There are nine really good reasons to visit the Lincoln District.
Along a two-block stretch in the South 38th Street neighborhood, you’ll find the city’s finest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants.
Nine eateries serve everything from banh mi sandwiches to pho, barbecued meats, noodle salads, coffee and even crawfish.
It’s one of my favorite Tacoma neighborhoods for an inexpensive lunch.
And here’s a tip: There’s a bevy of other restaurants in Lincoln cooking up cuisine beyond Vietnamese. They’re listed at the end of this article.
If you’re stopping by the Lincoln District for the free Lunar New Year celebration Feb. 13, many of these restaurants will offer dining specials to celebrate. See below for details.
Here’s a look at my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in the Lincoln neighborhood, in order of which you should visit first.
750 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-301-0020; dragonscrawfish.cf.
Minh Phan serves the city’s finest (and only) crawfish boil that tastes straight out of the Louisiana bayou, but with a few Vietnamese flourishes. His partner in business and life, Sina Kong, runs the dining room while Phan produces steaming bowls of boiled crawfish, shrimp, crab and various other catches of the day. Market prices range from $10-$30 a pound. Broth choices include a peppery Cajun or a garlic-butter (my top choice). Spicing levels range from newbie to defcon-level ouch. Also serves noodle dishes.
3801 Yakima Ave., Tacoma; 253-472-6668.
The region is overloaded with fast-food Vietnamese soup shops featuring the aromatic Vietnamese rice noodle soup, but Vien Dong is the grandaddy. Since 1989, the restaurant has been collecting slurp-happy pho fanatics. What I appreciate is the raft of herbs topping every bowl and the generous helping of meat.
The restaurant is regarded as the city’s best for pho, and that’s just as likely because of the friendly owners as it is the excellent steamy soup and rice dishes.
Thuy-Linh Nguyen was a child when her parents opened the restaurant. She now runs it with husband Kevin Le.
757 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-472-6153; phodragon.com.
I am aware this attractive and tidy restaurant — owned by Xuan Phan, mother of Minh Phan of Dragon’s Crawfish across the street — is named after pho and has a short list of the soup made with a deeply-flavored broth that tastes like the Vietnamese equivalent of tonkotsu. But Pho Dragon’s tender barbecued pork is what I covet. It’s marinated in a salty-sweet bath and grilled over high heat until the edges are sizzled.
I like mine in the bun thit nuong ($8.99), a cold rice noodle salad topped with shredded vegetables, peanuts, cha gio and fried shallots, with a refreshing fish sauce dressing.
THO TUONG B.B.Q.
715 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-2279. Cash only.
Tho Tuong B.B.Q. is niche focused on doing one thing — and its specialty is its best advertisement. Tho Tuong’s vertical barbecue roaster is visible streetside.
This cash-only place is simply decorated with comfortable high-top table seating. Find roasted or barbecued pork, duck or chicken by the pound ($8-$21.99), in soup or as a lunch plate with rice (both $8). I can’t decide which I like best: the tangy roasted pork, the lightly sweetened barbecued pork or the soy sauce chicken as a rice plate, or the fatty-edged roasted duck in the noodle soup. I’ll eat any of them by the pound.
Don’t miss the sweet pickled jalapenos and dipping sauce.
HONG KONG SUPERMARKET AND DELI
3828 Yakima Ave., Tacoma; 253-471-0744.
This longtime Lincoln District grocery store moved to the end of the block and reopened in April 2014 in a roomier, brighter space offering row after row of Southeast Asia produce and groceries, and a wide selection of meat and live seafood tanks with crab and lobster.
In one corner of the market, find a steam table deli offering rice combinations at bargain prices ($5-$6), plus freshly made bahn mi sandwiches ($3-$3.50), bubble tea ($3.50) and vertically roasted Vietnamese barbecue: pork ($8-$9); chicken ($8-$14) and duck ($10-$18).
There’s another grocery store nearby, the East Asia Supermarket, worth an excursion. The deli offerings don’t match those at Hong Kong Supermarket, but this is a terrific store for grocery finds covering wide terrain of Southeast Asian cooking. Find it at 602 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-473-3799.
