Whatever your strategy for eating your way around the Taste of Tacoma, there’s one thing you should do: Look before you buy.
I headed down for lunch today and I spent some time surfing the food vendors, spying what diners took away from each booth before I settled on sampling tastes from five restaurants. We eat with our eyes and the Taste of Tacoma, now in its 25th year, is a visual feast with hundreds of people parading plates of tastes from all pockets of the globe.
You can tell a lot from watching people walk by with plates of food, or from listening to their suggestions. For instance, you should consider skipping over the restaurant that serves $2 egg rolls (Bambuza) when a nearby restaurant offers eight for $5 (Delicious Asia). Thanks for the tip, passers by.
Aside from eyeballing the goods, I decided to test the $3 tastes that organizers advertised each booth would offer, keeping value as my dine-around strategy. My goal was to spend $15, and I found a lot to like for the money. Wandering up and down the restaurant alley doesn't take long. The festival is organized with all 30 plus restaurants centrally located in long lines right next to one another. I strolled past the booths offering egg rolls or rice dishes for their $3 tastes. I figured those were just filler things on the menu. I wanted some unusual tastes, with a broad variety of flavors, and I found them. Take a look at these five tastes I sampled for $3 each. I’ve listed them in order of recommendation:
Palace barbecue, $3 bbq taste plate. The small paper plate groaned under the portion of Korean style barbecued meats and salad. The price was right for the two mounds of meat – one a pile of tender, grilled dark meat chicken, and the other a tangle of long strips of grilled barbecue beef. Both meats were licked by the heat of the gas grill, just a bit of char around the edges and deliciously tender. They were sauced with a gingery, garlicky, sweetened soy. The small salad on the side with a creamy dressing was forgettable. The meat tasted of everything I appreciate about Palace BBQ on South Tacoma Way, a good place in town for bulgogi and banchan. For flavor and value, this was my top pick of the $3 tastes sampled.Insiders tip: At lunch today, they were serving free samples of barbecue beef in front of the Palace booth.
Korean Taco booth, $3 beef and veggie kebab. I was drawn to the booth because Korean tacos have become a bit of cult sensation in California. Korean tacos here turned out to be two corn tortillas stuffed with your choice of kalbi beef, chicken, spicy pork or tofu and topped with chopped veggies for $5.But I was here for the $3 taste, not Korean tacos (they looked worthy of a try). I saw people wandering by with the $3 kebabs and I liked their look. The skewer was small, but it was loaded with flavor – three pieces of charred beef shared space on the bamboo stick with a chunk each of green and red pepper, a mushroom slice and a chunk of fresh pineapple barely kissed by the grill. The meat was slathered in a a sweetened soy sauce, and an extra dose of garlic. I liked that the meat was charred around the edges, but still juicy and tender. The veggies were still crisp. Way to go grill tenders at Korean Taco, you got it right.
Half Moon Bay, $3 quinoa shrimp salad. Hey, look! Something healthy and tasty. Quinoa, a chewy grain, is an acquired taste for some palates, but I’m a fan of the grain (actually, technically, it's a seed from the grass family, but it's commonly referred to as a "grain."). Quinoa is touted for its nutritional value, and it offers a fair amount of protein for a small serving. This salad was lightly flavored with lemon and had small tidbits of cucumbers, red peppers, bay shrimp and topped with parsley. A small bowl was quite filling.
Eloi Taste the Caribbean, $3 brown stew chicken. A small bowl of long-grain rice was topped with a salty stew that stayed true to its “brown stew” moniker. The beefy gravy was loaded with bits of carrots, garlic and slow-cooked chunks of dark meat chicken. It was a fair deal for the money, but you might have to spend extra cash on water after finishing off the salty stew.
Hindquarter Barbecue, $3 bbq slider. Dry, chewy meat on a tiny bun. Pass. I wish I had ordered the $3 corned beef slider next door at Mick Kelly’s.
$3 taste tip: A note about the $3 tastes. Organizers say that each booth offers a $3 bargain taste. By my count, at least six booths weren’t advertising the $3 tastes (look for the yellow sticker reading $3 on the menus). I quickly learned diners should ask about them if the $3 symbol is missing from the restaurant’s menu. The Falafel King, for instance, didn’t have anything listed, but when I asked, they told me they were offering a $3 mini taste of anything on the menu. Sizzling Phillys told me their $3 item was half a Philly sandwich, but it wasn't advertised. At Mick Kelly’s, it’s a single slider for $3. Billy McHale’s didn’t have its $3 taste advertised either, but it’s a pork slider. Said one of the Billy's booth employees when I asked why the $3 taste wasn't listed on the menu, “Our entrees are the big ticket, so we try to sell those.” Fair enough. The woman at the Ziegler’s Bratwurst booth was less friendly, “I don’t have one,” she said firmly when I asked about her $3 taste.
Get details of the Taste of Tacoma here. That's where you'll find an overview of the menus at every restaurant booth. Take a look before you go, it might make navigating all the food just a bit easier.