By Sue Kidd and Craig Sailor
Freighthouse Square is a microcosm of what's good about the culinary landscape in Tacoma: It's big on variety. Lots of it.
Gyros, fish and chips, bubble tea, lumpia, fried chicken, bulgogi, curry chicken, burritos, Chicago-style hot dogs and scratch-baked cookies all can be found under one roof.
Save for one chain restaurant – Subway – Freighthouse Square is an incubator for small, family-owned and operated restaurants.
Freighthouse Square restaurants are a sincere reflection of Tacoma – a little big gritty and worn around the edges, but with hard-working people at the core. And there is quality noshing to be found there at fair prices.
As much as there are success stories, there are failures, too. Restaurants come and go: Sushi, Italian, Belgian and German eateries have all cycled through in recent months. The only positive of that failure is there always seems to be something new.
Restaurants thrive there, too. Wendy's Vietnamese, Mediterranean Palace and Paya Fish and Chips have called Freighthouse home for about 20 years each.
Here, a look at 10 (and a few more) restaurants, all under one giant roof at Freighthouse Square.
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Editor's note: This is the third installment of Ten-in-One, where we eat at 10 restaurants grouped in a compact area. Read our South Tacoma Way Ten-in-One report, published last October, and our McKinley Ten-in-One report, published in February.
WHERE: 2501 E. D St., Tacoma (near the Tacoma Dome)
LOCATIONS: Most restaurants are located in a food court with open seating, but some restaurants are located near the entrances or on the corridor.
HOURS: Hours vary for each restaurant, but most are open between 10 or 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekends. Some restaurants are closed Sunday, but many operate seven days a week.
RESTAURANTS IN THE FOOD COURT
Fried chicken from Fam's. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
1. Fam's Southern Fried Chicken
You don't need to know that Cliff Gatterson is a Southerner; you can taste it in his food. Fried chicken, corn bread, collard greens, mac and cheese, dirty rice, and fried catfish are about as Southern as Southern gets. At Fam's Southern Fried Chicken, Gatterson makes it all from scratch – daily. Passers-by can watch him flip and coat pieces of chicken in pepper-
seasoned flour throughout the day. This is Gatterson's first restaurant, and he chose Freighthouse Square because of the foot traffic. He opened about four months ago.
Born and raised in Houston by a
Mississippi-born mother, Gatterson's recipes are handed down from family. His original four-piece chicken combo ($7.89 with two sides) comes with a thin coating of seasoned flour. (Baked and spicy chicken also are on the menu, but Gatterson isn't making much of that because they haven't sold well.) Succulent is the perfect word to describe Gatterson's chicken – it's crispy-salty on the outside, and juicy tender on the inside. A two-piece shrimp and catfish combo ($8.49, with fries) turned into a three-piece catfish combo because he had run out of shrimp on our visit.
Like the chicken, the catfish is fried so that the thin flour-based coating crisps up nicely. The catfish – a fish I don't care much for because of its muddy flavor – was made palatable by a savory blast of seasoning. A side of homemade tartar – which I had to ask for, and do remember to ask for it – added a sweet note to play against the savory seasoning. Fries were good, but nothing out of the ordinary. Instead of the fries, you might ask to substitute one of Gatterson's homemade sides. Or just order the side at $1.99 for a small and $2.99 for a large.
His baked beans were flavored with molasses, and peppered with pieces of bacon. The mac and cheese was creamy and had just the right amount of texture – it didn't taste like it had been sitting all day. The greens are a mix of collard and mustard and also get a savory treatment with bits of bacon and a puckery bite from vinegar. Dirty rice is a salty blend of seasoned rice (for some, it might be too much salt) mixed with bits of hamburger. The cornbread is the must-order side ($1.19 for two pieces or $2 for four). Gatterson said he cooks it in a very hot, preheated pan, which gives the mildly sweet, tender and moist cornbread a delicious golden brown crust.
On some visits, chicken can take up to 15-20 minutes, so bring your patience (well worth the wait for freshly fried chicken). If you're in a hurry, consider calling ahead.
