When I mentioned to a friend that I had just returned from a great meal in Centralia, I got the weirdest response. Did I order sweet potato fries with my burger at Burgerville? No. No, I did not. But I did find the finest mole you'll ever eat and a pizza with an ethereal crust.
Guess what, eaters? Centralia's downtown is home to stellar restaurants, but you have to point your car east - away from the fabulous Burgerville and outlet shopping - and head toward the Amtrak station, which, by the way, is an excellent way to explore downtown Centralia. Check out Rosemary Ponnekanti's story on Page 2 about that very topic. Today, I'm going to tell you about restaurants worth the drive or train ride to Centralia - La Tarasca, Boccata Deli and Market and the Olympic Club.
La Tarasca1001 W. Main St., Centralia; 360-736-7756
Since I took this job, readers have prodded me to try La Tarasca, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant a dozen blocks off downtown Centralia. Readers, you didn't steer me wrong. This matriarch-led family Mexican restaurant - the project of Margarita Ayala and her six children - is unassuming and cheerful with food that nods to the family's Michoacan roots. "It's pretty much how we ate when we lived in Central Mexico, " said son Juan Ayala by phone. "The Michoacan recipes are from my mom and grandma; the recipes were handed down to my mom. We cook with corn in everything, we don't use flour for anything. It's very regional, it's very Central Mexico. It's as authentic as you can be, " with the ingredients available here, said Juan Ayala.
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La Tarasca opened 16 years ago as a completely family-run restaurant. Juan and brother Gerardo still help out in the kitchen when they're not running their Ayala Brothers furniture business in Centralia. Sisters Marina, Mercedes and Karla still help out - another sister, Marisol, now lives in California.
Of all the dishes readers recommended, mole was one constant. "It's a labor of love, " is how Juan Ayala described his mother's mole - a slow-simmered sludgy sauce of chocolate and chiles (it's pronounced mole-lay). La Tarasca's mole tasted so complex, I couldn't identify the layers, but I detected peanut butter, cinnamon, pumpkin and, of course, chiles, mole's signature ingredient. The 26 spices and herbs are a secret, of course. If there's one constant in the cooking world, it's the rarity of a cook who gives up his or her mole recipe.
The tongue-coating sauce nearly made me forget about the dish's accompanying bone-in chicken breast and leg ($14.50), although the chicken was delicious when dredged through the mole and tucked into the thick hand-pressed tortillas. They're the sort of tortillas that look and taste handmade - rough, hand-hewn edges perfect for trapping every bit of mole. And trust me that La Tarasca's mole is good enough to squash the shame of reaching across the table to scrape your dining partner's plate with the last tortilla.
The same hand-pressed tortillas came with the menudo ($8.95), a steaming bowl of tripe soup topped - in true menudo fashion - with a shimmer of oil and a floating raft of chopped cilantro. I've been searching for the region's best chile relleno for six months and thought I found it at Tacoma's Vuelva a la Vida (served every Thursday at the restaurant), but La Tarasca's version ($10.95) is my new favorite. La Tarasca's is a pasilla pepper stuffed with cotija, dipped in egg batter, lightly fried and coated in a punchy red sauce - an oozy plate of gooey cheese and snappy pepper. Oh, and those handmade tortillas? The dish came with those, too, along with beans and rice - both with a strong waft of garlic and executed about as perfectly as you'll find in these parts. If you're offered tamales fresh from the oven ($2.75), say yes to a chicken and a pork version - you'll love them.
Boccata Deli and Market405 N. Tower Ave., Centralia; 360-736-2404; serving lunch Tuesday-Saturday and dinner Wednesday-Saturday
Pay no attention to the name - Boccata Deli and Market is not a market and barely a deli. It's a sandwich cafe by day and a dinner destination by night. However, that dinner destination is only four nights a week - Wednesday through Saturday - when chef-owner Darin Harris dips into broad Mediterranean territory - Italy, Spain and Greece, grabbing a taste or two from the Eastern Mediterranean and dipping into country French.
