will help celebrate the venue’s 92nd anniversary. To find out how to get involved with the storied space—which has won this coveted award umpteen times—the month will also include open houses April 20-22 during the Tulip Festival Street Fair. Take a tour, browse the selection of film posters for sale, listen to tunes being played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, and learn about how you can help make the magic happen.
Where: 712 S. First St., Mount Vernon
Best Hardware Store:
Was it just me, or did this winter seem like a hard one? A few hours of sunshine after days of hard rain, and the grass has come back thick and lush. Old lawnmower’s cranky. Needs some degreasing and sharpening, probably new plugs. Paint bubbled up along a low section on side of the house, needs scraping and patching. I’ve got some spring bulbs planted if I can figure out a way to keep the deer away. Ace is indeed the place; I can get it all there, and a new ice chest besides.
Where: 1720 Q Ave., Anacortes
Best Asian Food/Takeout:
It makes perfect sense that Rachawadee Thai Cafe would win in both of these categories. This tiny, off-the-beaten-path Mount Vernon stalwart cranks out not just the best Thai food in the Skagit Valley, but the best Thai food its many devotees have ever had—by a very long shot. Whether you show up for lunch or dinner, be prepared to wait in line, and with a very limited amount of counter seating, ordering your soups, curry and noodle dishes for takeout is often the only option. But don’t let any of that deter you—the only thing as good as the food is watching the floor show as Rachawadee’s experienced cooks work their exotic magic with seemingly pedestrian ingredients. The restaurant wins every year because it is, simply, the best.
Where: 410 W. Gates St., Mount Vernon
Good Vibes Body Art
It’s been a long while since I got a tattoo, but if I were to venture back into the realm of enhancing my epidermis, I’d make an appointment at Good Vibes Body Art. The reasons are simple. The talented artists at the longtime Mount Vernon-based business encourage discussing the design in advance to ensure an accurate estimate of the time and money it will take, and also stress the importance of after-care. Plus, a look through the portfolios of the artists have me convinced my “canvas” would be in great hands.
Where: 503 S. First St., Mount Vernon
Skagit Valley Burger Express
This little red caboose chugs out a delicious burger—the Atomic Mushroom is hefty, juicy and grill-seared, with the eponymous explosion of sauteed mushrooms and bacon on a perfectly toasted bun. Since the last time I visited they’ve added thick, creamy milkshakes done right, and a small hut for outdoor dining during April showers. The latter obscures the caboose and its signage just a little from the road, however, so look hard or you might miss this “don’t miss” burger spot on the North Cascades Highway.
Where: 1172 WA-20, Sedro-Woolley
Info: (360) 707-8778
Best Pot Store:
Rest assured you won’t get blown off at Loving Farms, where the budtenders at the Mount Vernon-based pot shop are known for being as welcoming as they are knowledgeable about the product they’re selling—whether it’s a gram of Washington Glue, a cannabis cookie, a pre-roll of Middle Fork, Northern Lights concentrate, or Orange Blossom wax. And as the only locally owned marijuana store in the city, it’s a cinch to support.
Where: 2615 Old Hwy 99 S., Mount Vernon
Best Mexican Food:
COA Mexican Eatery La Conner
La Conner, place of many delights, is not the first destination that comes to mind when we crave Mexican food. But COA Mexican Eatery aims to change that with every taco, enchilada and appropriately named Burrito Loco they sell. This is not your standard Mexican fare. Everything, from its 30-plus-ingredient mole sauce to its slow-roasted meats and right on down to its addictive guacamole, is made from scratch. Tuesdays get you one-dollar tacos, while five-dollar margaritas (their tequila selection is enviable, to say the least) can be had on Fridays. Take your Mexican cravings to La Conner and COA.
Where: 214 Maple Ave., La Conner
Best Happy Hour:
The official times are 3-6pm Mondays through Fridays, but I’m guessing any span of time spent at the Train Wreck Bar & Grill qualifies as “happy hour.” At a recent brunch-turned-into-lunch outing with close friends at the Burlington hotspot, we made our way past a grinning 21-and-over crowd to a “secret” room in the back, where we spent the next couple of hours enjoying each other’s company while eating locally sourced burgers and seafood and drinking perfectly concocted Bloody Marys and area ciders and ales. And when a train rolled by, not only did we have a primo view from our hideout near the tracks, but we also scored $1 tequila shots thanks to a longstanding special the establishment offers when its namesake makes an appearance. It was a happy hour, indeed.
