Along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a lively blend of restaurants turns the Hilltop neighborhood into an eating destination like no other in Tacoma.
The restaurants are an outgrowth of the eclectic and transitional nature of the Hilltop: The longtime institution Bob’s Bar B Q Pit shares a block with 1022 South, a young and edgy lounge producing some of the most interesting cocktails in the region. The 20-plus-year-old Fish House Cafe flanks the restaurant’s eating district with southern down-home goodness at 19th and MLK, while several blocks away, the effortlessly cool newcomer Tempest Lounge bookends the area.
Up and down side streets, visitors will find Vietnamese, Thai and some of the city’s fluffiest doughnuts. We delve into the MLK neighborhood of the Hilltop for our latest installment of 10-in-one, a review of 10 restaurants in a single neighborhood.
Where: 913 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Info: 253-272-4904, www.tempest lounge.com
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Tempest Lounge is hip and cool precisely because it doesn’t try to be hip and cool. The living room-sized space casts a ruby-hued glow on everyone who enters. Gender, race, age, sexual orientation – there are no boundaries here.
Owned by Denise Tempest and her partner, Michelle Douglas, the lounge features a circular bar, intimate tables and a sheltered outdoor area.
The fare at Tempest is heavy on comfort food and outstanding. In the appetizer category, we started with chicken wings ($6.95). Mini drumsticks and wings, covered in a tongue-tingling hot sauce, were accompanied by a ramekin of mild blue cheese dressing and thick slices of celery and carrot. Barbecue sauce is an option with this selection.
Another appetizer, bean dip, came in a small casserole dish. The creamy dip was populated with whole beans and covered by salsa and slices of avocado. The varied flavors and textures, spread on corn chips, is a different but delicious take on the common dish ($7.95).
In the entrée category, we started with meatloaf ($11.95). A long girder of firm meat stretched across the plate. The fennel-flavored loaf was covered with homemade ketchup and rested next to a generous helping of herbed and rustic mashed potatoes. Fresh and al dente squash finished the presentation.
Crab cake sandwiches ($10.95) did not disappoint. Plenty of crab (but too salty) interspersed with corn kernels filled the sandwiches. We ordered it with a purple cabbage slaw.
Four beers are on tap, including New Belgian Brewing’s organic and spicy Mothership Wit.
We tried a refreshing mocktail, the Citrus Spin, full of fresh juice and lightly sweet.
Where: 1012 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
It’s a little bit of Southeast Asia inside Lele where the aromas of Vietnamese and Thai cooking waft through tropical greenery and bamboo furniture.
Lele has become a fixture on MLK in the 10 years since it opened. A more upscale sister restaurant resides in Uptown Gig Harbor. The restaurant has built a reputation for plentiful, quality food.
An extensive appetizer menu begins with chicken sate ($6.99). The cubist-like presentation featured two pieces of chicken, seared, juicy and mildly spicy. It came with two sauces: one a brilliant yellow coconut and the other clear and sweet with cucumbers.
Fresh spring rolls (goi cuon) were well-constructed rice skin tubes of pork, shrimp, noodles, lettuce, basil and bean sprouts. A generous helping of dark, savory and peanutty dipping sauce completed the dish ($2).
You can’t go wrong with the huge chunks of vegetables and pineapple in Lele’s Mussaman curry. The stew-like dish is great by itself or over rice ($10.99-12.99).
Don’t like eggplant? Number 54 might change your mind. A crispy exterior holds steaming hot tender chunks of the purple-skinned plant in a sweet and savory sauce. Order it with tofu for vegetarian nirvana ($10.99-12.99).
Not all of Lele’s fare are winners. Basil delight (we ordered it with pork) had big chunks of veggies and sprigs of basil – but not enough. The sauce wasn’t flavorful, just gelatinous. The small, gristly chunks of pork didn’t help ($10.99-12.99).
Malaysian noodles arrived with thinly sliced egg as a garnish and broccoli arranged attractively around the side of the plate. Chinese sausage added a distinctive sweet, hammy punch. It hardly needed the chicken we ordered with it ($9.99).
Some entree prices go up $1 at dinner. I wish Lele didn’t charge $2.50 for substituting brown rice for white but I’m thankful they have the option.
Pho Bac Cafe
Where: 1115 S. 11th St., Tacoma
Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily
Pho Bac Café is a no-nonsense soup house that has just returned to its pho-only roots. A few days ago, the unassuming eatery had a four-page menu with rice and noodle dishes. Now, it’s just two pages of pho.
“Our kitchen is too small,” a server told me by way of explanation.
But all is not lost. These folks really know how to make pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup staple.
