Strip malls represent the annoying check marks on our to-do lists.
Drop the clothes at the cleaners. Get the dog groomed. Power through a teeth cleaning. Cash a check.
They’re so rarely exciting to visit.
But here’s something to note. Strip malls sometimes harbor great little restaurant finds.
With lower rent, high traffic and premium parking, strip malls and shopping centers are natural magnets for mom-and-pop operations with terrific eats.
I’ve written about at least 20 of those in my continuing series looking at strip-mall dining in Pierce County. I’ve dug into strip mall Thai restaurants all over Tacoma. I’ve learned to love the art of Filipino turo-turo. I’ve eaten my share of strip mall gyros and learned to grill my own meat at a Korean barbecue buffet.
Today’s adventure takes readers to Northeast Tacoma to the Browns Point Town Center.
In a single shopping mall, find:
▪ A diner that makes outstanding American classics.
▪ An Indian restaurant that also serves pizza. (It’s not as weird as that sounds.)
▪ A brewery that’s tripled its capacity since opening a year ago.
▪ A deli counter that serves take-out fusion Filipino cuisine with an emphasis on lumpia.
BROWNS POINT DINER
Where: 6622 East Side Drive NE, Tacoma; 253-952-3743 or brownspointdiner.com.
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.
Late on a Friday, after the dinner rush, I stopped for meatloaf at the Browns Point Diner.
A commotion bubbled from the kitchen. The grill cook and his assistant were air guitaring and lip synching. To Pat Benatar.
I see so many sullen restaurant workers slogging through their shifts that I find it satisfying when I encounter people who love their jobs and show it.
When owners Tanja and Shane Leek hire, they hire well. Service on every visit was outstanding. And so was the lip synching.
Browns Point Diner is the trifecta of well-executed American diner classics, terrific staff and comfortable digs. The Leeks opened the restaurant about nine years ago.
Shane grew up in Northeast Tacoma (one of his first jobs was at the Cliff House). He met Tanja in her native Bavaria while stationed there with the military.
Opening a restaurant was a lifelong dream. The menu reads like the greatest hits of diner classics, with an emphasis on house-made excellence, from the hand-cut fries to the sandwich meat that’s grilled separately before assembly.
A dine-in counter seats about a dozen. A row of booths line the wall of windows that offer a peek-a-boo water view. A cubbyhole holds a few more tables. There’s a lounge entrance at the back of the diner. Don’t be surprised if you wait a bit for a table.
Breakfast lists a page of egg dishes, griddle cakes, diner classics and more robust offerings ($5.95-$13.50) and another page of omelets and scrambles ($9.25-$12.25).
Corned beef hash ($10.25) combined beefy pieces large and small buried with onions and peppers in hash browns that seesawed crunchy and creamy. Two eggs, over medium, draped the dish.
The big breakfast ($11.95) was just that, with three eggs (over easy, as requested), two pieces each of crispy bacon and well-grilled sausage, half a ham steak and crispy-edged hashbrowns. Showing up alongside was a fluffy two-stack of plate-sized pancakes.
A nudge of my fork into a tightly wound cinnamon roll spilled butter onto my plate. Topped with a fluffy cloud of icing, the magnificent rolls are served only weekends while supplies last.
Lunch offers salads, a few deli sandwiches, and 14 grilled and hot sandwiches and burgers ($7-$11.50), all bargain priced for the quality served. If forced to pick one thing, make it the patty melt with a one-third pound patty sandwiched with grilled onions and American cheese on marble rye ($9.75). Onion rings were battered and snappy. Fries were the apex of every visit. Skins-on fries were hand cut, with plenty of surface area, fried until deeply golden brown.
At dinner, choices dip even deeper into American fare, with hot turkey and gravy over bread ($10), chicken fried steak with country or brown gravy ($14) and a choice of five burgers ($9-$10.50).
Meatloaf impressed with its dense texture and tangy gravy made with red wine ($14), a pile of mashed potatoes, dinner roll with butter and steamed broccoli were along for the ride. Beer-battered cod and chips ($13.50) were as crisp as they were golden.
HILLTOP INDIAN RESTAURANT AND PIZZA CORNER
Where: 1000 Town Center NE, Tacoma; 253-952-7777; hilltoprestaurants.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 Tuesdays-Sundays.
Sure, the combination of pizza and Indian food sounds a little weird.
The merger of the two divergent cuisines is the project of Tej Yogee, a culinary school graduate who started as a chef in Nepal before moving to Boston, where he worked at an Italian restaurant (thus the pizza-baking skills).
His move to the Seattle area brought his focus back to Indian cuisine at some of the best Indian restaurants in Western Washington. His résumé includes Cedars Restaurant, Kanishka and Mayuri.
He opened Hilltop Indian in August 2015. Today, he says the seemingly odd menu matchup is a hit with the locals.
“I’m getting 1,000 percent love and support from the neighborhood. They try to spread the word to the other neighbors,” he said.