– Sue Kidd
2. Mediterranean Palace
Ammar Mannaa has seen many restaurants come and go at Freighthouse Square. He understands why: They lack the cash reserves to sustain, or they just don't stick around long enough to attract a customer base.
Mannaa – who has operated the Mediterranean Palace at Freighthouse since 1998, and whose brother Hawazen Mannaa opened the restaurant in 1989 – also understands that loyal customers make a business. He doesn't feel compelled to expand to a bigger location because of that. "I have a lot of established customers. It'd be very hard for me to move anywhere else," he said. And a second outpost would be difficult. Like most Freighthouse restaurants, he's pretty much a one-man show with a shoestring staff.
So he's content to keep customers coming back for Mediterranean food fragrant with garlic and brightened with lemon. "People are used to freshness," he said. "They want healthier food." Healthier food comes in the form of grilled chicken and scented rice, and salads with crisp, fresh vegetables. The gyros plate ($7.09) is the most popular item on the menu – and for good reason, it's fresh, flavorful and filling. Slices of beef gyros came marked with a bit of grill char and were wrapped up snug in a grilled pita that was soft, chewy and fresh. The sandwich was finished with ripe tomatoes, onions and a tart
cucumber-yogurt tzatziki sauce. The plate came with a liberal helping of rice scented with herbs and brightened with lemon and garlic, and a salad of crisp green lettuce, ripe tomato slices, shards of pungent onions, and a sprinkle of feta drizzled with an herby vinaigrette made with just garlic, lemon, olive oil and spices and herbs. (It's a secret blend, Mannaa said.)
Chicken kebabs ($7.25) are the other specialty at Mediterranean Palace. Like the beef gyros, the chicken kebabs come with grill sizzle, and taste of the familiar flavor trio of garlic, lemon and herbs (Mannaa won't share what those herbs and spices are, but if I were a betting woman, I'd put money on oregano). The kebabs also came with the Greek salad and garlic-scented rice.
– Sue Kidd
Paya Thai serves American style fish and chips. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
3. Paya Thai Fish & Chips
Chayan Samalee may own Paya Thai Fish & Chips, but it's Tom Pagano – otherwise known as "Tom the Fish Guy" – who is the face of the restaurant. He's the manager and the tall, self-described "bald guy" out in front of the restaurant pitching the fish and chips and freshly baked halibut and salmon to passers-by. He's also quick with the add-on sales pitch: "Want to make that a combo meal? Want a salad with that?" He's a salesman as much as he's a restaurant manager. He's also attentive. When time permits, he'll grab your soda glass and refill it.
What makes the fish Thai? Well, it's not. Don't read much into the Paya Thai part of the sign. It was opened as Paya Thai 17 years ago, but the Thai food was short lived, and now the restaurant name is just a reminder of where Samalee grew up – on Paya Street in his native Thailand. What has stuck is American-style fish and chips – cod or halibut. Paya also serves chicken and fried shrimp, scallops, oysters and clams.
Thursdays or Fridays are the days you want to dine at Paya – freshly baked and grilled halibut or salmon are specials those days. On some visits, you'll find lemon-pepper scented salmon, or baked halibut with hollandaise.
The baked salmon ($10.95) was a generous portion – a quality piece of fish that would cost $25 at a Ruston Way waterfront restaurant. The fish was cooked medium and flavored with butter, lemon and a generous sprinkle of herbs. The accompanying rice was a chewy, buttery, nutty pilaf, but the accompanying veggies tasted as if they had been previously frozen. Pass. A two-piece halibut and chips combo ($9.50) came with two modest chunks of halibut hugged by a doughy, lightly sweet batter. Fans of crisply fried jackets on their fish might not be impressed by the doughy interior. The smaller piece of halibut was cooked more crisply, so it could have been a problem of just not being cooked long enough. Fries on the side were crisp and golden brown. Coleslaw was crispy and had a peppery bite, but it was overdressed for my liking.
A nod should be given for the kitschy garnish – a fish carved out of lemon peel. Also perched atop the salmon was an American flag on a toothpick. God bless America and salmon.
– Sue Kidd
Betty Licarrararas works in the kitchen at Santa Fe Mexican Grill. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
4. Santa Fe Mexican Grill
The stale chips that arrived at our table were an omen of things to come. Though the hearty red salsa made up for them, we were generally disappointed by the fare at Santa Fe Mexican Grill.
