Sometimes it takes a boatload of people to get a restaurant to float. In the case of the new Ark Smokehouse in Tacoma, Roseanna Donely relied on a crew of helpers when things began to tank.
A year ago, the restaurant veteran – with nearly 40 years' experience operating the family-owned Caveman Kitchens in Kent – was looking to branch out with her sister Dale Jarosz. They intended to open a smokehouse in Tacoma. They found a location – the Olde Shipwreck on Marine View Drive – and leased the property, taking out a line of credit to complete building improvements.
Then came the economic storm, and The Ark's line of credit washed away with it.
"The bank's response was, 'We're sorry,'?" said Donely. She was in a tough spot. With no cash flow, she had no way of opening. Enter her crew of people. They included family, friends, neighbors and members of her church, Auburn Bible Chapel. Ron and Barb Lalime, members of Donely's church, invested in the restaurant. Family members and friends contributed in the form of labor, helping paint the restaurant. Son Tim Powell, who owns his own construction company, replaced the restaurant's flooring.
On Memorial Day weekend, they opened The Ark Smokehouse – a restaurant specializing in the same smokehouse techniques Caveman Kitchens has used since Donely's father, Richard Donely, opened the Kent Caveman Kitchen in 1971. Donely's daughter, Noela Rydquist, works the restaurant with mother and aunt. Members of Donely's church also are on staff.
The restaurant carries a biblical theme with a glimmer of humor because, as Donely puts, "I think God must have a really great sense of humor." Menu items are given biblical names and the tagline on the menu is "Embark the Ark." Pages of the Bible and the Constitution decorate the cavernous space. Wooden tables with log stools complete the kitschy feel. There's room to expand on the property, too, or at least that's Donely's intention as she builds the business.
Smoked meats is something Donely and the Caveman family have done for nearly 40 years. The giant smoker behind the restaurant is a relic of the Caveman catering days. The smoker was custom built for one of the largest catering gigs Caveman ever attempted – feeding 15,000 people at a roving Burlington Northern party about 15 years ago. They had six smokers built for that party. Along with the relic smoker, the smoking techniques are those developed by Donely's father, Richard.
I enjoyed consistently good chicken at The Ark – it's one of the anchors on the smoked meats menu. The restaurant also serves smoked meat sandwiches. The rest of the menu is typical barbecue sides of baked beans, potato salad and cole slaw. My two visits were just a few weeks after the restaurant opened, so they were still getting things just right. I'm still craving the smoky bite in the half chicken dinner ($10.69). It came with dark brown smoked skin that yielded to supple, juicy meat inside. The Polish sausage dinner ($9.89) also impressed – the mildly spiced, chunky pieces of sausage came licked with just a hint of smoke. Pork ribs ($10.89) were deeply smoky, and with a bit of a chew (maybe too much chew for some rib lovers). The sauce that came with the sausage and ribs might be too cloying for diners who are not fans of sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauces. I ordered my sauce on the side after my first visit.
Dinners come with a choice of potato salad, coleslaw and a green salad. The potato salad held steady as my favorite – creamy, and crunchy with bits of green onion. Baked beans – salty, sweet and loaded with chunky bits of smoked meat – also come with dinners.
The French bread is crunchy, crusty and slathered with butter before it's toasted. Dinners come with a side of the bread, and the bread shows up again in sturdy sandwiches stuffed with smoked meats. The sliced beef sandwich ($4.39 small/$7.89 large) was a bit too chewy for my liking, but had the same pronounced smoke flavor as the other meats. The salmon dip – loaded with flaked pieces of smoked salmon – was delish dipped in the side of au jus made of fish stock.
One side worth ordering and sharing is Esau's stew ($3.89) – onions, potatoes and carrots roasted golden brown and served in a foil packet. They're called Dragon Wheels at the sister restaurant, Caveman Kitchens
If you're too full to order dessert, you may get some anyway. On one visit, I watched Donely thrust containers of pudding at departing diners. Donely is known to give away samples – lots of free samples. Don't be surprised if you're at the front counter deciding what to order and Donely hands you a red-and-white paper tray full of every kind of meat she serves. Being generous is something she learned from her father.
"My dad said, 'Cast your bread upon the water and it will come back to you.' You can never give anything away, because it will always return to you."
The Ark Smokehouse Restaurant
Where: 1941 Marine View Drive, Tacoma
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Sunday