You know those little joints you drive by and always wonder about, but never go inside?
They’re old. They might qualify as “dives” or “greasy spoons.” They’re steeped in so much history, time has its own bar stool there.
For years, based on reader nominations, I’ve been stopping by those kinds of restaurants and writing them up for a series I call “Never Been,” a look at the oldest restaurants in the South Sound.
In this installment, I took a bite out of two Tacoma pizza haunts that have been around since the 1960s. If you grew up here and were even loosely affiliated with a sports team, you’ve probably already eaten there, although you might not have visited since Van Halen was new to the jukebox.
SPUD’S PIZZA PARLOR AND TROPHY ROOM
7025 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-475-3366. Serving lunch and dinner daily.
Entering Spud’s is like walking straight into a throwback machine set to 1973. Dark wood-paneled walls. Heavy, easy-clean green vinyl tablecloths. Garish red wall sconces.
The decor is enough to set a neat freak on edge. Chunks of wall covering were missing, and ceiling panels were stained. Cracked vinyl mottled a few of the booths. Don’t look too close.
I’ve heard for years that service can be almost as crusty as the decor, but two visits found friendly, hard-working staffers. When you enter Spud’s, look up for the sign that says “order here.”
Spud Hansen opened the restaurant in 1961 as part of a Pizza Pete franchise. He ditched the franchise in the 1970s. The cocktail lounge, one of those cave-like bars in the rear of the restaurant, was added in 1983. He owned the restaurant until 2001, when he sold it to a trio of friends who still own the restaurant— David Almonte, Jon Kehn and Lane Smith.
Flash forward to today. The menu is a mishmash of a few sandwiches, pasta dishes and burgers. It’s one of those places you can take the kids, lunch with co-workers or celebrate a softball win. Pizza is what made Spud’s famous in Tacoma, although some would say it was the thick-cut potato chips.
What’s so unusual about Spud’s pizza is the crust. Some pizza is crackery. Some is chewy and yeasty. But Spud’s dough? The thin version is a smooth, glassy-bottomed crust that’s more buttery than chewy. It’s also mildly sweet. (A thicker crust also is available, just ask for it.)
Pizzas here were straightforward, with no gimmicky toppings. About as crazy as it gets is Mexican pizza or the bacon cheeseburger. The best pies were the simplest, such as pepperoni, cheese or the Aloha Supreme with Canadian bacon and crushed pineapple. The Formula Four had every bit of the surface covered with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, sausage and crumbled beef. The red sauce tasted slow simmered. Smaller pies were cut into triangles; larger into small squares.
Besides pizza, two things must be ordered. One is the dinner salad ($4.50), a towering iceberg lettuce masterpiece with a big mound of shredded mozzarella and a fat tablespoon of chopped black olives. If salad doesn’t spill over the sides of the bowl, you’re eating it wrong. The second is the Spudder chips ($5), fresh-cut, thick potato chips that arrived volcano-hot with a side of tartar sauce and ketchup.
About the most fun thing about Spud’s is people watching in the two-tier dining room. Sit there long-enough and you’ll see grandmas, hipsters, old Tacomans, new Tacomans and kids fresh from playing a baseball game. If ever there was a traditional Tacoma, Spud’s is it.
6430 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-565-1111 or cloverleafpizza.com. Serving lunch and dinner daily in the bar; family dining opens at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and is open for lunch and dinner Saturday-Sunday.
Two doors represent the double draw of The Cloverleaf — one leads to a bar, the other to a family-friendly space with a game arcade.
Behind door number one is a sprawling tavern with group seating and a list of 18 beer taps, which servers tick off from memory. Behind door number two is a bisected dining room with flat-screens blaring the game of the day and a fascinating mural depicting hundreds of tiny fans packed into Safeco Field. It spans most of the dining room.
Servers always seemed friendly here, but sticklers might find inattentive service frustrating (it’s all part of the crusty charm). But don’t complain to your server if the pizza takes a long time to arrive; that’s a consequence of the long cooking time for the restaurant’s regionally famous pizza.
The Cloverleaf started as a tavern in the 1950s. Larry Turco bought it in 1960 and imported his pizza recipe in 1961. He sold the Cloverleaf in 1971 to Lennard Manke, who operated it until he sold it to his daughter-in-law Debbie Brese in 2004. She’s a daily presence there.
The crust still carries that same crisp texture that has made it a Tacoma favorite for more than 50 years.
The Cloverleaf crust is closer to a pastry crust than a chewy, yeasty New York-style dough. It’s so crunchy, it practically shatters with every bite.
Pizza is the bulk of the menu, although sandwiches, burgers and appetizers are listed.
I noted a few oddball varieties on the pizza menu, including breakfast pizza topped with crumbled scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, bacon, peppers, onions and a white sauce. It tasted like a food dare. I’d avoid this one.
Stick with basic pizzas. Pepperoni came with a light glossy sheen, but wasn’t overly oily. The Turco had even topping distribution, and quite a lot of meat — pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, hamburger and bacon. The red sauce tasted sharp and herby. Cheese expressed more grease than I would have liked, but if a pizza doesn’t give me a bad case of heartburn, it’s not worth eating. The Margherita with fresh basil and olive oil was absolutely delightful.
Like Spud’s, you’ll find a fascinating cross-section of Tacoma, but this time of year you’ll see all kinds of softball teams gathering for a brew and a slice after a game. One more reason to visit the Cloverleaf? A free shirt for anyone celebrating a birthday. Brese gives a lot of those away.
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