Camarrones al mojo de ajo (shrimp with garlic, $9.95) came with 10 overcooked and undersized shrimp with onions, green pepper, rice and runny refried beans. The garlic and subtle heat gave the dish a punch but not enough to save it.
A limp chicken chimichanga ($7.50) must have taken only a passing glance at the deep fryer on the way to our table. Perhaps the cook thought he was assembling a burrito, but my receipt clearly says "chimichanga." If it's not deep fried, it's not a chimichanga.
Huevos con chorizo (eggs with sausage, $7.50) was a dish of crumbled chorizo, eggs and vegetables. It was a hearty and satisfying scramble but suffered from too much salt – even for a dish made from the salty sausage.
A tamale proved to be a disappointment. Uneven cooking left the one we tried with different consistencies, making the middle a mealy mass of masa.
Santa Fe is the only place in Freighthouse Square where one can partake in beer, wine and cocktails – but only in its contained dining areas. Several varieties of Mexican fruit drinks are on tap.
– Craig Sailor
Buddha is happy to watch over diners at Wendy's. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Wendy's is the institution of Freighthouse Square – a landmark inside a landmark. It's been 23 years since Wendy Au opened her popular Vietnamese eatery. That's about two centuries in Freighthouse years. A recent upgrade to the façade and counters has given it a sophisticated look, but the menu remains the same.
Seven days a week a small army of kitchen staff can be seen chopping piles of fresh vegetables in the open kitchen.
You can be guaranteed a plate brimming with a mound of rice and entrée for $7.25 to $8.25. Chicken, beef, pork, seafood, lo mein, chow mein, fried rice, chow foon, salads, soups and vegetarian entrees make up the bulk of the menu, but it's the flavor-packed rice plates that have people lined up at lunchtime every day.
A longtime mainstay of Au's menu – and her most popular item – is her Hot Garlic Chicken ($7.25). Chicken – and plenty of it – comes in a spicy and very garlicky sauce over rice. Curry Chicken ($7.25) and Lemongrass Chicken ($7.25) round out the top three on the popularity chart, Au says.
Wendy's has a small number of soups ($5.95-$7.95), but I seldom order them. Other local Vietnamese restaurants dedicated to pho offer a larger variety of options and sizes.
Fresh spring rolls (goi cuon, $4.50) are thoughtfully made with shrimp shining through the translucent skins and a tuft of lettuce at one end. They make a light and fresh lunch. Dunk them in the peanut-sprinkled rich dipping sauce to your heart's content.
Wendy's also offers bubble tea (shakes and bubble milk tea, $3.50). The avocado and jackfruit shakes are made with real fruit, the rest with flavored powders.
– Craig Sailor
Rosie's Asian BBQ House serves a variety of food. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
6. Rosie's Asian BBQ
Rosie's Asian BBQ is a hodgepodge of Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Filipino food. The Korean food is leftovers from the previous owners. Jerlym Diorico bought the restaurant in 2007 and added lumpia – a fried egg roll that is a staple of Diorico's native Philippines.
Korean is what the restaurant does well. Beef bulgogi ($7.49) was a saucy mountain of tender beef marinated with a rich, sweet-salty sauce over a bed of rice. The bulgogi here would give a few of the South Tacoma Way Korean restaurants a run for their money. A few pieces of the meat put up chewy resistance, but mostly it was a tender treat. The pork bulgogi ($6.49) was a spicy version of the traditional beef dish. The sauce had a garlic-chili kick to it, and the meat yielded less resistance than the beef version.
The accompanying salad, which came with both versions of bulgogi, was just plain iceberg, but the accompanying citrus dressing was lemony and refreshing.
Lumpia ($1.79 each) was crispy brown on the outside and filled with seasoned bits of ground beef, cabbage and shreds of carrot. The woman at the counter told us Diorico's aunt makes the lumpia daily. I liked that the lumpia was fried correctly – meaning the rolls cooked crisply in the fryer, with no sogginess.
