Cuban-inspired bar food fills delicious niche at The Church Cantina
As a longtime chef and more recent bar owner, Nicole De La Paz keeps hours late into the evening.
Because of those long hours, she misses many of the city’s brunch options, which typically end by the time she’s awake and ready to eat her first meal.
“I’ve gone to so many places where when you get there at 2 and they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we just took our brunch menus off the tables.’ At that point, I’m so hungry, I will eat anything with an egg on it,” said De La Paz, with a laugh.
It’s a breakfast travesty she’s correcting now that she’s a bar owner.
She serves brunch for dinner at her new bar, The Church Cantina, which she opened in August with husband Adam Jones and business partner Rusty Fawver.
That means brunch starts when The Church Cantina opens — at 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and noon on Sundays. Those brunch items are on the menu late into the night. The bar closes at 2 a.m. most days.
The Church Cantina is at the top of my list of Tacoma bars with excellent food. It’s on par with Top of Tacoma, The Valley, Eleven Eleven and 3uilt. Of course, De La Paz used to cook at Top of Tacoma and 3uilt (and also HG Bistro and Marrow).
Her bar menu is a collision of gooey sandwiches, interesting fried fare and Tacoma bar staples, such as street tacos and chicken wings, but coaxed with flavor and chef touches.
Look a little deeper and see a Mexican-Cuban theme. Don’t call The Church Cantina a Mexican or Cuban restaurant, though.
It’s straight up bar food brushed with Latin flavors, but still a bar at its essence.
The Cuban end of that equation percolates from De La Paz’s Cuban family in Miami. She grew up learning to cook the favorites of her Cuban dad and grandma. Now, she gussies up those plain dishes with lots of Latin touches — kicky jalapenos, ghost pepper jack cheese, adobo sauce and more.
From the brunch menu, my must order is the jalapeno-cheddar biscuits with housemade chorizo gravy and fried eggs ($9).
De La Paz uses a one-two spike of pepper flavor from diced fresh and pickled jalapenos with cheesy-spicy reinforcement from ghost pepper jack cheese in what she calls “a standard buttermilk biscuit recipe.” By standard, I think she means fluffy and delicious.
The chorizo is what makes the dish so special.
“It’s a really good quality chorizo,” said De la Paz.
It tastes like it. Her cream gravy is made from a roux and flavored with fresh herbs, roasted garlic and that delicious chorizo that gives it a lingering spice.
The Cure is De La Paz’s solution for a hangover breakfast.
“It’s a big plate of food and pounds all those carbs into your brain and cures everything,” she said.
She splits a jalapeno-cheddar biscuit, stacks it with a ham steak and fried eggs ($10). She finishes the plate with the Cuban equivalent of breakfast potatoes — black beans and rice. I highly recommend adding chorizo gravy to that dish.
De La Paz nails the whole bar sandwich thing with her outstanding Cuban sandwich. She does it again on her brunch menu.
The Breakfast Club combines goo and crunch to create a tasty, delicious sandwich built on grilled sourdough ($7). Her chipotle aioli is made with adobo sauce and sweetened with a little sugar. She layers thin slices of ham, caramelized peppers and onions, cheddar and two fried eggs that dripped yolky rivers at first bite.
That breakfast sandwich was exquisite. The name is more a nod to the movie rather than a club sandwich. In fact, most menu names carry references to ‘80s-era movies and music. The bar continues that theme with quintessential ‘80s New Wave on a soundtrack loop — The Cure, The Smiths and New Order are in heavy rotation.
Any Gen Xer wanting to rediscover those goth-emo years should head directly to the bar. Now.
The rest of the menu: Six appetizers ($6 to $14), tacos ($7 to $10), quesadillas ($7 to $10), rice-and-bean bowls ($8 to $10), burritos ($8 to $14) and bar sandwiches ($8-$10). Vegans get lots of choices here.
The atmosphere: Glamorous and gritty, all in one. It’s part goth, part New Wave and a whole bunch of come-as-you-are Tacoma.
Just launched: A specialty cocktail menu with a half dozen choices ($8 to $9). The list includes an old fashioned made with Hellfire habanero bitters, a cold brew coffee cocktail with Amaretto, vodka and cream and a bloody mary with lots of spice and citrus.
Coming next: The 253 menu with $2 tall cans of beer, $5 select food entrees and $3 well shots. 2-5 p.m.
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. Noon-10 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays
Note: Children allowed in the front gaming area until 8 p.m.