TNT Diner

Small plates, big flavors are the new theme of a downtown Tacoma restaurant

Fried chicken with house-made hot sauce is on the menu at Wilder Local Fare + Libations in downtown Tacoma.
Fried chicken with house-made hot sauce is on the menu at Wilder Local Fare + Libations in downtown Tacoma.

Chef Ben Herreid wanted to swap standard menus for a chalkboard.

He also wanted to move away from Italian cuisine.

Then there was the matter of all that fresh produce from his Puyallup valley farm. He needed a menu that could change as quickly as his crops matured.

That’s how Wilder Local Fare + Libations was born.

Last week, Herreid changed the name and concept of Italian restaurant Cafe Vincero, where he started cooking in May following his exit of restaurant ownership.

As of June 6, the downtown Tacoma restaurant’s Italian menu was gone. A new sign went up on the building. The owners are still the same. Kevin Cornwell opened the restaurant with his father, Ed Banks, in 2014. They’ve handed control of the menu and concept to Herreid.

Here’s a first-bite look at what Herreid’s cooking. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month:

Dining room: Unchanged, save for the Cafe Vincero sign being removed. There still is seating for about 70 at tables adorned with mosaic tiles that also climb the tall walls. There’s also a small bar. The kitchen, including the restaurant’s coveted wood-fired pizza oven, is partially on display.

The name: “We were looking at literary references and Anne (Herreid’s wife) had mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder's ‘Farmer Boy’ as being a great foodie book,” said Herreid. “That brought us to Wilder. I think it perfectly portrays our concept from the organic farm to the foraged ingredients to the awesome libations and Wilder’s late hours.”

About Herreid: He opened the fresh pasta restaurant Arista in downtown Puyallup in 2014. In 2016, he expanded to RoastHouse by Arista in Parkland. Financial trouble closed Arista permanently in April. HG Bistro owner Tim Hall took over RoastHouse in Parkland in March.

The farm: This is the third season for Herreid’s Clarks Creek Farm, which expanded from 1 to 6 acres last year. He manages the farm with Drew Constant of Rolling Rocks Farm. The farm grows everything from tomatoes to squash to wild greens.

“The soil is awesome. You can put anything in there, and it’ll burst up and give you more than what you need,” said Herreid last summer.

Isn’t that farm-to-table? I usually dislike that term because it’s so incorrectly overused. Here? It’s actually accurate. Herreid supplements from other farms, including mushrooms from local grower, Adam DeLeo of Adam’s Mushrooms.

In the kitchen: Sous chef Hailey Gift, who followed Herreid from Arista.

Arista family tree: Former Arista sous chef Shawn Tibbitts opened his own restaurant Tibbitts@Fern Hill this year in the Fern Hill neighborhood.

That menu: Will cycle quickly, especially as the farm’s crops mature. Expect produce to play a supporting or starring role in most dishes. The menu will always include 20 or so small plates that can be assembled into a light or heavy meal. Dishes I sampled were all built for sharing with generous portions. Five dishes fed two very well. Prices range from $4 to $14.

But what about Herreid’s pasta? I know, I know. I’m as big a fan of Herreid’s fresh pasta as you. I’m happy to report he had handmade ravioli pasta salad on the menu ($14) last week. Watch for pasta specials to rotate through, but the opening menu had much less of a focus on fresh pasta.

Try the: Fried chicken, cooked low and slow so that the meat turned supple ($12). The thigh and drum were dunked in a clingy, well-seasoned batter fried long enough to crackle at first bite. The house-made hot sauce was thumped with chile flavor. Shrimp and crab cakes seesawed that sweet spot of more fish than binder that I like to see in a seafood cake ($9). Two large discs carried a crunchy exterior, with a side of delicious drippy garlic aioli for dunking.

Gnudi, puffy ricotta dumplings, held a bouncy texture and creamy resistance ($5). This was the bargain dish of the meal with four springy dumplings topping a pool of cream sauce, a sprinkle of mushrooms and drizzle of balsamic.

Hand-cut frites were fit for kids or adults with a cola-flavored ketchup and heavy Cajun-ish seasoning ($5).

Coming next: “Going forward I'm not sure what will make the menu next. I'm going to wait for the inspiration to come from what we pull from the field,” Herreid said.

Wilder Local Fare + Libations

Where: 714 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-503-6141;

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 4 p.m.-midnight Friday; 2 p.m.-midnight Saturday; 2-10 p.m. Sundays.