TNT Diner

It’s rice, pizza crust and steak. It’s the vegetable on menus everywhere

Fried cauliflower at Primo Grill in Tacoma. It comes with four dips: yogurt (left), harissa, hummus and almond piquillo.
Fried cauliflower at Primo Grill in Tacoma. It comes with four dips: yogurt (left), harissa, hummus and almond piquillo. phaley@thenewstribune.com

One of the reasons Tom Pantley cooks the way he does is because of a hot skillet of cauliflower.

“I can still taste it in my mind. It was one of the dishes that got me started off on the idea of a really simple cooking style, “ said Pantley in describing a dish he ate as a kid while visiting his grandparents. “They would just fry it on a cast iron skillet with a little onion, salt and fine ground black pepper. The flavor was from the searing.”

Pantley’s the chef and co-owner of Toscanos Italian Grill in Puyallup.

Like a lot of chefs, he’s turning cauliflower trendy.

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last year, or have a pulse, you’ve seen the videos that show you how to turn the ubiquitous and very un-sexy vegetable into a rice substitute or, when squished with egg and cheese, into pizza crust. Some even show cauliflower turned into a substitute for steak (this is where meat lovers roll their eyes).

Cauliflower is fast becoming an easy target to hate on. Call it the new kale, today’s equivalent of the yawn-inducing broccolini or some other eye roll-fetching vegetable darling of the moment.

But, I’d make the case that kale sucks — and always has. I’ve had just about enough of it arriving on my plate as a bitter chiffonade of disappointment.

Broccolini is just as dull.

Neither are as flexible as my pale friend, cauliflower, which can be seared, roasted or braised to coax its natural nutty sweetness. Cauliflower also tastes neutral enough to support a cast of far-flung flavors — from Indian spicing in aloo gobi to Buffalo wing sauce.

And, hey, a lot of chefs told me that playing with cauliflower is a way to not shaft vegetarians who, you know, would like to actually find something to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t involve slimy sprouts and hippy bread.

So enter cauliflower, in all of its beige-ish glory. While it’s hearty enough to be a main dish, most chefs around here treat it as an appetizer.

The most tasty versions here come with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Indian boosts.

Pantley serves his with a fast-assembled sauce of tomatoes, onion, garlic and feta.

Charlie McManus of Primo Grill seasons his with sumac and serves it with meze-style spreads. Gordon Naccarato of Pacific Grill pulses it into “couscous” and dresses it up with masala.

And I found a lot more than that. Here’s my tour of 10 dishes at eight restaurants.

FRIED CAULIFLOWER WITH MEZE, $14

Where: Primo Grill, 2701 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-383-7000; primogrilltacoma.com.

Fried cauliflower anchored a platter of colorful house-made meze-style spreads at Sixth Avenue’s Primo Grill. It was the most stunning flavor lineup and prettiest appetizer plate on this tour.

The spreads included a tangy yogurt flanked by peppery harissa, which spilled into a sweet-savory yellow chickpea puree flavored with saffron, like a fancy cousin to hummus. The tastiest spread on the plate — a rich, almond-piquillo pepper puree — was also the most fitting for dredging the smoky, caramelized cauliflower, which was spiced with sumac and aleppo pepper. When I ran out of that, grilled house-made flatbread scooped up the last bits of those delicious spreads. (Skip the yogurt to turn this vegetarian dish vegan.)

CAULIFLOWER AND FETA, $8.95

Where: Toscanos Italian Grill, 437 29th St. NE, Puyallup; 253-864-8600; toscanospuyallup.com.

Pantley has always cooked cauliflower at Toscanos, but it never sold well until cauliflower entered its moment. Pantley’s current version is served seared with robust Mediterranean flavors.

“We cut the cauliflower into pieces with flat edges so when sauteed, the cauliflower caramelizes,” he said.

His quick sauce assembled diced tomatoes, caramelized onions, parsley and red pepper flakes. He added a splash of lemon, butter and feta, which turned the spicy sauce creamy.

(Skip the butter and feta to turn this vegetarian dish vegan.)

CAULIFLOWER COUSCOUS, $10.95

Where: Pacific Grill, 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-3535; pacificgrilltacoma.com.

Cauliflower “rice” first showed up two years ago at downtown Tacoma’s Pacific Grill as a vegetarian fried rice. It is on the current menu as a riff on vegetarian couscous.