When my steaming hot bowl of pho tai bo vien (beef slices and meatballs) arrived, the bright pink meat cooked dark right before my eyes. Fine-grained meatballs bobbed in the classic broth that didn’t need much tweaking. If the broth doesn’t have enough zip, every table has bottles of Sriracha and hoison sauces to add to taste.
We also tried chicken (pho ga) and shrimp (pho tom) varieties. All varieties of pho come with a modest number of noodles with fresh bits of onion.
The traditional condiment plate holding bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, and basil leaves wasn’t huge but it was supremely fresh. The pho comes in three sizes ($5.50, $6.50, $8).
You can still get appetizers here, such as goi cuon ($3), the nonfried Vietnamese spring rolls so popular they even show up now in supermarket sushi counters. Pho Bac’s are quite presentable and feature pork, shrimp, lettuce, cilantro and noodles in a rice paper wrapper. The peanut dipping sauce, however, will make you wish you had gone straight to the pho. Let’s just say the sauce wasn’t the least bit appetizing.
Drinks include various forms of Vietnamese coffee. I tried ca phe sua da ($2.50). It was prepared the traditional way: a small French drip filter sitting over a cup partially filled with sweetened condensed milk.
The service here is quick. They won’t even bring you a menu unless you ask. Bring your cash because they don’t take cards.
Where: 1020 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday
A restaurant that offers cream puffs before I even order my meal gets my attention. Pho King – which does just that – opened last summer in the space formerly occupied by the Vicala Market. The dining room received a partial fluff and buff that took the gritty edges off the space.
If cream puffs at a Vietnamese restaurant strike you as strange, consider this: Cream puffs in the context of Vietnamese cuisine are French imperialism at work. More examples: Vietnamese crepes or the crusty baguettes used in banh mi sandwiches, all culinary leftovers of French occupation. Whatever the cause, a restaurant that starts a meal with complimentary cream puffs finds an instant fan in me.
So many signals at this restaurant point to someone in the kitchen who cares about quality and presentation, unusual for a restaurant where you can get a big lunch for about $7. A fresh rice noodle salad ($6.99) – called “bun” on the menu – provided a visual and textural treat with artfully arranged sections of shredded carrots, chopped mint, basil, lettuce, crispy-edged grilled pork and golden wedges of fried egg rolls atop chewy rice noodles. A puckery sweet vinaigrette licked with fish sauce notched up the flavor. From the rice plates menu, com tam ($7.50) displayed a hodgepodge of porky flavor – grilled pork, steamed and fried pork cakes, sausage and fried shrimp topped with a fried egg.
Value-priced banh mi sandwiches ($2.50) start with a crispy toasted baguette with a choice of grilled pork or seasoned tofu. Generous jalapenos, pickled veggies and sprigs of cilantro add a fresh, herby essence. Pho broth ($5.50 small/$6.50 large) is fragrant and rich. For vegetarians, Pho King lists something you won’t find at every pho restaurant: a veggie-based broth with fried tofu.
Thai Garden Restaurant
Where: 1202 S. 11th St. Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday
It’s easy to get a warm and fuzzy feeling walking into Thai Garden. Housed in a 1950s-era building, the interior of this homey restaurant is adorable. Checkered table cloths support vases of flowers.
The proportions aren’t big here, but neither are the prices.
Four small fresh spring rolls made up an order for $5.95. They featured cooked chicken and shrimp. It’s accompanying peanut sauce was cloyingly sweet and very weak on the peanut flavor.
Four pork satays ($5.95) came with a savory peanut sauce that was reminiscent of a gravy more than the typical peanut sauce. Chicken satay also is on the menu.
Thai Garden lays on the sugar a little too much. Masman curry ($6.95) with garbanzo beans, potatoes and vegetables could have been less sweet. The same is true for the Pad Thai that was heavy on fish sauce.
The ginger chicken ($6.95) was a standout, redolent of its featured spice. Broccoli, pepper and mushrooms swam with julienned ginger.
Condiments arrive in a neat tray: peanuts, jalapeño peppers, chili sauce and dried chilis.
Where: 1022 S. J St., Tacoma
Info: 253- 627-8588
Hours: Open daily at 4 p.m.
With a tagline “Better Living Through Alchemy,” you should expect mystery to infuse the menu at 1022 South. Carefully sourced ingredients, sodas made from scratch and handmade botanical infusions full of heady flavor make for a curious cocktail experience.
From the ginger beer to the bitters to the infused vodkas and tequilas, 1022 South is home to some of the region’s most interesting mixology. So said New York Times Magazine in January. So say foodies in the know who visit 1022 South for its laid-back vibe, curious surroundings and the alchemy magic of Chris Keil (he also goes by Chris Langston), its cocktail mastermind. Keil is revered as a flavor maker, the man who isn’t afraid to use lavender, cardamom, coconut and balsamic vinegar to punctuate cocktails and simultaneously rejuvenate the spirit, if not the body, with his botanical infusions.