The extensive menu covers the gamut of Indian cuisine, from samosas and pakora ($3.99-$6.99) to a dozen Indian breads ($2.99-$4.99). Two pages of masala, karahi, korma, butter chicken and jalfrezi come with a choice of vegetarian or with chicken, lamb or shrimp ($11.45-$14.99).
A dozen dishes from the tandoor clay oven include salmon, ground lamb, prawns, chicken and more ($13.95-$21.95). Half of the designated vegetarian menu (seven entrees, all $12.45) is dairy free, making the restaurant vegan friendly. The menu also references, with symbols, dishes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and those that contain nuts.
The pizza menu of 20 pies mostly reads like a standard pizzeria, with a meat lover’s, Italian sausage, pepperoni, vegetarian and Hawaiian among the 15 Italian-style standards (small pies are $10-$16; large are $16-$20). If you try any of the three Indian-themed pizzas, make it the chicken tikka with red onions, green peppers, fresh coriander and mozzarella with a red sauce that tasted subtly of cinnamon.
For every pizza sampled, the crust tasted sturdy, with a tug of chewy resistance and a puffy outer edge.
The menu holds a few curiosities that should be tried.
The seekh kebab roll — lunch only— was like an Indian burrito with heavily spiced ground lamb rolled up in flatbread with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and a sweet vinaigrette (rolls are $7.99 each, five filling choices). There’s also a page of lunch specials for $8.99-$9.99 (but no lunch buffet).
Thali dinner sets are something I’ve yet to see elsewhere in Tacoma. Thali sets are an assortment of small dishes, served at once atop a tray, with cascading flavors of spicy, sour, creamy, sweet and bitter.
Hilltop Indian offers vegetarian ($20) or non-vegetarian ($18) thali. Both sets came standard with brown lentils in a spiced gravy, a yellow lentil soup punched with turmeric, basmati rice, a dish of cool yogurt raita and a chilled cup of sweetened cardamom rice. The non-vegetarian thali set included a tangy chicken tikka masala and a choice of another entree (we chose wisely with spicy lamb curry). The vegetarian thali set offered a dish of ginger-laced chana masala, with spicy vegetarian tikka masala as the additional selection. Both sets were accompanied by naan and pappadum.
Spicing at the restaurant is going to be tough for some. Even a rating of 2 (out of a five-star scale) was assertive enough to leave me reaching for my mango lassi. Newcomers should order one star less than you normally would until you get to know the kitchen.
NORTH 47 BREWING CO.
Hours: 3-9 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; 3-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays; noon-8 p.m. Sundays.
In the year since opening their three-barrel brewery tucked into the Browns Point Town Center, Carl and Stephanie Leach have tripled their capacity. And that’s not because of something they planned. It was in response to the demand for their beer.
They’re the only brewery in that area and the locals haven’t been shy in trying their beer.
“All the locals keep telling us this is what Browns Point really needed, a little pub that people could hang out in and chat,” said Leach.
This is a first brewery for the couple. Carl is a South Sound native and Air Force reservist. Stephanie worked in tourism, but now works full time at the brewery.
The kid-friendly taproom allows underage visitors until 6 p.m. Browns Point Diner and Lumpia World both deliver food to the taproom, but the brewery doesn’t offer its own menu.
I’m partial to the Browns Point porter, the Bavarian Breakfast coffee cream ale and Beastly Barnacle oatmeal stout, but there’s also a blond, Hefeweizen, extra special bitter and two India pale ales, as well as seasonal specials. Nitro taps are coming soon.
Releasing soon, said Carl, will be a beer that was the winner of a competition the brewery organized for a home brewing club that meets at North 47.
Where: 1000 Town Center N.E., Tacoma; 253-874-5867 or lumpiaworld.com.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Tucked inside the Lighthouse Market is a deli counter with an unexpected menu of fusion Filipino. Lumpia World, which opened inside the market in 2015, is knowns for its lumpia, but also for its mashup of Japanese and Hawaiian food.
The tightly wound rolls (which are like a Filipino cousin to a Chinese egg roll) are what built a name for the company operated by Derrick and Eleanor Ellis, who started their Tacoma Farmers Market stand in 2006 and grew their business to two food trucks and the Browns Point deli.
The crisply fried rolls with a shattery crisp wrapper are a must order for a first visit.
Flavors are fusion, not straightforward Filipino lumpia ($1.25 each). There’s lemongrass spiked ground chicken and ginger-scented ground pork. The vegetarian roll is stuffed with cabbage. Ground steak comes with a salty marinade. Sweet potato is coated in sweet caramel sauce, as is the banana, and the newest sweet lumpia comes filled with Thai coconut rice pudding.
Also get the chicken katsu, broad swaths of chicken breast pounded thin and breaded in panko and fried crisp, served with rice, a tangy dipping sauce and a hearty portion of cold macaroni salad with a creamy dressing ($8.50). That same fantastic macaroni salad is the base of the Spam island mac bowl, which is exactly as it sounds— cubed, fried Spam atop macaroni salad ($5).