Cauliflower was pulsed in a processor until pebble sized and then seasoned.

“We use the masala spices towards the Moroccan direction,” said Naccarato of the onions cooked in masala spicing before being added to cooked cauliflower flavored with cilantro and mint. The vegan side dish was served warm over a bed of fresh spinach and topped with halved cherry tomatoes.

CAULIFLOWER STEAK, $19.95

Where: Pacific Grill

The Cauliflower Steak entree at Pacific Grill has reached Naccarato’s “classic status,” which means it’s earned a permanent home on the menu.

“We might change the garnish seasonally, but you will always find a version on our current menu,” he said.

His and executive chef Jessica Armstrong’s current version arrived paired with a tumble of olive tapenade spilling down the vertical cauliflower steak, which was cut down the middle to make way for a channel of silky whipped goat cheese topped with lemon-licked breadcrumbs. A roasted-tomato sauce with garlic and herbs pooled around the steak.

(Skip the goat cheese to turn it vegan.)

Tip: Watch for a play on street tacos created for the summer menu by Armstrong. She’ll pair fried cauliflower in a tortilla with miso slaw.

VEGAN CAULIFLOWER WINGS, $9

Where: Dirty Oscar’s Annex, 2309 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-572-0588; dirtyoscarsannex.com.

On the appetizer menu, or as a $5 happy hour special, deep-fried cauliflower at Sixth Avenue’s Dirty Oscar’s Annex was dredged through seasoned flour before being dunked in a fryer. Sweet honey habanero dipping sauce tamed the peppery coating on this unusual take on wings. It’s one of two cauliflower dishes from chef Sean Firth.

SEARED CAULIFLOWER, $9

Where: Dirty Oscar’s Annex

Firth seared big pieces of cauliflower until the edges browned and then set the cauliflower atop a slick of peanut sauce thumped with yellow-curry heat. Chopped mint and roasted peanuts finished the Thai-inspired dish.

CAULIFLOWER PAN-FRIED WINGS, $9

Where: Viva Tacoma, 2602 N. Proctor St., Tacoma; 253-503-6498; viva4life.com.

Tacoma’s only vegan-raw restaurant also took liberties with the concept of “wings.” Chef Ben Nichols coated bite-size florets in a gluten-free batter mix, lightly fried it, then baked it until the cauliflower carried only light snap.

The florets were tossed in Nichols’ “enhanced teriyaki sauce,” a sticky ginger-tamari coating with tang and slow-building spice. A cashew-based dipping sauce with garlic tempered the heat.

Tip: The entire menu is vegan but the entrees are split between cooked and raw at this Proctor restaurant.

FRIED CAULIFLOWER SANDWICH, $5.99

Where: Gyro Zone, 7510 40th St., University Place; 253-267-1616; facebook.com/GyroZone.

University Place’s Gyro Zone offers the widest collection of vegetarian sandwiches in the city, aside from Top of Tacoma.

On the list of five vegetarian sandwiches find the fried cauliflower masterpiece.

Cauliflower was fried until sweet and nutty, tossed in assertive spicing and tucked into grilled pita with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and tahini, a toasted sesame sauce flavored with lemon.

Tip: Also find fried cauliflower as an appetizer, $5.03.

FRIED CAULIFLOWER SANDWICH, $12

Where: The Swiss Tavern, 1904 S. Jefferson, Tacoma; 253-572-2821; theswisspub.com.

Another take on a fried cauliflower sandwich, The Swiss Tavern chef Steve Weyrauch batters cauliflower before frying it. That tweak of piquant heat is, you guessed it, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, which was added to the batter along with a bunch of other spices.

The vegan sandwich was built on a toasted bun with red onions, thick-sliced tomato, green leaf lettuce and a restrained smear of vegan aioli. Served with a salad or fries, but the fryer is not vegan friendly. Fried cauliflower also on the appetizer menu.

SHERRY-BRAISED CAULIFLOWER, $12

Where: Green.House, 4793 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-514-6482; greenhousegigharbor.com.

Divergent flavors abounded in this preparation that combined lightly braised cauliflower with a sherry beurre blanc sauce thickened with butter. Assertive blue cheese, and a lot of it, added a pungent dissonance to barely softened cauliflower. This one’s for the flavor hounds. Discounted to $9 at happy hour.

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