Books line the walls, should a literary moment beckon. (Previous menu incarnations highlighted literary-themed cocktails; the menu and themes change frequently.) The space is long and narrow and 20 people is a crowd in the softly lit room that seems to perpetually flicker with candlelight. Wooden tables can be pushed into different configurations to accommodate groups large and small.
From the cocktail menu, many drinks beckon. You’ll inevitably ask questions. The Old Fashioned ($10) gets a modern spin with orange oil and saffron/cardamom bitters poured over a blocky ice cube. Let the drink sit and mellow – it improves as the melting ice and bitters temper the assertive bourbon. A drunken boat ($8) is a ride on a ginger expressway with an effervescent mouthfeel from house-made ginger beer, ginger-flavored liqueur, black strap rum and a showy finish with flamed Angostura bitters. The Beatrice Cocktail ($10) is legendary in foodie circles here: vodka, amaro and lemon finished with a fig balsamic vinegar.
Cocktails are the main event at 1022 South, but they do have a nibbles and panini sandwich menu – all well executed. Tapenade crostini ($5) made good use of crispy, toasted crostini topped with soft cheese and a salty olive tapenade. The meat panini sandwich ($8) was built on crusty bread and gooey gruyere with a double pork whammy of hot coppacola and salami playing savory against puckery spicy brown mustard. The Jamaican ($8) might be one of the best vegetarian sandwiches in town outside of Quickie Too. Jerk-seasoned tofu was unctuous against snappy, peppery jicama ginger slaw, red onion and tomato on crusty grilled bread.
BOB’S BAR B Q PIT
Where: 911 S. 11th St., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays.
I looked like a messy preschooler – sauce on my face, a slap-happy grin – and I didn’t care. Good ribs turn even the most delicate eaters into slobs.
The ribs at Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit are messy, sticky and smoky good. Alder is the wood of choice here. An assertive whiff of it smacks you when you walk through the front door. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find owners Michael or Jonathan Clark out front with the portable smoking pit. Their mother, Carolyn Littles, handles the register inside.
Carolyn’s parents, Bob and Elizabeth Littles, opened Bob’s in 1948 at 1318 Court D in downtown Tacoma. It closed in 1983 but, after a six-year hiatus, the restaurant moved to the Hilltop and has been operated by Littles and her sons ever since.
Today, the future of Bob’s is up in the air. The family is selling the building, and they might not stay at the location, depending on the economy. They’re struggling, said Littles when I talked to her by phone.
They already have a second location. Since last October, Michael Clark has been serving Bob’s barbecue Wednesdays through Saturday evenings at Caballeros, 1516 S. 28th St. (253-297-6696). If their Hilltop location closes, they will move to Caballeros, Littles said.
Barbecue at Bob’s is Texas-style pit-smoked, with recipes handed down from Bob Littles, who grew up in Texas but came to Tacoma via Fort Lewis. Purists beware: They sauce their ribs. Sauce comes in three levels of spice, with mild barely registering, medium offering a tease of heat, and the hot version good for a tongue sizzle.
The meat sampler platter ($16.99) is perfect for sharing and a good introduction to Bob’s barbecue: two tender, pit-smoked pork ribs, six zippy hot wings, a quarter pound of chopped barbecue brisket, and a meaty, spicy hot link. The meat was tender and obviously slow-smoked – tinged with a pink smoke ring from a long trip on the smoker.
A rib samich ($7.99) wasn’t a sandwich but rather four smoky ribs wrapped in paper on two pieces of spongy white bread. A rib dinner combo ($11.99) on another trip was slightly more chewy than a previous visit and made me wonder whether the ding of the microwave had something to do with that. Creamy potato salad, cornbread and baked beans are serviceable. Smoky, ham-spiked collard greens and cheesy house-made mac ’n’ cheese are better. Desserts are house made. The cinnamony peach cobbler ($2.99) comes with a sugared, flaky pie crust that’ll remind you of grandma’s.
Where: 1317 S. 11th St., Tacoma
Hours: They open at 5 a.m. daily and close at 5 p.m., or when the doughnuts run out.
When a tiny doughnut shop on Tacoma’s Hilltop sells bacon maple bars, you know we’ve reached culinary saturation of a food trend. It just proves that, yes, you can put bacon on just about everything and people will eat it. Not that I’m complaining. Bacon maple bars at Le Donut are delicious, much like all the doughnuts at the tiny storefront with trim painted a jarring shade of yellow.