Where: 427 E. Fairhaven Ave., Burlington
Best Bike Shop:
From trail rides to tulip trots, casual rides to extreme competitions, anyone from the novice to expert rider can rest assured Skagit Cycle will be there there every pedal of the way. The full-service pros have bikes for every type of rider, and will take care of you at every crossroad. Just in the area for a few days? Then check out their rental options.
Where: 1704 S. Burlington Blvd. Burlington; 1620 Commercial Ave., Anacortes
Best News Story:
As they did across the country, hundreds of students throughout Skagit County walked out of their classrooms last month as part of a national demonstration to honor the victims of shootings, to call attention to gun violence and demand change. They’ve taken up signs and have marched for indigenous rights, for farm labor rights, for environmental justice, for the rights of immigrants and displaced and oppressed people. They’re only just getting started, and now they’re registering to vote. Children are our future; and these kids make us proud.
Best Coffee Shop:
Coffee. It’s a love affair in the Pacific Northwest. There’s something about sipping a delicious cup of joe on a rainy April morning that makes the weather a little more bearable. Ristretto Coffee Lounge and Wine Bar has dominated this category for the last four years, and understandably so. Perfectly roasted Seattle-based Victrola coffee will delight even the most finicky of coffee palates, especially when expertly executed by Ristretto’s team. Do something kind for yourself today and head to Ristretto’s. You deserve it.
Where: 416 First St., Mount Vernon
Life’s a beach once you pass through the gate at Anacortes’ Washington Park. From Sunset Beach on the north end to West Beach on the south—and all the coves, bluffs and tide pools in between—you can dilly-dally your day away in contented quietude among a panoramic multitude of seaside vantage points. Regardless of whether you happen to spot a pod of orcas charging through Rosario Strait, the wave-lapped, kelp-hugged, pebble-bedded shores of Fidalgo Island’s preeminent peninsula are worth your precious time.
Where: 6300 Sunset Ave., Anacortes
Best Yoga Studio:
Whether a dabbler, a fitness enthusiast or a daily devotee, finding a studio that feels like home is often the key to success when it comes to building a personal yoga practice. Since 2014, you’ve been taking your tense muscles and weary bones to the soothing atmosphere and skilled instructors of Riverwalk Yoga Studio. They cater to yogis at all stages and abilities with classes that range from “Easy Like Sunday Morning” to more intermediate-level offerings. All that, and they’ll teach you to belly dance too. Namaste all the way.
Where: 117 N. 1st St. #5, Mount Vernon
Best Grocery/Best Deli/Best Vegetarian:
Skagit Valley Food Co-op
During its 45 years of existence, Skagit Valley Food Co-op has built itself into a go-to nexus for wholesome, locally produced food, high-quality cuisine and a sundry selection of meatless victuals. Rooted deep into the social and economic fiber of the most robust agricultural corridor in Washington state, the grocers’ unyielding commitment to sustainable growing practices and local suppliers isn’t just a boon to mindful gormandizers, it’s also a victory for dietary health, mindful community building and practicable stewardship of our natural environment. Perhaps this is why every time I order a tuna salad sandwich from the deli or go hunting for exotic strains of kale in the produce section—which features 98 percent certified organic products—I feel patriotic about partaking in the bountiful fruits of their labor.
Where: 202 S. First St., Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon’s Per Dona makes the cut in the fierce competition for Best Salon. Their beautiful downtown Mount Vernon location offers more than just expert hair help—they also provide skin care, manicures and pedicures, waxing services, makeup applications and lessons, peels, and bridal services—pretty much everything required to make you look (and feel) your best.
Where: 601 S. First St., Mount Vernon
Best Bed & Breakfast:
In 1882, Captain John Peck built a lovely Victorian residence on a hill in the Skagit Valley. It’s the oldest house in La Conner, and anyone can spend the night there—provided you clear it first with Kimberly Good Rubenstein, the new owner of Katy’s Inn. Like the former proprietors, the fifth-generation Skagitonian has already done plenty to preserve the integrity of the 133-year-old landmark. Lucky guests will also discover Rubenstein is convinced the farm-to-table breakfast spread she offers her visitors every morning is a perfect way to introduce them to Skagit County.
Where: 503 S. 3rd Ave., La Conner
Smith & Vallee Gallery
On a recent slow roll through Edison, a friend who’d never encountered the small-but-mighty Skagit hamlet was agog at the astounding array of restaurants, bakeries, bars, shops and galleries populating the tiny town. “What’s that?” she queried, pointing to Smith & Vallee Gallery as it receded in the rearview mirror. “It used to be a schoolhouse,” I answered, “but a couple of sustainable woodworkers converted it into a kick-ass gallery a while back, and now it houses some of the best art in the region.” We didn’t have time to stop, but I promised her we’d return soon to check out “Bloom”—a group show running through April that celebrates the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival with intriguing interpretations of the many blossoming beauties to be found in the Pacific Northwest.
