Too crowded. Too expensive. Tricky reservations.
Valentine’s Day dining at the usual go-to restaurants comes with high expectations, occasional drama and sometimes terrible results. I’ve heard reader stories aplenty.
In my continuing effort to steer diners off the beaten culinary path, here’s an idea for Valentine’s Day dining: ethnic eateries in suburban locales.
They’re not usually on the high-priority list for holiday dining. They’re not especially romantic. But I’ve found plenty to like about our ethnic eateries tucked into strip malls scattered throughout East Pierce County.
And a number of those restaurants offer something unusual, something that might even be construed as romantic: dishes meant for sharing.
Chinese hot pot. Korean table-top barbecue. A wooden boat filled with enough sushi for two. Traverse the suburbs with me as I take a tour of five restaurants with entrees built for two.
A word of advice? The best time to take out your valentine is the days before or after the holiday. There’s a reason restaurant staffers call Valentine’s Day “amateur night.”
Not only is Tacoma Szechuan what I consider Pierce County’s best Chinese restaurant, it’s also home to the only Chinese hot pot.
Hot pot is a soup buffet brought straight to your table. You do all the cooking in an oversized pot set atop a propane burner. Your hot pot comes with your choice of broth, but if you ask, the kitchen will partition the pot into a yin-yang for both the mild salty broth and the thermo-nuclear, sweat-inducing spicy version (you’ve been warned).
Tip: The full hot pot menu is available by request.
A first-timer should order the “buffet” pot with lamb, beef, pork and chicken.
The hot pot arrived at the table as a cascade of raw items: plates with thick-sliced potato wedges, chewy buckwheat noodles, broadly sliced tofu and chopped greens. Then came a separate platter of thinly-sliced meat, including papery-thin tripe and rolled-up slices of nearly frozen pork, lamb and chicken. Take care to not cross contaminate, cut and dunk raw meat only with the scissor-tongs; use strainers for dunking and ladles for serving.
It’s a dizzying amount of food and unusual in that not only can diners cook the meal together, but each bowl of soup pulled from the pot can be customized any way a diner sees fit.
Korean table-top barbecue, like hot pot, is a feast shuttled to your table, then cooked atop a flaming-hot metal pan set on a gas burner (be careful).
Start by picking the meats (two is the minimum). My standard order at Chung Ki Wa: beef bulgogi ($18.95) and spicy pork ($15.95).
First come small plates of salad and banchan, the Korean appetizers: soy-and-sesame-kissed bean threads, chile-spiked kimchi, crunchy pickled cucumbers and creamy marinated potatoes.
Next come lettuce leaves (by request) for filling with banchan and grilled meats.
Plates of meat come next: The salty-sweet marinated bulgogi and pork coated in garlic and chile paste were enough to feed four. (I turn my leftovers into fried rice the next day.) Be sure to keep your raw and cooked tongs separate to avoid cross-contamination.
The rhythm of table-top cooking feels like a choreographed dance. At our table, one person handles the raw meat, dropping it with a sizzle onto the metal pan; the other flips and pushes the meat around until it’s crispy-edged and ready to be tucked into the lettuce leaf with gojuchang and a dab of rice. If you’re doing it right, you’ll grilled the sliced jalapenos and garlic cloves for an extra tease of flavor and heat.
Tucked into a strip mall between the Korean grocery store H Mart and the housewares store Shin Shin is Kyoto Japanese Restaurant. It’s a fetching restaurant, with a bridge at the entrance crossing a koi pond into a warmly lit dining room flanked by tatami rooms and a secluded sushi bar.
Kyoto’s Hana Boat might be an entree intended for one, but it’s enough to fill two.
The sushi feast is served atop a wooden platform shaped like a boat filled with seven kinds of nigiri (fish set atop rounds of rice) — usually including shrimp, tuna, salmon, octopus and tilapia (the selection can vary). A tightly wound roll with ruby-red tuna and three sashimi completed the boat, along with sides of miso, salad and an array of pickled vegetables.
The “Dinners for Two” section of the menu at Karma Indian Cuisine and Lounge caters to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. My preference is vegetarian at Karma, which offers an interesting and broad selection of vegetable-centric dishes.
The six-course meal begins with crispy-fried samosas filled with curried potatoes and peas, followed by the lentil dish dal makhani. Dinner comes with any two vegetarian entrees. We feasted on bharta, a creamy spiced eggplant dish, and achari, a spiced potato dish with tangy Indian pickles that resemble capers. Next came buttery basmati rice, crackly naan flatbread and a finale of gulab jamun, the sweet Indian dumplings coated in rose water syrup.
Don’t try to pronounce them — just enjoy them. The Greek combo platter for two at Giorgio’s Greek Cafe in downtown Puyallup is brimming with a multi-syllabic Greek feast. Included are moussaka, the eggplant and beef casserole topped with jiggly bechamel; the nutmeg-infused baked pasta dish pastitsio; a wedge of the flaky spinach turnover spanakopita; the meat-and-rice-filled grape leaves called dolmades; and a pile of ground lamb and beef gyros. Rice pilaf, tomato-stewed potatoes, savory green beans and pita wedges finished the massive platter. We tried, but we couldn’t finish it.