– Sue Kidd
A Nathan's chili dog with white onions, cheddar cheese and sport peppers at Bochino's Fine Sausages. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
7. Bochino's Fine Sausage
Nate Bochino is the sausage purveyor behind this very small eatery. You might want to think of his fare as glorified hot dogs, but they are so much more than that. Bochino spent some serious time tasting sausage before opening his operation, he says, to find "the best of the best."
Bochino offers eight different sausages — beef hot dogs to bratwurst — that you can combine with five of 16 toppings (blue cheese to salsa) plus condiments for $4. He also has five special orders of his own styling that you can add water and chips to for $5 total. Such a deal.
We ordered the Classic Chicago Style with a "big red" hot link, grilled onions, sweet relish, tomatoes and dill pickle. The slightly sweet presentation was our favorite of the three we tried.
The Down South OG Slaw Dog was the oddest of the bunch and quite a meal. The spicy Texas hot link came in its bun with onions and a layer of pedestrian chili topped with coleslaw. The very fresh slaw cooled down the very spicy link.
The BIG New York Classic Dog is another choose-your-sausage option that comes with red onions, mustard and sauerkraut. We chose the Big City Red Beef 7-inch hot dog. (One can upsize to a 10-incher for $1 more.) This dog puts mere mortals to shame and the kraut and mustard made it a meal to come back for.
Our tasting team found the sausages' casings a bit tough. More than once a bite pulled the meat right out of its shell. Fortunately, Bochino provides a knife and fork with each order.
– Craig Sailor
Marisa Ballard, owner of M& J Lumpia, got the recipe for her signature lumpia with bacon fried rice from her Filipino mom Norma. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
8. M and J's Lumpia
Even in a building filled with personable and friendly proprietors, Marissa Ballard stands out as being extra nice. And her food is good, too.
But Ballard's restaurant has an image problem. A casual passer-by could be forgiven for thinking that the space is all about lumpia (a distant cousin of the egg roll) and nothing else. But at its heart, M and J's Lumpia is an authentic Filipino restaurant with a surprising variety of dishes.
I'm not well-versed in the world of Filipino food, so one of our editors, David Montesino (born and raised in the Philippines), volunteered to test the fare with me.
Ballard's lumpia (from her mother's recipe) are heavy on the meat. The seasonings are authentic, Montesino said. "A lot of lumpia are underseasoned. These guys have a lumpia that tastes good," he said. Three of the lumpia can be had for $3.50.
The eatery offers a combo option that comes with entrée, steamed rice, side salad and soda for $6.95. You can upgrade to bacon fried rice ($1) or garlic fried rice (50 cents). Entrees also can be ordered as sides.
The menudo was my favorite dish. Made with ground beef, not tripe, it was a hearty savory stew with chunks of vegetables. I ordered it over garlic rice and found the combo a perfect match. And yes, the garlic shines through.
The bacon fried rice was heavy on the oil (the garlic version is lighter) but that didn't stop me from finishing off the savory rice with egg, green onions and bacon.
The pancit bihon (a savory noodle dish) had chicken but no Chinese sausage – an addition Montesino would have preferred. Still, he found it authentic and very good. $6 for the combo, $3.95 as a side.
Ballard also offers other fare such as corn dogs, burgers, breakfast, chef salads and desserts (banana lumpia, $2.25).
– Craig Sailor
RESTAURANTS BEYOND THE FOOD COURT
9. B&B Barbeque
(On the corridor)
Tell Brian Seals that you like his food, and he might just sit down at your table and write out the recipe. That's what he did for us when we mentioned we liked a particular dish. I walked out with the recipe written on a sheet of notebook paper. Brian and his wife, Shannon, serve up homestyle barbecue with a side of nice. The couple moved here from Fort Worth, Texas, last summer and opened B&B Barbeque in the fall.
Seals describes his barbecue as a hybrid of Texas and Kansas City styles. Slow and low is the name of his game, and that's a detriment as much as a plus for business. Because of the laborious nature of slow-cooked barbecue, sometimes Seals runs out of popular items, such as the sliced beef, and the wait for another batch can be long – or he might not be able to finish off another batch, depending on how late in the day it is. On my visit, they were out of beef, chicken and sausage. It's good to come to B&B with a second or third (or fourth) choice planned.
