Beginning mid-summer every year, the phone calls from readers turn predictable: Where do I take visiting guests to dine in and around Tacoma?
Oh, Tacoma. There are so many answers to that question. I'll spend the next week covering a handful of favorite restaurant destinations for visitors.
It's impossible to cover all that's terrific about the South Sound dining landscape in a few articles, so I've narrowed my recommendations to some of the Tacoma area's finer destinations by theme: restaurants with views, upscale Italian eateries that even your picky sister-in-law would love, and today's first installment on restaurants with beautiful dining rooms - Indochine Asian Dining Lounge and Asado Cucina Argentina.
Indochine Asian Dining Lounge1924 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-8200, indochinedowntown.com. Serves lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays. Closed Mondays.
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The scene: Indochine Asian Dining Lounge's stylish decor impresses on a grand scale in this 200-seat Southeast Asian restaurant in downtown Tacoma. Warm wood accents, stone, exposed brick original to the building and layers of natural materials add warmth and intimacy to the expansive space. Clean lines are repeated throughout, creating pleasing symmetry wherever the eye turns.
Seating for groups big and small: A platform pavilion space provides elevated dining beneath gauzy tangerine curtains, a rear tatami style room provides partygoers intimacy in lovely digs; big parties are hosted in the event space behind the bar. Wooden bench tables straddle a tranquil pond fed continuously from a fountain that extends from a glass bowl (made by the Museum of Glass for the opening of Indochine). Intimate booths that could almost serve as their own private tatami rooms outline the dining room.
The history: Indochine started as an outpost in Federal Way, a small stylish family Thai restaurant that developed a regional following in the mid-1990s. (The family sold that restaurant in 2011). In 2005, family members Ly Ngov and her husband, Russel Brunton, expanded to downtown Tacoma. Their landlord, the University of Washington Tacoma, envisioned the space as several smaller restaurants, but Ngov and Brunton convinced UWT to allow their grandly scaled Indochine. Ngov's sister owns the smaller Indochine in Tacoma's Westgate neighborhood.
The design: Asian minimalist is how Brunton describes the interior, which was designed by Dan Kinkella, a Lakewood architect. Contractors and artists from South Sound contributed to the decor.
Your visitors will appreciate: Sophisticated Thai cooking with mixed Asian accents extending beyond the Southeast Asian palate. This is a restaurant where every guest will find something to love, even if they don’t appreciate the salty-sour-spicy-sweet symphony of Southeast Asian flavors.
The must-eat items: The menu is separated into Thai specialties of curry, rice and noodle dishes; Chinese wok favorites; and house specials.
For Thai selections, get the gang curry ($14.95), a complicated broth spiked with chiles and garlic, tamed by creamy coconut. Crying tiger beef salad ($14.95) combined everything I love about Thai cooking: fiercely spiced beef punched up with lemongrass, lime and garlic. Spicy Siamese noodles ($14.95) combined chewy pan noodles with chicken in a ginger-basil bath.
Menu items that merge Chinese style with Thai tastes appeal to all palates and are fairly priced. Honey glazed walnut prawns ($16.95) are drenched in sweet, the spicy basil beef ($13.95) carry the aroma of the signature ingredient, but is not overly spicy.
Seafood specialty items are truly that. Ocean's Five ($25.95) arrives as a tangle of silky seafood - prawns, calamari, fish and scallops - set against a wine reduction sauce spiked with kicky habanero and lime; it tasted like curry's more refined cousin. The Black Sea ($25.95) is Indochine's take on Spanish paella, made of black Thai rice and a sweet kala masala laced with shrimp, calamari, scallops and a hefty helping of crab.
The service: Unflappable, hospitable, enjoyable. Staffers are diplomatic and attentive.
Spirits: Tropical-hued cocktails adorned with the restaurant's signature fresh orchids, plus a short beer and wine list. The lounge is a beautiful story in itself. Don't miss the coconut or lychee martinis ($8.50).
Most unusual find: Is that gelato in the display case out front? It sure is. And it’s all housemade. Don’t miss the coconut, mango or salted caramel.
