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Off the radar: Strip malls hide culinary finds

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Aug. 10, 2012 at 12:01 am | No Comments »
December 12, 2013 2:57 pm
Tacoma Szechuan features dishes loaded with spicy peppers. Despite the name, the restaurant is located in a Lakewood shopping mall. Photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

The stores in a strip mall represent not much more than a check on your to-do list. Nestled among nail salons, check-cashing places and chiropractors, I occasionally stumble upon a culinary gem – a restaurant so interesting, I can’t believe it’s in a strip mall. This is my continuing series looking at ethnic eateries hidden in strip malls of the ’burbs. Today’s tour heads to Lakewood, Puyallup and Gig Harbor.

The dumplings at Tacoma Szechuan are filled with ground pork.

TACOMA SZECHUAN
Where: 9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-0102; serving lunch and dinner daily.

Tacoma Szechuan operates in a Lakewood neighborhood dominated by Korean food, which makes it that much more of a culinary find. Nestled between a chiropractor and a Korean restaurant in the side of a shopping mall that holds more Korean restaurants and a Korean grocery store, Tacoma Szechuan produces some of the most flavor-forward Chinese food in the region.

The stylish restaurant – which once was called Three Sisters after the sisters who owned it – recently changed ownership, but the kitchen staff remains (the same chef has been cooking there for six years). I didn’t notice a difference – I found the same snappy vegetables, nuanced sauces and spicy peppers. A staffer speaking on behalf of the owner told me by phone that the new owner is Adan Oei, who worked at the restaurant for two years as a server before buying the restaurant.

As the name would infer, this is a restaurant with a focus on Szechuan, the spicier side of Chinese cooking (also spelled Sichuan). Tacoma Szechuan is one of a few Chinese restaurants here that serves hot pot, although this isn’t exactly the time of year for a giant bowl of steamy soup.

Steamed dumplings ($6.99) should start every meal – a dozen crescent-shaped dumplings looked to be handmade, tightly crimped, loosely filled with ground pork, ginger and scallions. A dredge through the accompanying chili sauce left my fingers and the dumplings streaked orange.

Szechuan beef ($10.50) was full of fire from red chiles, tempered with a salty garlic-soy gravy. Broccoli snapped, orange and green peppers crunched and the beef was tender and plentiful.

Chong Gin Hot Chicken ($11.50) should not be ordered by anyone with a timid palate or an aversion to tongue tingling. The dish of battered, deep-fried chicken chunks – a co-worker described it as “fancy popcorn chicken” – comes with Sichuan peppercorns (which actually is a berry). I like to describe the sensation of the aromatic peppercorns as something like eating woodsy pop rocks coated with Benzocaine. The peppercorns deliver a lip- and tongue-numbing sensation, which may delight or irritate you, depending on your love for Szechuan.

Lamb gyros at Ikonos come with seared lamb and you can order it with whole wheat pita.

IKONOS: REAL GREEK SOUVLAKI
Where: 4920 Point Fosdick Drive N.W., Gig Harbor; 253-858-7070; serving lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

Flanked by a hair salon and an optical shop, Ikonos is a gem for one big reason: real lamb gyros with whole-wheat pita. OK, that’s two reasons. I’ve become so accustomed to finding the tasty but texturally suspect ground-beef-and-lamb gyro meat, it’s surprising to find a fast-food Greek restaurant that serves seared lamb in a gyro sandwich. The portion of lamb was small but probably had to be with a modest pricetag of $6.45. The flavor was purely lamb, with whole-wheat pita griddle warmed and stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and a thin tzatziki.

Chicken and beef souvlaki skewers on one visit ($2.59-$3.59) were overcooked and dry. On another visit, Ikonos gyros ($5.95), featuring the ground-beef-and-lamb meat strips that most Greek restaurants serve, were a meatier option than the lamb gyros sandwich.

The restaurant – pronounced ee-kon-os – is on its third owner, and it’s a familiar name for shoppers at that mall. Dan Walker is the owner of nearby Ken Walker Jewelers. How did he go from neighbor to owner? Said general manager Jen Sanders, “He’s always been a foodie. He loves food and loves experimenting with food and trying new things. When the opportunity came for him to purchase the biz, he jumped in with both feet.”

Tip: If the lemony chicken rice soup avgolemono is available, get it. Ikonos takes it off the summer menu, but it should return when the weather cools.

Larb gai at Ayothaya. It’s a warm chicken salad with a lime vinaigrette.

AYOTHAYA THAI RESTAURANT
Where: 4102 S. Meridian St., Puyallup; 253-841-7599; serving lunch and dinner daily.

Only in Puyallup can you find a small strip mall that appears as if it’s being swallowed by a bigger strip mall right behind it. Ayothaya is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it – it’s right next to a vacuum store and in front of Best Buy. A tiny forest of leggy bamboo in the lobby leads to a dining room with elaborate carved and jeweled artwork. The Thai dishes here carry just a bit more polish, the presentations thoughtful.

Larb gai ($7.49) tasted as good as summer evening dining gets – a puckery lime vinaigrette coating a ground chicken salad flecked with chiles, served in edible cups carved out of cucumber. Green curry ($8.59) tasted rich – with a lick of building heat – the small bowl brimming with slices of Thai eggplant, peppers and holy basil. On another visit, heavenly coriander ($8.59) was a raft of tender beef swimming in a watery but tasty sauce that popped with coriander seeds and still-crisp snow peas and peppers.

YOUR TURN: Have a restaurant hiding in a strip mall that the rest of the world needs to know about? Email me.

READ MORE: Here’s my previous installment of strip mall finds, featuring Cham Korean Buffet and Long Beach Cafe in Lakewood and Mitapeap Cambodian in Tacoma.

Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or sue.kidd@thenewstribune.com.

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