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Destination White Center: Rockin' and Rollin' in Rat City

Published on: July 18, 2013

Pinballs at Full TiltRat City. The origin of White Center's odd nickname may still be a matter of dispute — some say it came from a military abbreviation during WW II, some say it referred to the "roller rats" who frequented the Southgate Roller Rink during the same era — but it's not up for debate that White Center is a great community that takes pride in its diversity.

This neighborhood just south of West Seattle has a rich immigrant heritage. According to the 2010 Census, nearly 60 percent of White Center's population are communities of color, and Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Arabic and Somali can be heard as frequently as English. Community-centric street fairs, colorful art walks and neighborhood luaus at the local pig pit all bring people out to mingle.

To start your White Center explorations, park near the intersection of Roxbury Street and 16th Ave, pick up a cup of coffee and a homemade, diabetic-friendly pastry from Cafe Rozella (9434 Delridge), and set out for a stroll past international marketplaces, quirky boutiques and neighborhood hangouts. Welcome to Rat City.

1. Rock and roll

Take a spin around the Southgate Roller Rink (located on 17th Ave just south of Roxbury) where disco balls, arcade games and the sound of wheels on the hardwood floor might just flash you back to your own childhood.

This neighborhood staple has been a favorite hangout since 1930, and more recently has gained fame as the birthplace of the Rat City Rollergirls. The derby league still holds bouts there on occasion — check out Southgate's events page for the schedule.

In the summer the roller rink hosts one family-friendly skate time on Thursday and Friday, and two on Saturdays. (In the winters they're open Tuesdays and Sundays, too.) Admission is $6.50, and includes skate rental.

2. Try a new flavor

One block over on 16th Ave, Full Tilt Ice Cream & Pinball Arcade has been dishing up unique flavors like Thai Ice Tea and Vegan Mango Chili Sorbet since 2008. Founded as a place where the neighborhood could gather, Full Tilt features vintage arcade and pinball machines, good music and a welcoming atmosphere.

Full Tilt Ice Cream

You'll quickly see why it's a local favorite. The lime green walls are covered with art, a skee ball game beckons from the corner and they'll even serve mom and dad an adult pint of Northwest beer from one of their 8 taps. Try one from local brewery Big Al's, which is just a couple blocks away on 14th Ave.

3. Go window shopping

There's something for everyone in the business district's cluster of fascinating shops, from the ultra-chic heels at Zapatos Para Mujer on 16th and Roxbury to the abayas at Somalia Habib Discount Store on 14th and 98th.

Don't skip Rat City Records and Relics, a hole-in-the wall record store that already feels well lived in despite only opening in February. Their impressive collection of kids' records is kept at youngster eye-level, and Mom and Dad are sure to find beloved favorites as well.

Rat City Records

Don't have a record player? Check out their collection for sale in the back.

4. Taste the world

The influence of the many immigrant communities is especially visible in White Center's restaurants and grocery stores. Sample pupusas and empanadas at the Salvadorean Bakery, grab a giant bowl of pho at one of the many Vietnamese restaurants, Mexican BBQ at El Paisano Roticeria y Cocina, Cambodian food at Queen's Deli, or Peruvian fare at San Fernando Roast Chicken. You'll also find U.S. American standards at Proletariat Pizza, Zippy's Giant Burgers, 3.14 Bakery and Uncle Mike's Superlicious BBQ.

Looking for a snack on the go? Try roasted corn any way you want it at Best Roasted Corn on 15th Ave and 98th Street, where you can choose from American, African, Mexican or Central American styles.

With about a dozen markets within a few blocks, White Center's a great place to hunt for hard-to-find ingredients. Step inside Phnom Kiev Super Market (on 16th just north of 100th Street) for specialty imported Latin and Asian groceries, or visit the White Center Market (on 16th just south of Roxbury) where they fire up the outdoor barbecue Cambodian-style during weekends on summer months.

Phnom Kiev Market

5. Check out the art

As you wander, you'll quickly notice that White Center enjoys its art. The business district is covered with bright murals, mostly painted by volunteers during the annual Spring Cleaning event. Take a tour of the murals on your own (the White Center Chamber of Commerce website has a map, or stop by on the second Thursday of every month, when the entire neighborhood dons its artist cap for the art walk.

White Center mural

About the author: Jessie Kwak is a Seattle freelance writer who loves to type about the good life: travel, outdoor adventures, cycling, food, and sewing. You can follow her on Twitter, connect on Google+, and read more of her writing on her blog, Bictoro: Bikes and Crafts. Photos in this piece are by Robert Kittilson, Jessie's husband/staff photographer.

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