Strip malls suck up moments of our mundane lives. The stores within often signify the boring check marks on our vast to-do lists: drop off the dry cleaning, get the nails done, pick up that package, grab a quick coffee, look at carpet samples. Back on the road again.
But sometimes – just sometimes – strip malls hide culinary treasures that invite you to sit, savor and enjoy hand-crafted food that seems woefully out of place in a suburban setting.
Here I’ll tell you about three remarkable finds. They’re all in strip malls. Don’t judge them by their exterior. Judge them on their food.
CHAM GARDEN KOREAN BBQ
At the far end of a strip mall that holds a denture store, a law office and a Subway is Cham Garden, a 34-seat serve-yourself Korean tabletop barbecue restaurant. Unlike many neighboring Korean barbecue restaurants where diners select meats from a set menu, Cham is a choose-your-own-adventure experience where diners pick and choose from a buffet line of a few dozen uncooked meats, veggies and banchan.
If you’re a first-time visitor to Cham, then Danny Pak, the son of owners James and Yoon Hee Pak, will give you the dinner-and-a-show experience, detailing the how-to of Korean tabletop barbecue cooking: how to keep raw ingredients separate from cooked, how to fire up your tabletop grill, how to layer the flavors of Korean food, how to cram a lettuce wrap (which resembles a Korean taco) into your mouth until you are so stuffed, you have to unbutton your pants. He’ll even select the meats to get you started. After that, you can go back to the buffet for whatever strikes your fancy, even if all you want to eat is kimchi and pork jowl.
Pak played an exceptional host on my anonymous visit, demonstrating for our table how to assemble the Korean lettuce wraps from trays of leaf lettuce, paper-thin rounds of daikon radish and a chopped salad sauced with a sesame vinaigrette. We helped ourselves to plates of banchan, those little bowls of spicy, sweet and pickled appetizers that start a Korean meal. Pak began grilling smoked pork jowl, explaining, “It will change your life.” I had my doubts until I bit into the smoky, supple meat that tasted like a bacon carnival. I went back for more. Twice.
Next came bulgogi with mushrooms, then marinated spicy pork and beef brisket as Pak told us the story of how his mother moved here from Korea, how she operated another barbecue buffet restaurant, Manna Garden, from 2000-04 on Pacific Avenue. She returned to Korea for a few years, then came back to Tacoma to open Cham Garden in 2007. She’s the chef in the kitchen, preparing the banchan and marinated meats from scratch every day. Danny and his father, James, play hosts in the dining room.
We kept loading the rice wraps with the requisite ingredients, spiking them with chile-kissed kimchi, pungent fermented beans, snappy seaweed and sesame-splashed bean sprouts. In between Pak’s demonstrations, we grilled tofu cubes and fish cakes, and found that we loved the smoky sizzle of grill-charred kimchi.
The buffet is not cheap, but it’s a good value if you compare it to neighboring Korean barbecue restaurants. Lunch is $13.99, dinner is $16.99. Kids are discounted by age, a dollar for every year.
Cham Garden Korean BBQ
Where: 10518 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
LONG BEACH CAFE
Look beyond a Domino’s Pizza, a nail salon and a tobacco shop to find the Long Beach Café, a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant in a strange strip mall close to Lakewood Towne Center.
Exceptionally effervescent, well-paced and efficient service pairs well with polished touches – lime wedges in the water, table linens embossed with the restaurant’s logo, and imported beer served in frosty mugs. The five-page menu provides a vast tour of Vietnamese and Thai eating, with accents from Malaysia, China and Korea. Vibrant red walls energize the room, and snapshots of owner Long Le tell the story behind the name of Long Beach Café – the restaurant is a combination of his first name and his nickname of “Beach Boy” when he was growing up in a beach town in Vietnam.
If the food tastes and looks familiar, that may be because Le formerly cooked at East West Café (he cooked at the one on Tacoma Mall Boulevard that is closed, but the one in Proctor remains open) before opening Long Beach Café in April 2006.
Le skillfully balances the flavors of Southeast Asia – the tones of salty, sweet, sour and spicy heat are all carefully tamed into a flavor symphony. A chopped chicken larb salad ($9.75) smelled of mint and lemongrass, the lettuce dressed with a sparkling sweetened lime vinaigrette with a salty splash of fish sauce and pungent ginger. A heavy thump of ginger flavored the Chilean sea bass ($18.50), which paired hunks of the meaty white fish with a tangle of colorful vegetables: onions, red peppers, green onions, carrot, zucchini and mushrooms. Yellow rice tasted fragrant and salty.
Lemon crispy prawns ($12.75) were a spin on the typical Chinese honey-walnut prawns with a creamy sweet sauce blanketing breaded and fried fresh prawns with cashews standing in for walnuts. A vinaigrette-marinated cucumber, lettuce and carrot salad provided sharp contrast to the rich dish.
Long Beach Café
Where: 10114 Bridgeport Way S.W., Lakewood
Hours: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
A nail salon, hair salon and a denture store flank Mitapeap, which I think may be the only Cambodian restaurant in the South Sound. (The owners say so, too).
Sovanna Eang opened the restaurant with her husband, Tharath “Bro” Eang, in 2007. The natives of Cambodia specialize in home-cooked Cambodian food, a cuisine that combines the flavors of China and Thailand with a touch of French imperialism.
The menu meanders from appetizers such as jackwai ($1.50), a cylinder-shaped, deep-fried Chinese doughnut, and sadoa ($8.95), a pork salad made with bitter sadao flowers that probably will be an acquired taste for most diners who are shy on sour.
Much of the menu, and Mitapeap’s specialty, is made up of steaming hot, fragrant bowls of Cambodian soup.
Barbar trei ($6.95) soup was a mild, salty fish broth just thick enough to suspend soft rice, straw mushrooms, bean sprouts and puffy-soft fish balls. The soup is the Cambodian version of whatever soup you crave when you’re on the mend from a cold.
Somlaw kako ($9.95) soup tasted autumnal with cubes of soft pumpkin, pork short ribs that clung to the bone, purple eggplant, green papaya and green beans in a vibrant broth flavored and colored with a heavy dose of turmeric and flavor fueled with prahoc, a Cambodian fish condiment.
Somlaw m’chu yuon ($8.95) soup tasted like sweet-and-sour pho, with a puckery tamarind-tomato broth full of fresh pineapple, slivers of chicken, sliced winter melon, celery and a float of citrusy herbs.
Where: 1314 72nd St. E., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
I’ve written about strip-mall treasures before. You might remember Flying Fish. How about Aloha Hawaiian Grill. And remember Ayothaya? All located in strip malls. All excellent food. Your turn: Where is your favorite hidden culinary gem, wasting away in the vast wasteland of strip malls?
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org