Where: 5742 Gilkey Ave., Edison
Best Italian food/Pizza:
Pacioni’s Italian Restaurant
A word of warning: Do not peruse Pacioni’s menu of mouthwatering Italian favorites and Neapolitan-style pizzas unless you are actually in the restaurant and able to order their delectable fare. Because if you’re reading online from a distance, the list of ingredients for their Chef’s Choice pizza (Pacioni’s Italian sausage, pepperoni, Black Forest ham and mushrooms), South First calzone (portobello mushrooms, basil pesto, fresh chopped garlic, roasted red peppers, ricotta and mozzarella) or any of their traditional Italian fare (penne gorgonzola, traditional lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, etc.) will make your mouth water unmercifully. Trust me, I know. And I haven’t even mentioned their heavenly desserts.
Where: 606 S. 1st St., Mount Vernon
Bastion Brewing Company
When the folks at Bastion Brewing Company urge visitors to “bring the whole crew” to their popular Anacortes beer hall, it’s not hyperbole. In addition to its family-friendly ethos—the brewery hosts all-ages events and provides a kids’ corner complete with games—leashed dogs (and even cats) can visit both the taproom and the outdoor beer garden. So while you’re slaking your thirst with a handcrafted Skagit Valley Blonde or Cascadian Twilight Dark Lager and noshing on fish and chips or a giant burger, rest assured there will be be plenty of two- and four-legged action to be observed.
Where: 12529 Christianson Rd., Anacortes
Best Music Festival:
Even though the seasons around here are pretty mild, winter can be decidedly dreary in these parts. As an antidote, the fine folks at the Lincoln Theatre organized WinterStock to get us all out of the house and away from the dark pull of the seasonal downswing in our moods. They filled the night with foot-stompin’ Americana bands and pints from Skagit’s so-called “Beermuda Triangle,” Farmstrong, Northsound, and Skagit River breweries, and when it was all said and danced and done, we could almost see spring on the horizon. Judging by your votes, it seems you can use all the WinterStock you can get.
Where: Lincoln Theatre, 712 S. First St., Mount Vernon
Best Tulip Farm:
It’s tulip time, and the fields are alive with the light and color of spring. The word’s out, and this spectacular time in the Skagit Valley is no longer a secret.
But Skagit still holds a lot of secrets—mist-shrouded valleys, swollen and mighty rivers, and frosty high country thick with dark pines and devil’s club. And there are the hidey holes—the hamlets sprinkled along old forgotten highways, the winding sloughs and channels of the fertile delta, and the coast beyond—dotted with islands pungent from salt and rain. There are the bars and diners and coffeehouses, the playgrounds and trails. And there are the people who fill them, hearty and happy. And though our readers revealed some of these secrets, Skagit remains a treasure undiscovered.
Entries by Tim Johnson, Amy Kepferle, Carey Ross, Stephanie Young, and Trail Rat
Photos by Jessamyn Tuttle and Andy Porter
Where: 15867 Beaver Marsh Road, Mount Vernon
Third Street Cafe
It’s a bold claim, but I’m certain the act of imbibing a specialty cocktail at Mount Vernon’s Third Street Cafe can help save the world. In addition to the fresh fare found in both its seasonal cuisine and craft cocktails, the restaurant offshoot of the Skagit Valley Food Co-op’s C-Square is also solar-powered and is passionately committed to the local food movement—including what makes it onto your plate or into your glass. Try the cafe’s Limoncello Drop—a concoction with Valley Shine Ascension Vodka making a star turn—and find the strength to be an eco-warrior.
Where: 309 S. Third St., Mount Vernon
Max Dale’s Steak & Chop House
Max and Pauline Dale met Paul Pickering, and a legend was born along Old Highway 99. This place is like stepping back to a time when a good meal wasn’t complete unless it included a juicy steak or chop alongside a hearty vegetable, potato and green salad. Surf and turf? You got it! I take my meal in the lounge seated in a comfy high-backed booth with an expertly mixed martini. Times have never been better.
Where: 2030 Riverside Dr., Mount Vernon
Snagging a sunset on the rocky bald above the bat caves is a vertical payoff that makes the hard march up the trail doubly worth the effort. But when it comes to attaining a medicinal dose of Skagitonian solitude, I prefer a predawn tromp through the dog hair every time. Reclined regally in the silent embrace of my root-gnarled breakfast nook, I watch familiar vistas emerge into expressive horizons—and that’s when part of me emerges, too.
