Porter is a name synonymous with barbecue in Western Washington. Alton Porter opened Porter’s Place in Tacoma in 1994, the same year his late father, Gene Porter, opened Dixie’s in Bellevue. Later came the family’s barbecue stands at Safeco Field.
If the name Porter doesn’t register, these words just might: “Have you met ‘The Man?’ ”
“The Man” is the hot sauce with an epic mouth sting that Gene Porter used to spoon-feed customers from a saucepan he carried around at Dixie’s. Porter’s Place also served the wicked sauce that has become a badge of painful honor in some foodie circles.
Porter’s has been a company in flux since the death of Gene Porter last year, followed by his daughter LJ’s death this year. The family closed the Safeco field concession. And Tacoma barbecue fans got a big surprise when Porter’s Place, which operated just above the La Quinta hotel for more than six years, closed Jan. 31. (They had operated restaurants on Portland Avenue and then 72nd Street before moving to the La Quinta location).
The family continued operating Dixie’s, but Porter’s Place became a catering-only operation with no home restaurant.
It took more than seven months to stabilize the business and find a new home. Porter’s reopened Sept. 27 on South Tacoma Way in the funky little space that formerly housed the Friendly Duck restaurant, which has been closed for years.
A move to the land of car dealerships on South Tacoma Way might seem off the beaten foodie path, but Porter’s does double duty as an on-the-road catering company. Considering the proximity to state Route 16 and Interstate 5, the location makes more sense. And restaurant watchers might recognize that the neighborhood near 56th and South Tacoma Way has seen a slight foodie shift for the better. The addition of Stonegate Pizza and the retro burger diner Patty’s Burgers to a neighborhood that already boasted Philly Joe’s, Starbuck’s and the Antojo taco truck is turning that little pocket of South Tacoma into a modest foodie destination.
The new Porter’s Place space is light on ambiance, but it’s clean and comfortable in the 80-seat dining room lined with booths. There’s a 70-seat banquet room in the back. The menu is the same as the previous restaurant, with a slight increase in prices – the first in six years.
Barbecue at Porter’s is a merge of styles the family calls a cross between Mississippi and Louisiana, where the Porter family lived before moving to the Northwest in 1966. Meats are flavored with a marinade, not a rub, and smoked over hickory. The sauce is tomatoey-sweet, very light on the pucker. I find the sauce too cloying and one-dimensional for my palate, but there’s a fix to that: Order it on the side.
The menu is peppered with Southern favorites, from red beans and rice to fried okra, sweet tea, jambalaya, collard greens and hush puppies. Side dish recipes come from Dixie Porter, the matriarch and the namesake for the Bellevue restaurant. Barbecue recipes are from Gene.
Service was spot-on perfect with a heavy helping of Southern hospitality on two anonymous visits. Portions were enormous, each entrée easily feeding two hungry people.
A cup of seafood gumbo soup ($8) tasted too salty. The jambalaya ($11 lunch, $15 dinner) was perfectly soft and pliable without being gummy or sticky and came in a towering portion. Tomato-flavored rice held the holy trinity of Creole cooking: diced celery, peppers and onion and meaty chunks of smoked sausage and chicken. I give top marks to this dish as one of the best jambalayas I’ve eaten since From The Bayou in Parkland closed.
On a lunch visit, six bones of spare ribs ($11 lunch, $15 dinner) smelled of just the right amount of smoke, with a corresponding pink smoke cap under the skin, the telltale sign that the meat’s been slow-cooked over wood. Rib tips on another visit ($11 lunch, $15 dinner) held much less smoke, but gained our approval for being nearly fall-off-the-bone tender. A Bayou Big Boy ($10 lunch, $14 dinner) comes with a choice of meat, and I was glad I selected pulled chicken, which showed up as a hulking pile of smoky, tender, juicy chicken that still looked like meat and wasn’t cooked to death. A brisket sandwich ($9) was huge, but forgettable. The meat needed more time on the smoker, and the sandwich was overburdened with too much sauce.
Lunches come with one side; dinners come with potato salad, red beans and rice, and cornbread. For sides, you can’t go wrong with the house-made, skins-on red potato salad with a mustard-y mayonnaise dressing, just a hint of sweet, and a hit of crunch from onions and celery. Collard greens were salty good and flavored with smoked chicken. Cole slaw tasted snappy, although the dressing was a touch soupy. Macaroni and cheese held cheddar-ific flavor, but a gummy texture. Hush puppies, fried balls of cornmeal dough, showed up cooked unevenly, with a few tasting mushy, others perfectly crunchy-soft. The cornbread was divinely cake-y with just a hint of sweet and served with a plastic squeeze bottle of honey.
If you’re offered a taste of “the Man,” be wary unless you’re of strong constitution. My dining partners suffered a few minutes of grief after their introduction, but having tried the hot sauce a decade ago, I know better than to mess with “The Man.”
Porter’s Place Southern Cuisine & BBQ
Where: 5026 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma
Information: 253-383-7603, porters-place.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and the News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.