Dry cleaners, nail salons, tax preparers. If you’re heading to a strip mall, chances are you’re knocking off something from your to-do list.
Because of their central locations, guaranteed foot traffic and modest rent, strip malls also hold something else: great little restaurant finds.
The newest strip mall eatery to open in Tacoma is an unexpected find in an area brimming with casual Asian, a few bars and plenty of fast food restaurants.
Soul is the new outpost of a sister restaurant of the same name that opened in the Proctor neighborhood in 2013. And for the end of Tacoma that abuts University Place, a city that has been historically short on restaurant diversity, I can’t think of a better style of cuisine to open.
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And coming next to that neighborhood is another restaurant promising a finer style of dining. Sawyer Jax, from the same owners of Sixth Avenue’s Dirty Oscar’s Annex, is expected to open in the old University Place Keg location in 2016.
Soul University Place, named after the nearby city, is a merge of southern American cuisine, American soul food and a few Louisiana classics that would be at home at a restaurant straight out of the bayou.
It’s co-owned by Soul owners Natural Allah and Jennifer Zaskorski, who continue to run their Proctor restaurant, and new co-owner Talya Miller, who will run the latest Soul.
It’s this paper’s policy to withhold criticism of food and service until after a restaurant’s first month, which is why I’m focusing on menu descriptions and atmosphere here.
Enter through the heavy wooden doors on the end of the strip mall to find a space that’s a blend of new and old.
Sister restaurant Soul in Proctor has a glimmer of the same menu, but it also includes Latin-themed dishes from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Peru.
Crisp linens dress the tables and drop lamps transmit peek-a-boo lighting throughout the room. The floral tapestry chairs should be rated grandma-approved, they’re quite comfortable.
Also new is the footprint, with a karaoke stage replacing the old sushi bar.
Perhaps the most appreciated change is the flow of the dining room. The three rows of seating that previously crowded the former tenant, I Love Bento, have been replaced by two rows of tables with much easier spacing.
As for the old, remnants of the previous restaurant remain, including the old floor tile and Asian-themed bamboo window decals. A see-through shoji-like screen still covers the windows, but perhaps those remain to block the parking lot view.
The menu sprawls across three pages, with a single menu covering lunch and dinner.
Listed was a blend of American-style comfort food with American soul and southern dishes.
From the comfort food menu, find meatloaf ($15), smothered pork chops ($16), fried pork chops ($15) and chicken and dumplings ($15). From the soul and southern side, there’s fried chicken and waffles ($14), Southern fried chicken (three wings or two thighs, $15), jambalaya ($14), gumbo ($18), fried or blackened catfish ($15), fish and grits ($13), Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($13) and po’ boy sandwiches ($13-$15).
The appetizer menu reads like you’d find at a good ol’ deep-fried southern restaurant: green tomatoes, okra and pickles ($9 each) — all fried, of course. Side dishes also were southern-tinged: sweet potatoes, red beans and rice, hush puppies, black-eyed peas and more.