Coming soon: The restaurant soon will cater to fast-casual diners with made-to-order salads and sandwiches at lunch.
Asado Cucina Argentina2810 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-7770, asadotacoma.com. Serves lunch on weekdays and dinner daily.
The scene: Sizzle and smoke define Asado Cucina Argentina, the South Sound's only Argentine-themed steakhouse and a staple restaurant of the trendy Sixth Avenue dining district. John Xitco opened the restaurant in November 2005 under ownership of his X Group restaurants with wife Hollie and X Group partners Jeff and Andrea Paradise and Luke and Alisa Xitco.
Heady smoke wafts from the display kitchen where Chef Tasso Zambaras sears beef over a mesquite grill. Low lighting is moody by night, bright and beautiful by day because of the expansive garage doors that roll up in the summertime, spilling diners onto Sixth Avenue. A mural evokes pastoral Argentina. Metalwork and heavy doses of deep-hued wood create a rustic urban palette.
The mood: Social by design, with a large chef's table straddling the display kitchen. Bench booth seating connects diners to neighbors, but without being overly intrusive. (Note: This is not a quiet, romantic destination.) The word "asado" means a gathering of friends for a grill party - the Argentine equivalent of an American patio barbecue - and that theme translates into a convivial gathering spot for friends and family.
The design: Xitco and crew worked with Rose Capestany of RCI designs, which also designed X Group sister restaurant across the street, Masa. X Group also owns nearby Engine House No. 9.
Your visitors will appreciate: A steakhouse with a flavor-forward menu with preparations licked with smoke and sophistication. The price point proves flexible, entrees from the high teens to high $20s (happy hour and lunch yield the best deals).
Must-eat items: Four visits over six months found not a dud on the menu deep in high-quality grilled beef, in the true Argentine style, licked with chimichurri. (Think of it as South American pesto, made with cilantro and parsley).
Mesquite-perfumed steak is the must-order item.
Costilla de la carne ($39) was the grandaddy of the menu, a fork-tender rib steak with spot-on seasoning.
Parilla mixta ($26) is for the surf-and-turf lover, beefy skirt steak flanked by snappy prawns with a bonus of chorizo that was a supple flavor bomb. Lomillo ($24), a hanger steak, was what hanger steak should taste like - a sock in the jaw of meaty awe.
The obligatory chicken and pork chop entrees were not throwaway menu items. The pollo enveulto con serrano ($23) was a bone-in breast wrapped in serrano and stuffed with grassy cilantro chimichurri. The pitu puerco ($25) danced between heat and sweet, the stuffing fortified with chorizo and golden raisins. Vegetarians get due diligence: a winter special of butternut squash gnocchi ($18) came with heavy substance, macadamia nuts and calabasita squash in a butter sauce.
Entrees came with a choice of sides: polenta with kicky poblano; waxy purple potatoes; or lentils stewed with heady aromatics. All tasted solid.
Appetizers provided the best deals and shareable tastes. Don't miss the chorizo, made by Uli's of Seattle - the tastiest chorizo I've ever met ($9.75). Ceviche ($11.75) presented the finest execution in town, the sea bass, sole, tilapia and scallops cooked in a sparkling bath of lime.
The service: Oh, boy. I wish I had more positive things to say. Great meals were dampened by lousy treatment on four visits.
On the positive side, servers volunteered bottles for tableside private wine tasting and customized wine recommendations. Well-versed servers helped navigate every aspect of the menu.
But distracted servers forgot drink orders, even after multiple reminders. A seating hostess haughtily gave our party a deadline for vacating our table. (To be fair, we arrived without reservations, but telling diners before they're seated to vacate a table by a certain time should sound diplomatic, not snotty.) A bar visit yielded a bartender who ignored us until we made our presence known. I wanted more polished service.
Spirits: Custom cocktails that, like the food, are flavor drenched. The diablo martini ($8.50) with habanero vodka is not for the weak. The wine list was heavy on South American wines; Asado is, after all, the restaurant that introduced the South Sound to Argentine malbec. The rest of the list had surprising and neat Northwest wine finds. It also offered an outstanding stock of premium spirits, as well as local beer on tap.