I can honestly say I've never been to a barbecue restaurant with tablecloths, pretty centerpieces and dolls on display wearing crocheted dresses – until I visited Papa Eddie's Corner Café and BBQ in Tacoma, which opened April 24 in the location that housed JT's Original Louisiana Bar-B-Que until two months ago.
In fact, some barbecue aficionados may call "blasphemy" at a barbecue joint that doesn't sport battered chairs with a roll of paper towels on every grubby table.
Papa Eddie's is homey with a side of cute – like someone's grandma came in and gussied up the joint by painting the walls creamsicle orange and adding tablecloths.
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Pictured here: Pappa Eddie's Corner Cafe owner Zach Hill holds a plate of his restaurant's signature dishes: barbecued pork ribs, red beans and rice, potato salad and cornbread. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune.
The dolls add to that homey feel. And their story is a touching one. They were collected by owner Zachary Hill's mother, Leola. The dolls remind Hill of his mother, who passed away several years ago.
The name of the restaurant is an homage to his father, Eddie Hill, who started Eddie's catering in 1970 in Tacoma. If that company sounds familiar, it might be because Eddie's has catered events for years for South Sound organizations and corporations. Zachary Hill took over the catering business after his father died in 2005. He continues to operate the company as Papa Eddie's catering, which prepares a wide variety of food beyond barbecue.
A restaurant was not something Hill set out to do. "My father always said, 'Do not open a restaurant,'?" Hill told me by phone shortly after he opened.
But Hill decided to do so anyway because the opportunity just seemed right. Hill said the building's owners – with whom he had done business in the past for his catering company – approached Hill about opening a restaurant after JT's closed.
Hill pitched a rent he thought was low enough to be affordable, and the owners of the building agreed to a short-term lease to start.
"I felt like this was a great opportunity," Hill said. "It's in a great spot."
However, location was a problem for JT's, according to James Turner, who operated it with a daughter. "We decided to relocate, to find a new location. The location we had wasn't working out for us. It was more of a traffic issue," he said of JT's, which had operated in the Sixth Avenue location since 2005.
Turner and his children now operate JT's barbecue in New Jersey. But Turner, who still lives in Gig Harbor, said he's talking to possible business partners about franchise opportunities in Tacoma and Gig Harbor.
Like JT's, Papa Eddie's boasts a barbecue menu, but the food there skews more Mississippi, Hill said, than the Louisiana-style that JT's served.
"I've been cooking it my whole life," said Hill of his southern-tinged barbecue. Lunch and dinner entrees include typical southern offerings, such as pulled pork and beef sandwiches and barbecued ribs, with gumbo and catfish, too. After 4 p.m., the menu also offers pasta, salmon and steak.
His meats are rubbed first, then slow smoked with pear wood and finished with a doctored commercially prepared barbecue sauce.
Papa Eddie's meats all have the first telltale sign of properly smoked meats: a pink tint to the meat just below the surface. Barbecue zealots call it the "smoke ring," a chemical reaction that happens when meat is smoked slow and low.
At Papa Eddie's, I happily bit into a smoke ring with every bite. From the pulled pork sandwich ($8.95 with two sides) to the pulled beef sandwich ($9.95 with two sides) and the barbecue ribs ($12.95, with two sides), the meat held steady in smoky goodness. One quibble I will note is that the meat sampled for this first bite report was a bit chewy, as if it just needed a bit more time in the smoker to melt all that cartilage into a delicious fat bath. But Papa Eddie's has just been open for a little over a week, and it's difficult to get things just right so early.
For sides, the lunch menu stays southern: snappy greens with a hint of pork, creamy macaroni and cheese, and chunky candied yams. The red beans and rice weren't the typical Louisiana dish, but rather more like tasty, sweet baked beans atop rice.
Hand-cut sweet potato fries were crispy on the outside and creamy sweet inside. The gumbo ($6.95 for a cup; $8.95 a bowl or $10.95 for an entree) was rich, thick and made just as they do in the South – with the Creole "holy trinity" (peppers, onions and celery), thick chunks of chicken, slices of spicy Andouille sausage, and a thick, brown butter-and-flour based roux.
We finished our meal with a slice of sweet potato pie. Fragrant with nutmeg (perhaps too much spice for most palates), it was a delicious end to a good southern meal.
Papa Eddie's Corner Café and BBQ
Where: 7104 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.