It wasn’t until after I picked up the Cuban sandwich that I realized what a great idea it was that the tables at The Church Cantina held napkin dispensers.
I needed nine? That Cuban was one of the finest I’ve had in this city. High praise in a city filled with great Cuban sandwiches.
South Tacoma Way’s newest restaurant officially opened for cocktail service in August, but the full menu debuted Sept. 7 at the restaurant from longtime Tacoma-area chef Nicole De La Paz, her husband, Adam Jones, and business partner, Rusty Fawver.
The Church Cantina is a restaurant and bar with a focus on Cuban-inspired food, but don’t consider it an attempt at an authentic Cuban restaurant, said De La Paz.
“It’s basically the things I know and grew up with,” she said.
The Cuban chef spent chunks of her childhood in Miami where she still has family.
“Cuban food, I don’t want to use the word ‘boring,’ but it’s very comfort-food type food. It’s meat, beans and rice, but I wanted to give it more flavor and turn it into bar food. The kind of bar snacks that make you feel good and want to take a nap.”
Mission accomplished, De La Paz.
I could’ve used a snooze after plowing through the Cuban-ish sandwiches, tacos and bar snacks.
De La Paz’s resume includes some of the most interesting South Sound eateries. She was a longtime chef at HG Bistro where she started as a dishwasher and departed as executive chef. Her next stops included Dirty Oscar’s Annex, Marrow, Top of Tacoma and 3uilt.
I wondered where else she drew culinary inspiration, and it turns out her answer is the same as a lot of chefs: Family. Specifically, her dad, who is from Havana, and her grandmother.
“She used to come up here every Thanksgiving and cook for us,” said De La Paz of her Cuban grandmother. “It was the only time I remember my mom never cooking. (Grandma) would come up and show us a different side of food we didn’t see with my mom’s side of the family.”
“It was an activity, a gathering,” she added. “And I love food because of it.”
They still continue that tradition.
“At the end of the summer, we’ll roast a big pork for the family. At Thanksgiving, we do Cuban turkey,” De La Paz said.
So what’s a Cuban turkey? It’s marinated and flavored with a mojo sauce, the traditional Cuban flavoring for roast pork.
“You make the mojo rub with cumin, garlic, onion and orange and lime and rub the turkey under the skin, and you shove the oranges and limes inside and let it sit overnight. Then you cook it all night and the next day. It’s the best thing you’ll ever have.”
Here’s a first-bite look. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service in a restaurant’s first month.
The space: Transformed from its former life as pizza restaurant Ah Badabing. It’s now an energetic space with both glamorous and gritty edges, just as one would expect at a funky-cool bar on South Tacoma Way.
A 21-and-older bar is to the right and a game room with pool table, arcade games and table seating to the left. The re-purposed lantern fixtures that previously hung in a Tacoma church inspired the name.
Service style: Order at the counter. Table service on occasion.
The menu: Appetizers include Cuban tostones ($6) and croquetas ($7) but also bar snacks, such as chicken wings carrying De La Paz’s signature cherry mole sauce made with Mexican chocolate ($9 to $14).
Cuban-themed bean-and-rice bowls include one with mojo pork, another with churrasco shredded beef, one with the mole chicken and a vegan version ($8 to $10).
The same churrasco, mojo pork, mole flavored chicken and vegan options are available as tacos ($7 to $9) or burritos ($8 to $14). Sandwiches include chicken mole sliders ($8), the stellar Cuban ($9), a chimichurri churrasco sandwich ($10) and vegetarian grilled cheese ($7).
De La Paz’s love for brunch shows up in a menu available outside brunch hours (they’re not open for brunch) and includes a jalapeno-cheddar biscuit with chorizo gravy and fried eggs ($8) and two other dishes ($7 to $10).
Beverages: Full cocktail menu, beer and wine, but a specialty cocktail menu currently is under development now by bar manager Autumn Burnsides, formerly of the Top of Tacoma.
Kids: Welcome until 8 p.m. (outside the bar area).
On a first visit: De La Paz’s croquettas were the ultimate in Latin-infused bar food. Deep fried fritters were threaded with cubed ham and shredded gruyere with a pickle relish and cumin Dijon for dipping ($7).
A must-try is that drippy, nine-napkin Cuban with just the right ratio of grilled hoagie against a stack of slow-cooked roasted pork (flavored with De La Paz’s family recipe for mojo marinade) and grilled sliced ham. A cheesy flow of gruyere and a trifecta of flavor — garlic aioli, cumin mustard and pickle relish — turned this into the best, and messiest, Cuban I’ve had in Tacoma ($9). Served with blocky wedge fries dusted with Cajun-style seasoning (or sweet potato fries).
Proving she’s the master of sloppy and delicious sandwiches, a double whammy of sauces dripped out of the chicken mole sliders, too. That exquisite cherry-chocolate mole sauce and lime-flavored crema boosted the flavor, and melted pepperjack gave good goo, served on well-grilled slider rolls ($8, three sliders and a choice of fries).
Churrasco tacos with slow-cooked shredded beef were saturated form caramelized peppers, onions and an herb-heavy chimichurri ($9, for two). Extra napkins will be required.
The Church Cantina
Where: 5240 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma
Info: 253-292-0544 or facebook.com/thechurchcantina
Hours: 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays for now, but that might change.