758 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-3992.
If you can get past the algae-coated fish tank (it sets off my inner neat freak), you’ll find a menu covering a wide swath of Vietnamese, from pho to noodle salads and rice dishes, mostly priced under $10. This is simple fare focusing on fast service. Check out the specials listed on the sheet tacked onto the wall. You’ll find hot pot and other unusual selections on that menu.
BANH MI CAFES
Three cafes focus on Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, made with grilled meats, pickled vegetables, jalapenos and cilantro on crusty baguettes. These cafes are near the intersection of South Yakima Avenue and South 38th Street.
Café La Vie: By far, the best barbecue pork banh mi ($4) I’ve had in Tacoma, with pork fueled by five spice, a smear of paté and broadly sliced cucumbers, jalapeno wedges and marinated carrots, and more cilantro than you can fathom. 3724 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma, 253-472-3724.
Huong Que Deli: A decent barbecue pork banh mi ($3), but with an addictive salty lemonade made with the Vietnamese version of preserved lemon, called chanh muoi ($3). 3813 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma; 253-476-7805, cash only.
Trung Chanh Cafe: The cafe usually has a table or two of men playing card games, which is fitting for the cafe outfitted with card tables. Sandwiches are fine ($4), but I suspect most come for the Vietnamese coffee ($4). 773 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-507-4521, cash only.
ALSO IN LINCOLN
These restaurants are worth a visit in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood.
Uncle Thurm’s Finger Lickin’ Ribs and Chicken: It’s a tough decision between the fried chicken and ribs at this soul food/southern hybrid, located steps from Lincoln High School. I say order both dishes. Be sure to say hello to neighborhood character and owner Thurmond Brokenbrough, who has been cooking in the South Sound since he started working in 1998 at the Doo Drop Inn. Find Uncle Thurm’s at 3709 S. G St., Tacoma; 253-475-1881.
Gari of Sushi: Find flavor-whipped maki, elaborate nigiri and the finest poke salad in the city in this restaurant that’s much more attractive inside than its plain exterior signals. If you’re a fan of Fujiya, you’ll like this place, too. Kazuya “Kazu” Kamada is the chef behind the sushi counter. 1209 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-475-3456.
El Zocalo Tortas and Bakery: El Zocalo is a one-stop destination for great Mexican fare. To the left, find a bakery with pan dulce, cookies and bread. On the right, find an extensive menu of torta sandwiches. 701 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-9000.
Taqueria La Fondita: Across from El Zocalo find another Mexican destination, a taco truck serving some of the best carnitas in Tacoma. It’s low on atmosphere, but with highly consistent food. Owner Jaime Beltran opened a new restaurant in December, La Perla Del Mar. 3737 S. G St., Tacoma; 253-472-2577.
Jubilee Burgers: This restaurant has gone through yet another transformation. The last version of Jubilee closed in 2012. A frozen yogurt cafe opened in its place in 2014. Recently, it returned to a burger and fries menu, but with a bit more upscale presentation (and higher prices to match). 858 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-275-8009.
Burger Ranch: I’ve yet to have a great burger from there. Go for shakes or fries. 820 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-472-3069.
Flying Boots and Wings: You don’t even have to go inside to see cool history. Get yourself to this old bar (under new ownership since 2014) to check out that historic sign with the neon flying boots. 614 S. 38th St., Tacoma.
Restaurant offers during the lunar New Year celebration:
Vien Dong: Free coke product drinks with a food purchase.
Dragon’s Crawfish: $5 off purchse of three pounds of crawfish.
Pho Dragon: 10 percent off entire menu.
Zocalo Mexican Bakery. Free canned drink with any sandwich.
Jubilee Burger: Free drink with any purchase; a large milkshake for $2.99.
Other business offers during the festival:
Asia Gift and Aquarium: 20% off all fish.
Lincoln Beauty School: $20 manicure and pedicure package.
Kim Viet Jewelry: 30% off jewelry repair while you wait.
Sky Chiropractor: 15 minute of free consultation/check ups.