Where: Pacific Northwest Trail, Bow
Despite April showers dampening the world outside, it’s all smiles and friendly faces when you walk through the door of Calico Cupboard. There’s a warm buzz in the air, servers expertly weaving in between full tables of happy customers and the smell of heavenly baked goods summoned from every corner. A trio of amazing locations to visit in Skagit Valley mean you can try all of their winning categories. Three cheers all around.
Where: 720 1st St., La Conner; 901 Commercial Ave., Anacortes; 121-B Freeway Dr., Mount Vernon
Tulip Valley Winery
If you’re meandering along State Route 536, be on the lookout for a large 1920s-era dairy barn surrounded by three acres of grapevines and apple orchards. It’s there you’ll find the Tulip Valley Winery, a scenic family-run venue originally inspired by the lush Skagit Valley and the iconic flowers that usher in spring. In addition to enjoying tastings of the award-winning hard cider and wine sourced with locally and regionally grown grapes, visitors during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival can also peruse an on-site art show, settle in for a picnic, visit with local vendors and even take a helicopter ride to check out the stellar view from above.
Best Farm Store/Nursery:
In 1934, the Skagit Grange Supply opened with a mission to provide high-quality products for the ever-growing community of Skagit Valley farmers. The original name has changed, but the directive has stayed the same. So whether you’re enhancing your lawn or garden, sourcing food for your chickens, cows or indoor pets, picking out hardware, or fueling up at one of the three stores located throughout the county, rest assured they’ve got you covered.
Where: 1276 S. Burlington Blvd., Burlington; 915 Moore St., Sedro-Woolley; 900 Riverside Dr., Mount Vernon
At La Conner’s Sibling Studio, it’s a family affair. Since 2002, when mixed-media artist Lloyd Houston and his sister Christie moved back to the town where they were raised, the duo have been following their muses in a variety of ways. In Lloyd’s case, photography shares creative space with prints, writing, imagery, painting, sculpture, ginormous jigsaw puzzles and something he calls “BEM Boxes.” To create the art that defies categorization, Houston—who’s celebrating his second win in this coveted category—says he looks to the past to lead him. See his work at the multiple-award-winning Conway Muse, or schedule a time to check out the printmaking machinations at Sibling Studio.
Where: La Conner
The Skagit Casino Resort
Not long ago, I spent a weekend sampling the delights of the Skagit Valley Casino. From their expansive buffet that truly tested my ability to consume shameful quantities of delicious food to their robust amount of gaming tables and rotating slot machines to the top-notch entertainment that can be regularly found in its Pacific Showroom and Winners Lounge, one need not take a gamble on Vegas to have a high-rolling good time. Round out your visit with a stay in one of their rooms that range from highly affordable to all-out luxury and you might just be tempted to let it ride and never leave. I know I was.
Where: 5984 Darrk Lane, Bow
Family owned and operated Schuh Farm has been in business for more than 50 years, providing Cascadia with fresh fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers, eggs, baked goods (their pies are to die for) and old-fashioned family fun. There’s a bit of magic to the farm regardless of the season, and there’s something for everyone, big or small. Make Schuh Farm a must-stop destination today—and through December, as there’s always something new on the acreage.
Where: 15535 State Route 536, Mount Vernon
Info: (360) 424-6982
Best Place to Dance/Place for a First Date/Place to See Live Music/Meet-Up:
Oh, Conway Muse, how do we love thee? Well, we don’t need to count the ways, we can simply count the awards this tiny-town entertainment powerhouse has racked up. This multidisciplinary artistic hub is your Skagit go-to when you seek live music, are picking a perfect spot for a first date or meet-up or you just need to dance the night away. The only thing that can possibly make a visit to the Muse even better is a cocktail (or three—we don’t judge) expertly mixed by your favorite bartender Kelly Hayton, who is always ready with a surplus of drink knowledge and her trademark warm smile. No wonder the Muse is your end-all, be-all destination for fun, year in and year out.
Best Bartender: Kelly Hayton at the Conway Muse
Where: 18444 Spruce St., Conway
Best Hunting and Fishing Gear:
Well, it ain’t strictly in Skagit, but who’s fussing? Cabela’s is like REI for people who hunt things. And who eat the things they hunt around a camp stove. I love wandering this outfitter’s jungle, the thickets of rods and reels, the racks of boats and canoes, critter dioramas at every turn, and the gun library where every stock and caliber has a story and a staffer who can tell it. When you’re ready to hit the rivers and woods of the high country, make Cabela’s your first stop.
Where: 9810 Quil Ceda Blvd., Marysville