We all have our favorite restaurants with five pages of menu choices.
Those 100-item menus — especially at Asian-themed restaurants — are terrific for those times when you’re dining in a group with scattered tastes.
Curry, bulgogi and spring rolls? Bring me all three, please.
Yet, I’m also partial to restaurants on the opposite end of the spectrum. The ones I’m talking about are micro-focused food businesses with a specialty in one thing that they do quite well.
We’re lucky to have a number of niche food businesses in Tacoma.
From soups to tortillas, from empanadas to Vietnamese barbecue, the themes and flavors are far-flung, but the focus always is tight.
The first three I’m featuring here offer brick-and-mortar locations. The other three operate their businesses out of commercial kitchens with pickups at various stores, farmers markets and delis in the area.
Tacoma Avenue: 445 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma; 253-274-0232. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m-5 p.m. Saturday.
Downtown: 1102 A St., Tacoma; 253-272-2598. 10:30 a.m-3 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Note: Cash or check only.
Cost: Small 8-ounce cup, $3.50; medium 12-ounce bowl, $4.50; pint, $5.50.
With at least 18 soups listed daily at both locations, I asked owner Wendy Clapp, “How do you figure out what kind of soups to make every day?”
With her typical dry humor, she said, “It’s a complicated algorithm.”
Her formula includes five each of creamy, noncreamy, vegan and vegetarian soups, but added to that “complicated algorithm” are factors such as planning a backup when she suspects a popular soup will sell out, and also figuring in the surprise box of produce she gets from Puyallup’s Zestful Gardens.
“We set up the system when Valerie (Foster, the Zestful Gardens owner) leaves the farmers market, she gives us a good deal on what she doesn’t sell, which is nice because not only is the produce amazing, but I don’t always know what she’s bringing. If you don’t have surprise ingredients thrown at you, you make the same things over and over and over.”
Clapp opened her first location on Tacoma Avenue in 2007 with husband Todd DeShazo and daughter Laura Adams. They expanded to an antique mall, but closed after not attracting enough business. In 2014, they expanded again to the old post office building in downtown Tacoma. It was an instant hit, and Clapp now wonders if sales at the downtown location might outpace the original location.
In the interest of full disclosure, the trio got their start operating a cafe in The News Tribune’s building (I sent an undercover food operative to fetch soups sampled for this report), just before they started selling soup at the Tacoma Farmers Market, followed by the move to Tacoma Avenue.
The Infinite Soups storefronts offer no seating and both are little more than soup counters (the downtown location might soon have seating inside the building, though).
The only other items offered are ciabatta, biscuits, cornbread and other baked goods from nearby Corina Bakery.
Whether vegan or not, I’d steer anyone to butternut squash curry soup. Its silky texture, created by coconut milk, was so luxurious that it might be mistaken for cream.
That creamy texture was duplicated in the tomato gorgonzola, thumped with the pungent cheese in the soup base. Sliced Italian sausage and peppers swam with tender pillows of gnocchi, with several of the feathery, textured dumplings sunk deep into the bowl. Chicken pozole verde merged a splash of peppery heat with chunks of chicken breast and smooshy pozole, all slow-simmered with greens.
Part of the fun at dining at Infinite Soups is that the menu changes every day. However, for those who must plan ahead, menus are posted daily on the restaurant’s Facebook pages.
Address: 1607 Center St., Tacoma; 253-341-0234; northwestlumpia.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Order online during business hours.
Cost: Lumpia are $1 each or a dozen for $10. Bulk orders should be ordered in advance.
There’s no missing the Northwest Lumpia building. With its dayglo yellow-and-green exterior, the tiny building is a low-slung blast of neon sunshine in an industrial neighborhood on Center Street in Tacoma’s Nalley Valley.
Inside, you’ll find lumpia, and only lumpia, plus seating for about eight.
Owners Charles and Rebecca Marbas opened the restaurant in 2011 at the site of a restaurant Charles’ parents formerly operated, the Manila Center Diner. Angeles and Luz Marbas ran that Filipino restaurant for years before retiring to Colorado. After his father died, Charles’ mother returned to Tacoma and now helps at Northwest Lumpia
The hours are short — 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily — and so is the menu of 10 core lumpia (although 17 additional specialty lumpia are available with notice). They also offer pickup outside business hours, with notice.
For newcomers to lumpia, think of these fried rolls as the more elegant cousin to Chinese egg rolls. But lumpia are thinner and come rolled up inside a crackly-crisp wrapper.
The Marbas family strays from the typical ground meat- and vegetable-filled fried lumpia found in the Philippines.
“We call it fusion lumpia so we can get a little creative and infuse it with other ethnicities, like Mexican, Chinese and Filipino dishes you normally wouldn’t find in lumpia,” said Charles.
That translates into chicken teriyaki, beef taco, honey barbecue and Philly cheesesteak lumpia. That last one was suggested by a customer. The lumpia cafe staff frequently take requests for specific flavor profiles (and many do ask). They also dig into Filipino flavors not often found wrapped inside lumpia, such as adobo, pancit and siopao.
