When Sidebar Bistro closed in the fall, I heard from government employees and lawyers who work around 11th and Tacoma Avenue. They called, emailed, Tweeted and Facebooked me.
What they wanted to know was this: When will we have more lunch options on Tacoma Avenue? The departure of Sidebar Bistro followed by the temporary closure of Thrill of the Grill left a dearth of eateries in a neighborhood full of police officers, jurors, lawyers, bail bondsmen and other time-pressed people in search of a decent lunch.
In December, the news got better. Tower Coffee Bar & Grill opened where Sidebar once operated. And following on its heels two weeks ago was the reopening of Thrill of the Grill with a new concept: barbecue. Here are first-bite reports.
Thrill of The Grill serving Brock’s BBQ
Where: 1402 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma
Information: 253-627-8292, tacomathrill.com
I’m calling it the Barbecue Triangle of Tacoma. Within eight blocks on Tacoma’s Hilltop, three restaurants serve barbecue the way the barbecue gods intended: slow smoked over wood. There’s Papa Jones BBQ, opened by Helen Alfred in July at 1902 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Eight blocks away is Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit, owned and operated by Carolyn Littles and her sons since 1989 at 911 S. 11th St. (Their previous restaurants date back to 1948, when Carolyn’s parents first opened Bob’s downtown.)
And finally there’s Thrill of the Grill, which opened in December 2009 as a flame-grilled burger restaurant by first-time restaurant owners Anita and Dave Rector. In November, the couple sold the restaurant to business partners Sarah Slaughter, a nurse by trade, and Gregory Brock, a welder and former restaurant owner.
Gone is the Coke-themed retro diner motif; in its place is a low-tech barbecue restaurant with all the right smells. And the wood they use? They won’t say what kind. Fair enough. It tastes more pronounced than alder, but not as strong as hickory, and leaves a swell of smoke hours later on the palate.
Sides carry the impressive flavor and texture of homemade – the snappy slaw with a mayo dressing was straightforward, the baked beans were tweaked with molasses and bacon, the potato salad was a mayo-mustardy swirl of creamy potatoes. Fried cornbread was a southern-style griddled Johnny cake.
The restaurant has been open only two weeks, and my sole visit cannot be considered definitive, but that first visit was solid. The duo describe their barbecue as Texas style with a Louisiana twist. Meats are offered sauced or naked, always a good sign the restaurant is not trying to mask the flavor or lack thereof. The sauce played high and low – tickled with molasses, a splash of a pucker and a gentle jolt of spice.
Spareribs in a three-bone dinner ($11.50, or $7.25 for a two-bone lunch) were fresh off the smoker and lightly chewy, but the meat was easily pried from the bone. They clearly had spent quality time on a smoker. The smoker, in fact, is viewable from the dining room in a fenced-off cage flanking the restaurant.
A quarter chicken barbecue dinner ($6.50) came with a meaty leg and thigh, the skin crackly and dark with an unmistakable pink smoke ring, the telltale sign of a long sit on a smoker. The flavor tasted deeply woodsy.
A Texas sausage sandwich ($9.50) was stacked with high-quality pork and the griddled French roll had just the right crunchy crust.
This is a first restaurant for Slaughter, but not for Brock. He previously owned barbecue restaurants in Federal Way and Kent.
Tower Coffee Bar and Grill
Where: 1101 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma
The bones of Tower Coffee Bar & Grill still remind me of Sidebar Bistro, the restaurant opened by Tom and JoAnna Irick in 2010, then closed in fall 2011. Much is the same about the restaurant’s core, from the comfortable seating to the bar with the waterfront view. But I’m a little confused by the girly touches in a restaurant that has handsome bones. Gauzy curtains and stenciled affirmations give the restaurant a slight identity crisis.
Tower is a full-service sandwich restaurant with a handful of comfort-spun entrees. On two visits, I found a fledgling restaurant with iffy service and uneven food. On one visit, a server brought us water, then disappeared for an inordinate amount of time, leaving us to flag another server for help. When our original server did return, she stumbled over basic menu questions. Entrees arrived within moments of appetizers, leaving us with a table of quickly cooling food. A second visit showed some improvement.
On one visit, the highlight was a beet salad ($7.95) full of glistening, crisp greens under a layer of goat cheese, pickled (and unfortunately canned) beets, smoked almonds and a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette. On a next visit, a Greek salad ($6.25) came on a bed of spinach past its prime (a few slimy pieces were unappetizing). The sandwiches were serviceable, but I would have appreciated a choice of sides, instead of a plain ol’ bag of Fritos. A Tower tuna sandwich ($7.25) was thick with tuna, but too much mayo turned the tuna salad gloppy. A roast beef dip ($7.25) held nice, thin layers of beef. A BLT ($6.85) was just fine.
Entrees brought more mixed results. A macaroni and cheese entree ($6.95 lunch/$8.95 dinner) came with a four-cheese sauce that was so mild, it barely registered any flavor. Meatloaf at dinner ($10.95) was slightly more successful, with beefy flavor and texture, but something went terribly wrong with the mashed potatoes. The potatoes were hot, but inexplicably, full of yellow, unmelted butter flakes. Some kind of commercial butter flake? I’m still scratching my head over that one.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.