Fluffy, always fresh doughnuts mean supplies run low by afternoon, so get there early. The doughnuts come in large and extra large – apple fritters and maple bars seem as big as your head. Both are wonderful interpretations. Maple bars are light and fluffy with a sticky and not-too-crunchy glaze. Apple fritters are full of cinnamon and spongy soft. Cruellers, twists, cinnamon, chocolate, sprinkles, cake doughnuts, old fashioned, glazed and nut covered – all of the classics are here.
Something funny: On several visits, the counter help has tried to rope me into buying an egg roll for breakfast, but I’ve never bit. How many customers pair a doughnut with an egg roll for breakfast? But the counter staff rates five stars on the scale of nice. Doughnuts range from 60 cents for cake doughnuts to $1.50 for fritters and $3 for the bacon maple bars.
Where: 1324 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday; noon-6 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Vegan southern food? That term might seem incongruous, but a visit to Quickie Too and maybe it will make sense. Or not, depending upon your comfort with vegan dining.
The longtime Hilltop restaurant, which opened 20 something years ago as a wholesale sandwich company and turned into a restaurant five years ago, combines the two loves of Niombi and James Howell: a vegan lifestyle merged with southern cooking.
James Howell hails from Mobile, Ala. He’s the front of house, the quiet unassuming man who shuttles glasses of water and towering plates of food to your table. Daughter Afi works with her mother, Niombi, in the kitchen. The restaurant has one of the mellowest vibes in Tacoma: a reggae soundtrack, a bright and airy dining room, a slow pace that means your lunch might be more of a lounging experience than a fill-up quick stop.
Comfort food with a soul food spin shows up in burgers, sweet potato fries, wraps, sandwiches, vegan mac ’n’ cheese and collard greens.
From the dinner menu, breaded tempeh with a vegan tartar was a stand-in for fish in the Friday Night Fish Fry ($14.99). Potato salad held mustardy pucker on a bed of crisp greens and a tangy tangle of purple cabbage, a chewy hush puppy was spicy sweet, and collard greens were vinegary smoky. (How’d they do that without ham?)
Burgers, sandwiches and wraps come thumped with palate-pleasing flavor. A Mama Africa burger ($9.49) was a soft bun spilling over with a deliciously chewy but loosely bound millet and quinoa patty topped with grilled sweet onions, tomatoes and house-made salsa and vegan mayo. Millet and quinoa with a spicier edge showed up on the Stephanie wrap ($10.99) in a griddled tortilla with crisp lettuce and carrots mingling with the same kicky cabbage from the fish fry dinner. The Strami wrap ($10.99) showcased the versatility of smoked tofu paired with a profusion of crunch – snappy pickles, crunchy onions, tomatoes and lettuce and a hefty smear of mustard.
Sides for burgers and wraps change: peppery sautéed potatoes on one visit and smoky red beans and rice on another. A side dish of flavorful Mac NYease ($5.75) might have been pasty but was quite tasty with nutritional yeast (the “NY” in the name) adding nutty balance to mushy noodles.
Here’s something worth noting: The restaurant offers a Southern-style vegan brunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. every Sunday.
Fish House Cafe
Where: 1814 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday
The Fish House Café might be short on space, but it’s big on Southern-style fried fish and chicken wings. The Fish House is tucked into a small building across from St. Joseph’s Hospital and next to a gas station. The scene is a tiny dining room with just a few tables that seem continuously filled with regulars who know one another, judging by the chatty back-and-forth over the percussive bass of the hip-hop soundtrack. Call in your order or stand in line, but do expect a bit of a wait for the made-to-order food.
The restaurant was started more than 20 years ago by Anthony Ward and is now run by his son Ahmad Ward and manager Jacqulyn Washington (she’s the smiling, friendly one at the cash register).
Fried fish is the specialty here – either cod or catfish (you’ll get cod unless you specify catfish). In filet form as a combo with fries ($6.75), the fish is crunchy good with a cornmeal breading that breaks open to soft, steamy flakes of fish. A regular bread crumb coating also is available, but locals know to get the Southern-style cornmeal breading.
The fish burger ($4.50) is crunchy good with layers of that crunchy cornmeal fried fish, snappy onions, and tomatoes on a toasted bun swiped with a healthy smear of mayo. Wings ($5.99, combo with fries) came with the same cornmeal jacket and a side of house-made sauce that burned so good.
A Philly cheesesteak sandwich is worth the trip alone. A soft and squishy hoagie roll is a hefty missile stuffed with tender chopped, grilled steak, sautéed onions and peppers, and a layer of gooey melted Swiss. Greasy flavor soaks into the hoagie roll, but the roll holds up until the end. For sides, fries are just ordinary crinkle cuts, mac and cheese is of the Velveeta variety, and slaw tasted commercially prepared, but fried okra with a crunchy cornmeal batter might change your mind if you hate okra, and the crunchy hush puppies are legendary throughout Tacoma. Sides range from $1.50-$2.99.