The adobo, filled with salty, vinegar-marinated ground chicken, was a personal favorite, as was the siopao, the ground pork teased with a bit of sweet. Becca’s Favorite combined the flavor of adobo with velvety-textured ground beef. Angel’s Original was spiked with a salty punch, the ground beef laced with carrots, peas and potatoes.
If you order one from the sweet menu, make it the brown sugar banana. It tasted like a banana fritter rolled up in a crunchy jacket.
Tho Tuong BBQ
Address: 715 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-2279.
Note: Cash only.
Cost: Pork at $8-$10 a pound, with chicken at $14-$15, duck at $20-$21.99. Lunch plates with rice and pickled vegetables are $8, soup and noodles with barbecued meats, $7.99.
Pork. Duck. Chicken.
The centerpiece of Tho Tuong BBQ’s menu is fully on display from the street, which is convenient because you can tell what the restaurant is out of before even entering.
Three kinds of meat hang in a warmer in the restaurant’s window on 38th Street in the middle of the Lincoln District. Tho Tuong is a small, unassuming place that also provides more seating than any other featured in this series. But that’s not saying much; the compact restaurant has space for fewer than 20 diners. The hours are listed as simply “open” Tuesday-Sunday, which is probably code for the restaurant closes when it runs out of barbecue.
The dining room is a wash of vibrant blue along one wall, with a row of high-top tables holding cushy chairs opposite the ordering/seating counter.
A Buddhist shrine takes up a nice bit of space adjacent to a cooler holding cans and bottles of soda. Every table is outfitted with sauces and a choice of silverware or chopsticks.
Order meat at the counter, telling owner Ngo Phuc whether you’d like pork, duck or chicken. The pork is either roasted or barbecued, as is the duck (with or without the head on). Chicken comes simply roasted or marinated in soy sauce.
Purchase the meats by the pound, as most do here, or if you’re after a quick lunch, the roasted and barbecued meats are available as a simple plated lunch ($8). The meats also can be added to a soup made with noodles (listed at $7.99).
I bit into succulent pork, rubbed with a spice blend similar to Chinese five-spice, the slow-cooked meat yielding softly under thin ribbons of velvety-textured fat. The duck came crispy-skinned, the juicy meat redolent with a fragrant spice rub. The lunch plate held a fluffy pile of rice, flanked by pickled jalapenos with a sharp bite of heat, and a serving of marinated cabbage.
The soup melded slippery egg noodles with roughly-chopped scallions and baby bok choy. The broth tasted slow cooked, as if it had been simmering for hours.
Contact: 253-973-6589 or pampeanaempanadas.com.
Pickup: Metropolitan Market deli anytime; Proctor Farmers Market every Saturday through December; Cultura Center by appointment (5602 S. Washington St., Tacoma).
Cost: $3.99 each in the deli; $20.99-$29.99 frozen by the dozen in either appetizer or entree size.
Nancy and Alexis Oltman started their empanada company nearly a decade ago, selling a dozen flavors of the South American meat-filled turnovers either baked or frozen. They’ve built quite a clientele without ever opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, opting instead to offer their empanadas at farmers markets, through pickup at their rented commercial kitchen space or, more recently, at the deli at Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood Metropolitan Market.
Pinched between the flaky crust of the handheld meat pies, I found ground beef dotted with raisins and a wallop of garlicky flavor. Roasted corn was fortified with peppers, onions and tomatoes. A spinach-and-cheese was more spinach than cheese, with hard-boiled egg and onions lending a hearty texture. For those with a sweet tooth, one is filled with apple and dulce de leche, another with pumpkin, and yet another with guava.
Contact: 206-249-3152 or facebook.com/pattystamales.
Pickup: Tacoma Boys in Tacoma or Puyallup (frozen), Saturdays through mid-December at the Vashon Farmers Market.
Cost: $3 each, or $15 for a half dozen.
When Patty Freebourn started selling her tamales at the Vashon Farmers Market a few years ago, she figured she would be lucky to sell 200 each market day. By the end of that first market season, she was selling out of 600-800 tamales before the market even closed. She expanded to the Tacoma Farmers Market and then picked up even more Tacoma fans through her packaged tamales sold frozen by the half dozen at Tacoma Boys in Tacoma and Puyallup.
The culinary school graduate of South Seattle Community College described her tamales as distinctly Mexican, all the way down to her use of lard to flavor the masa dough that surrounds the flavorful fillings. Her tamales come stuffed with chicken, beef, pork, roasted pepper and cheese or bean and cheese. She does offer one vegan tamale, not made with lard, and filled with tofu.
Pickup: El Jalapeno Grocery store, 1012 72nd St., Tacoma; 253-537-2022. Fresh on weekends, but packaged on any day of the week (while supplies last, call first).
If you show up at just the right time on Saturday or Sunday, you can see the tortillas being freshly made at a tiny storefront with a sign for Tortilleria Azteca. But don’t even think about entering the store and buying the tortillas. Tortillas are purely a spectator sport there. You’ll have to head next door to purchase them at the El Jalapeno grocery store where the tortillas are sold warm (so long as the supplies last) or packaged in small or large quantities on a shelf near the register.