SOCIAL BAR AND GRILL
Complimentary savory doughnut appetizers, Ahi poke with a tangle of seaweed, swordfish skewers coated in chimichurri, sublime roasted duck, pitchers of sangria – all with a waterfront view of the Foss Waterway. I’m ready to move in for the rest of the (pseudo) summer at Social Bar and Grill, the newest restaurant that opened July 26 on Tacoma’s urban waterway.
With this-is-why-we-live-here views and a lively dining room made over with a floor to ceiling picture window fully framing the display kitchen, Social is a buzzing restaurant teeming with movement ... and noise. Despite the name, socializing becomes truly frustrating when the restaurant is even at half capacity. Noise respite? Sit outside. The outdoor patio doesn’t come with brushed concrete floors, high ceilings and countless hard surfaces to reverberate the din. The dining room may be loud, but it’s also beautifully modern, sophisticated and casual enough to come as you are. Comfortable seating will make you want to stay awhile.
Service? Darn good for a brand-new restaurant. Staffers could learn the menu a little better because the stark menu descriptions didn’t tell me enough. When two of three dishes showed up with the same style of chimichurri, it would have been nice if our server intervened with a warning of the crossover. But drink refills kept coming, the servers remained effortlessly friendly and our food, even on a busy weekend night, arrived quickly.
A trio of Matador alumni are the crafters of Social. There’s Philip Panagos, who most recently worked as the general manager of Tacoma’s Matador, and Jason Bailey, who worked on the opening crew for five of the Tex-Mex chain’s restaurants. Rodel Borromeo, who until recently was Matador’s corporate executive chef, is the third owner.
The menu is broken into shareables and more substantials, with choices for all budgets. Nothing costs more than $19. The food is flavorful and eclectic, with influences meandering from Spain, the Mediterranean, South America and even Asia. It’s all enjoyable, beautifully plated and clearly the kitchen is working hard here, but a warning: they lean heavy on the spice. If heat bothers you, speak up to your server.
From the salads menu, wilted and grilled romaine hearts ($7) with a spicy lemony-parsley chimichurri was tasty, if not overdressed. Exactly the opposite, the sweet pea and mint salad ($7), was understated, the mint and peas whispered with mild spring flavors.
From the “shareables” menu, soy and sake kissed ahi poke ($9) offered slippery, velvety cubes of raw tuna punched up with a tangle of seaweed and pops of white and black sesame seeds. Grilled octopus ($8) over herbed potatoes won’t find a fan in tentacle haters, but I liked the parsley chimichurri with salty pops of fried capers. Beef satay skewers ($8) would be a fabulous pairing with the ahi. The soy and lemongrass marinated skewers tasted beefy and tender, a jicama-carrot slaw on the side.
Sandwiches were hit and miss. A pork belly sandwich ($7), with slaw on the side, was too bready and dry, the meat chewy tough, not supple as it should be. An a la carte burger ($8) made my burger lust swell – a char-grilled half-pound patty on a substantial roll with melted cheddar, chewy bacon, fresh cilantro and jalapeno slices, a roasted red pepper standing in for the tomato. The chile aioli, strangely, came on the side.
From the substantials menu, meaty swordfish skewers ($14) equally impressed. It also came with the same chimichurri sauce, leaving my palate fatigued on chimichurri (which is a parsley-based condiment similar to pesto). Bacon penne carbonara ($10) over potatoes wowed with rich, chewy bacon, a buttery sauce and salty olives. A braised duck ($14) made me dream of Spain with a thigh and leg portion swimming in a bold tomato-olive sauce heady with cinnamon. If you order one thing at Social, make it that.
PAPA JONES BBQ
Wood stacked up outside a barbecue restaurant usually is an early alert system that the real deal is just inside. At Papa Jones BBQ, the stack of alder wood says it all.
Pork shoulder, ribs, brisket and chicken are rubbed with a sweet-smoky spice blend and slow smoked over alder and cherry. Papa Jones is a restaurant that has the technical aspect of barbecue nailed. The barbecue restaurant opened July 29.
The atmosphere is seat-yourself casual with modern decor – stained concrete floors, snazzy pendant lighting and attractive earth tones. It’s downright pretty, which, if I know barbecue aficionados – and I think I do – might make diners pause. Good barbecue restaurants are seldom well decorated. But don’t fear, the woman at the helm knows what she’s doing. Helen Alfred learned from one of the region’s best – William Jones, who started the popular Jones Original Barbeque in Seattle (his son and daughter-in-law now run it).
I’ve long been a fan of Jones. Slow smoked meats with a tomato-based spicy sauce draws crowds. Tacoma’s Papa Jones not only is named after William Jones, it’s an homage to his barbecue recipes. Alfred cooked for Jones for 18 years before starting her own barbecue restaurant in Seattle, which was short lived before she lost the space to a building owner’s foreclosure. Two years later, she picked Tacoma because of the location. She operates the restaurant with her children, son E.J. Evans and Ashleigh Bess.
The meat is what Alfred calls a merge of Texas- and Arkansas-style barbecue. Meats are rubbed with brown sugar, smoked paprika and garlic, then slow cooked and served naked (if requested) or with one of the spicy-sweet tomato-based and cayenne-fueled barbecue sauces. Be warned heat haters: it is accurate on the Papa Jones scale. Hot really is hot, medium truly is medium heat. Best order the sauce on the side if you’re afraid of tongue sizzle. I found the hot permeating with a full-mouth sting. Medium was more tolerable.
The barbecue tasted near perfect on two separate visits – the pulled pork sandwich ($8.75) at lunch was tender and lightly hit with smoke, the connective tissue all melted away, leaving a big pile of unctuous meat sans chewy gristle. The bun was just ornament, I didn’t eat it. A lunchtime rib tip basket ($7) with slaw or fries came with a healthy mound of tips that were lightly kissed with smoke and had just the right amount of pull and chew. A chopped beef sandwich at lunch ($8.50) also showed they know how to cook tough meats into smoky magic without turning them into pot roast. Consider me a fan.
All lunch specials come with a house-made salad, creamy red-skin potato salad with a mustardy sweet dressing, sweet mayo-dressed macaroni or a crunchy cole slaw with a thin, sweet dressing. Ribs ($13.95) come a la carte and were six bones of spare ribs (a full rack is $24.95) that were slightly too chewy, but more assertively smoked than the other meats I sampled. The smoke ring is a sure sign of a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.
While they’re getting started, expect tweaks and specials to the menu. I already know I’ll be back to try gumbo Saturdays.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org