The pulled pork sandwich ($7.50) was a juicy, saucy mess. The tomato-based sauce was salty, sweet and rich – and maybe a touch on the side of cloying, depending on how sweet you like your sauce. The pork was juicy, but was a bit chewy, and might have done better by being cooked longer. The pork rib dinner ($8.50) was delicious and tender, but the middle pieces from the rack seemed as if they needed just a little longer in the smoker to break down the connective tissue and fat. Still, even with a little chew, the pork ribs were delicious and a generous helping.
Sandwiches and dinners come with a choice of two sides. The potato salad was creamy, sweet and fresh, with some snap from onions. The coleslaw tasted freshly made. Smoked pinto beans were savory and spiked with garlic, and tasted more like a south of the border dish than southern barbecue baked beans. The mac and cheese is a creamy, rich dish made with tiny noodles that soak up the cheesy sauce.
The pies are worth a trip on their own. The sweet potato pie ($2.50) had a creamy rich filling from sweetened condensed milk and a drizzle of butter in the mix. The pecan pie ($2.50) was covered in a thick layer of fresh pecans on top of a gooey filling that was rich and buttery, but not oozy and overtly sweet like some can be.
– Sue Kidd
10. Cyber Pasta
(Near west entrance)
I stopped by Cyber Pasta in April when it opened and found decent, inexpensive pasta, but pizza that didn't hit the mark. Cyber Pasta is an order-at-the-counter place with a pasta concept merged with coffee (serving Pura Vida free-trade coffee) and free Wi-Fi. The restaurant offers mix-and-match pasta and sauces. Diners can pair penne, spaghetti, fettuccine, tortellini or linguine with seven sauces that range from marina to alfredo to a sesame ginger. Any pairing is $4.99.
We split the spicy pomodoro penne pasta ($4.99). The counter worker told us the sauce was of the prefab variety, but doctored. We were impressed with the addition of sauteed and still slightly crunchy fresh broccoli, cauliflower, squash, red peppers and onions, as well as shredded Parmesan and chopped parsley. Fine dining it's not, but for a filling $5 lunch, it hit the spot.
We also ordered the pizza, but with a very thick and crumbly crust and sauce that tasted from a can, we didn't eat much.
– Sue Kidd
A SWEET FINISH
We know we promised 10 eateries, but there are 12 worth mentioning, so we fudged a little on the numbers. Here is an extra helping.
Celebrity Cake Studio
(outside entrance near east end, facing parking garage)
This popular bakery traffics in cakes but has two display cases that offer everything from petit fours to slices of cake.
The woman behind the counter couldn't tell me what the most popular items were. It depends on individual preference, she said.
Our individual preference was to try them all. But our stomachs and expense account stretch only so far.
A lemon bar ($2.25) had a perfectly crusty top and a delectable center on a shortbread base. Like most lemon bars, its high sugar level was a bit cloying.
The German chocolate brownie ($2.50) had toasted coconut and gooey chocolate over a dense chocolate base. It was a decadent square of dark indulgence.
The pumpkin turnover ($1.75) had a pumpkin filling in a satisfying pastry shell that looked like a folded bottle cap. Not too sweet or too large, you can convince yourself that this is a healthy choice – pumpkin is squash, after all.
– Craig Sailor
Cookies Your Way
(Near west entrance)
Christine Johnson and her family make cookies, and plenty of them. On the day we stopped by, she was offering several different varieties (generally about eight a day) of fresh baked or day-old options.
Rockin' Road was a dark chocolate disc filled with marshmallows and walnuts. The rich chocolate tempered the slight bitterness of the walnuts while the marshmallow gave it little clouds of velvety lightness.
The Cabie was an oatmeal cookie with butterscotch and chocolate chips. Because the butterscotch chips don't have the same melting point as the chocolate, the texture between the two was a bit out of sync.
It was the fresh baked oatmeal cookie with raisins that took me to cookie heaven. It made me feel like I was 10 years old again, sitting in front of a warm bowl of fresh oatmeal.
Fresh baked cookies are $1.95 and day old are $1.50.
– Craig Sailor