Along a 1-mile stretch of Meridian — from River Road to the Washington State Fairgrounds — diners have three new reasons to head to downtown Puyallup: ramen, a salsa and tequila bar, and fresh pasta.
If you haven’t been paying attention, downtown Puyallup has transformed itself in the last half decade from a sleepy business district of antique stores to a food-and-beverage hub.
Four breakfast restaurants are worth a trip at dawn: The Rose Cafe, Auntee B’s, Charlie’s, and Jason’s.
Eric Akeson and Steve Samples have introduced East Pierce diners to the wonderful world of Northwest craft beers at Puyallup River Brewing Alehouse and Station U-Brew. Laurie Sanders-Polen does the same, but with cheese, at My Cheese Shoppe.
Guy Fieri liked Puyallup’s Crockett’s Public House so much, he filmed an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” there last year.
Oh, and there’s this: Two of my favorite Pierce County pie stops are downtown: Cattin’s and Don’s Drive-In. And nearby on the East Main dining corridor, find HG Bistro, Toscanos Cafe and Wine Bar and Powerhouse Brewing.
And finally, here are three of the latest reasons to visit downtown Puyallup’s dining district: My Lil’ Cube Ramen and Asian Cuisine; Fiesta Taqueria and Tequila Bar; and Arista, a fresh pasta restaurant.
MY LIL’ CUBE RAMEN AND ASIAN CUISINE
Restaurant owners typically select a cuisine category and draft a menu, then find a location to execute that plan.
Xuan Fang and Wei Wei He’s first restaurant worked in reverse order. They weren’t certain what they’d cook, but they did know that Pierce County would be an ideal location for either wok-based fusion Chinese or Japanese ramen — both categories of cuisine in which they were experienced, and both styles of food hard to find south of King County.
Fang previously worked in Seattle ramen restaurants and He cooked at Seattle Chinese restaurants. Fang’s aunt and uncle connected the couple with the owners of Kanpai, who were intent on retiring from the restaurant business (a shame for those of us who appreciated Kanpai’s simple aesthetic and sparkling fresh sushi).
Fang and He signed the lease on their first restaurant and spent three months remodeling while refining their idea of what Pierce County needed more — a Japanese ramen restaurant with secondary specialties in udon soup and donburi rice bowls? Or Chinese fusion?
They couldn’t squeeze enough wok space into the small kitchen, so well-priced ramen won. (Nothing on the menu is priced higher than $9.)
Ramen is a curious nationwide culinary trend that has stormed across King County, but not yet through Pierce County. You can find two kinds of ramen at downtown Tacoma’s Fujiya or as an occasional offering at Lakewood’s Sushi Niwa. How surprising that the area’s first ramen restaurant would open in Puyallup, and not one of Tacoma’s popular dining neighborhoods.
My Lil’ Cube lists three styles of ramen: shoyu (blended soy sauce); red miso (the fermented soybean paste); and tonkotsu, the quintessential Japanese ramen made from an unctuous pork-bone broth (different from tonkatsu, the breaded cutlet). I appreciated the shoyu broth ($8-$9) for its seesaw between savory shoyu and a backdrop of sweetened mirin. Cloudy tonkotsu broth tasted deeply oily ($8-$9), with the unmistakable base of boiled pork bones.
The ramen menu lists seven variations built around those three broth styles, but with different add-in ingredients. The restaurant’s basic ramen formula started with a near-boiling broth anchored with a tangle of chewy ramen noodles and floating rafts of broadly sliced pork, marinated baby bamboo shoots, a sheet of nori (seaweed), and bean sprouts.
Some versions included sliced fish cakes, and another listed corn as an add-in. Ramen fans who prefer ramen with a halved egg will appreciate the restaurant’s egg preparation, a medium-hard yolk more golden than light yellow — exactly as a ramen egg should be.
FIESTA TAQUERIA AND TEQUILA BAR
In February, Salsa 7 made over the bare-bones space that previously held Sam’s Taqueria, affectionately known for years as the gas station taqueria (until those gas pumps were removed).
Salsa 7 billed itself as a modern Mexican eatery, but other than the contemporary decor, the menu proved a predictable hodgepodge of yellow-cheese-and-red-sauce doused enchiladas, burritos and chimichangas. If you’ve dined at Mazatlan or Azteca, you’d recognize that style of Northwest Mexican-American cuisine.
Ramesh Kumar, who also owns Karma Indian Lounge on South Hill, recently closed Salsa 7 for a minor dining room makeover and a broader menu revamp.
The new menu still lists nachos, enchiladas and burritos, but I appreciated the addition of street tacos and a handful of Oaxacan regional specialties, such as the flatbread dish called tlayuda (something tough to find here). Prices looked somewhat above market in some instances, such as $10.25-$14.99 for burritos. A first-bite visit found improved concept and execution, but I’ll wait for a return visit before writing more about the food.
A quite promising sign was a fresh serve-yourself salsa bar with outstanding verde salsa and pico de gallo.
Fresh pasta? Check. Moderate prices? Double check. A loaf of warm bread with olive oil, parmesan and balsamic vinegar alongside a lovely chilled mixed greens salad — both gratis? Triple check.
Oh, Arista. Welcome to Puyallup.
Sorry, folks, I know this is my third mention of the restaurant since its opening the first week of October, but when a fledgling restaurant performs this well, it must be heaped with praise.
If you have not yet checked out the fresh pasta from sister-brother pasta duo Margaret and Ben Herreid, put it on your dining list.
I found consistently good pasta on two visits spread over a month. Order the mushroom ravioli with thyme cream — or if you want something season appropriate, veer to the heaping portion of gnocchi coated in a sharp tomato sauce and loaded with roasted sausage and fennel ($13). For lighter dining: the ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, served with marinara ($12).
SOUTH HILL DINING NEWS
South Hill diners lately have been buzzing about the second South Hill Jersey Mike’s location in Sunrise Village, but not all the buzz is going to be about chain restaurants this winter. Trapper’s Sushi, the locally owned restaurant near South Hill Mall, plans to open a Trapper’s Sushi at Sunrise Village.
Whether it’s a move or new location remains to be seen.
Owner Trapper O’Keeffe said he isn’t sure if he’ll keep the original Trapper’s near South Hill Mall. He’s worried a construction project will further limit parking in a lot that already is a tight squeeze. He intends to open the new South Hill Trapper’s at Sunrise Village in the space that formerly held Sushi Station, the conveyor belt restaurant at 10305 156th St. E.
O’Keeffe said by phone he’s in the process of securing building permits, so expect at least 2-3 months until Trapper’s in Sunrise Village opens.
Trapper’s also has Pierce County locations in Bonney Lake and Tacoma.
New to South Hill is Sushi Oyama, which resembles more of a Chinese food buffet than sushi destination. Serve-yourself entrees range from crab legs to Mongolian beef to by-the-piece sushi. There’s also a teppanyaki station.
The sprawling dining room comes with a bit of glitz, with glittery mosaic tiles and colorful strobing rope lights. On a first-bite Friday night dinner visit, items intended to be hot ranged from lukewarm to downright cold — the reason why I’m not a fan of buffet dining. Find Sushi Oyama at 10312 120th St. E., Puyallup; 253-845-5156. Dinner will set you back $11.99-$14.99, depending on which night you’re dining.
Also on South Hill, Rainier Growlers, a fill-’em-up beer station and tap room, will open in December at 13105 Meridian Ave E., Puyallup. Check opening details at facebook.com/rainiergrowlers.