At dinner, the restaurant tastes like fine dining, but the atmosphere is decidedly funky - casual by design: well-worn chairs and artwork from local artists (for sale) in a quirky building with soaring ceilings and unexpected nook-and-cranny dining spaces, including a mezzanine dining room that seats just a few. On weekends, a jazz pianist plays standards on an upright piano that crowds a front dining nook.
With a polished menu and deftly executed Mediterranean cuisine that's difficult to come by in Northwest cities triple Centralia's size, Boccata seems a restaurant slightly out of place in an old timber town like Centralia. I had to ask Harris how he wound up in Centralia. "I'm from here, " he said proudly when I talked to him by phone.
He left after high school, bound for culinary school in Seattle, but wound up a drop-out after landing gigs in some of Seattle's best Mediterranean kitchens - Serafina among them. After starting a family, he returned to Centralia and grandparents to help with the kids. He opened Boccata in 2004.
Gone is the market side of the business, although you can still get sandwiches in daytime, which Harris characterizes as slow-cooked food executed quickly. The lunch menu looked enticing, but I'm glad I skipped that in favor of an evening trip. Dinner - with sit-down table service - was a treat.
Pizza came with an ethereal crust with the lightest chewy resistance - the kind of thin crust that broke delicately ($8 small, $12 large, toppings $1-$2 extra). There was no chasing after the toppings on Boccata's pizza - the pie was constructed evenly. Cheese blanketed the pie at just the right thickness, the crust nicely blistered from a trip into a scorching oven, and the tomato sauce sparkled. It was a fantastic pie - I'd drive back just for another.
Linguini di pescatore ($16) was fragrant with a garlicky wine broth, clams and mussels invitingly perched on a tangle of al dente fettuccine. Gnocchi alla bolognese ($16) combined my two favorite Mediterranean things - beefy meat sauce and potato dumplings. These gnocchi were of the thick, heavy variety - not the light-and-airy version some prefer. I was a fan; my dining partners didn't care for the heavy dumplings.
If you order anything besides the pizza, make it the dish that tasted straight out of a French country kitchen - pointrine de boeuf aux agrumes ($23), slow cooked brisket in a rich wine sauce, with roasted parsnips, carrots and waxy mashed potatoes on the side.
Olympic Club Pub112 N. Tower Ave., Centralia; 360-736-5164
As is true with most McMenamins restaurants and taverns, the Olympic Club makes the best use of a historic building with idiosyncratic charm. Wander into the Olympic Club Hotel & Theater - built in 1908 and formerly a bar and hotel - and you'll find a sprawling movie theater with cushy seating and plenty of grown-up charm. The upstairs features 27 guest rooms.Enter the neighboring pub and you'll find a bar fit for adults alongside a family-friendly two-tiered dining room flanked by a billiards room.
McMenamins is the Oregon-based company known for relishing and rehabbing historic buildings and turning them into brewpubs - the Northwest company operates 60 something brewpubs in Washington and Oregon. Tacoma is set to get its own McMenamins at the old Elks building downtown. Olympia is home to McMenamins' Spar Cafe.
The Olympic Club Pub is much like other McMenamins brewpubs, decent pub eats paired with Northwest brews. The menu may not knock you out of your wooden booth with gastro fare, but McMenamins food and beer always is reliably good.
Try the Smokin' Cubano ($10.75), made with house-smoked pork, layers of deli ham and assertively slathered with Dijon mustard and pickles. A mai tai bowl ($8.95) was among a handful of dishes catering to vegetarians and vegans (always an impressive selection at McMenamins restaurants). The bowl was a concoction of brown rice with squash, peppers, onions, broccoli in a red curry sauce tempered with coconut milk. A flame broiled burger ($8.25, cheese extra) was fine, but would have been better if the patty had been seasoned. Kids or grown-ups will swoon for baked mac and cheese ($9.50) made with feta and blue. Don't miss the black-and-tan brownie ($5.25) served with a caramel sauce.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.