The smell of age – yellowing paper, musty wood cabinets and a hint of granny’s attic – that’s what I equate with an antique mall. It’s the scent of the hunt – the smell of fortifying a collection of Dukes of Hazzard lunch boxes, mid-century furniture or marcasite brooches. When I walk into an antique mall and I smell baking cookies and freshly pulled espresso – well, that’s just odd. Yet that’s just what greeted my sniffer at two Tacoma antique malls. In this installment of my “hidden gems” series, I’ll walk you through two hidden sandwich cafes that also offer coffee and dessert. They’re little micro businesses tucked into the deep corners of antique malls, and thus often overlooked, I’m sure. They’re not fancy – you won’t find vertical food or heavy, fancy sauces. You’ll find sandwiches and espresso, desserts and friendly service. I like these places because they’re run by people who make affordable everyday food that’s well tended.
Have a hidden gem you want to nominate for my occasional series on cafes tucked into unexpected places? Contact me at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Olive Branch Cafe
Inside: Hidden Treasures Antique Mall in the Old Trolley Building, 3902 S. 12th St., Tacoma; 253-302-5099
Cafe hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays
The mall: A vendor antique mall with a variety of furniture, vintage jewelry, toys and more. Mall hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; 253-227-5841.
Think of Terry Waller as a restaurant owner who pays her service forward. In the midst of a long career working at Western State Hospital, she connected through her church with a cafe owner who was about to lose her business. Waller and other church members volunteered at Tacoma’s Java Fusion cafe in exchange for cafe training.
Through her volunteer work at Java Fusion, Waller learned to be a barista. Always a fan of cooking, Waller thought she might transfer those skills to her own cafe. She did just that in March, leaving Western State and opening the Olive Branch Cafe inside the Hidden Treasures antique mall at South 12th and Proctor. Since opening, she’s offered the same kind of free cafe training to friends and church members.
Waller said she didn’t intend to open a cafe in an antique mall, it just worked out that way. The rent was cheap and the mall came with a captive audience of built-in customers.
The atmosphere is cute and sweet – the kind of place you can take your mother for a do-over if you flubbed Mother’s Day, or consider it a top-notch “ladies who lunch” destination. It’s decorated in thrift store finds that Waller sourced herself (the décor is not for sale). Coming soon to the cafe will be tea service.
The small menu offers grilled and cold sandwiches with a homespun edge, plus salad and soup. This is not fancy food, but it’s well handled and inexpensive.
Waller knows the right way to grill a sandwich – brushed first with olive oil before being pressed into a panini grill – and she doesn’t take the sandwiches out until they ooze. (My pet peeve of inattentive cooking: grilled sandwiches with cold innards. I hate that.)
She builds her cold sandwiches on sturdy breads. Some desserts in her bakery case come from Costco, but a few are housemade, namely the Russian tea cakes that are baked in the tiny cafe oven by a friend who stops by to help out.
Waller and her small staff offer table service, which was friendly and proficient.
The prices are fair: $7.25-$8.95 will buy you a hearty sandwich with a side (or $5-$6 for half orders). Desserts are $1-$3. She pulls a mean espresso made with Dillanos coffee.
First-time visitors should get the chicken pesto sandwich ($8.95), built on herbed focaccia and stuffed with chicken breast, olives, melted provolone and a healthy smear of pesto. The gobbler ($7.95) was pure Thanksgiving captured between two thick slices of white sandwich bread – just like your mom makes – with turkey, cream cheese and cranberry sauce. Soup or salad comes on the side. The potato salad was fine and the chicken soup was pretty good (Waller buys it prepared and doctors it with her own ingredients), but the housemade Russian tea cakes for dessert should not be missed.
Cups and Cakes Cafe
Where: Inside the Pacific Run Antique Mall, 10228 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-538-1434.
Cafe hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
The mall: A 24,000-square-foot mall with everything from old Star Wars books to vintage furniture and jewelry and military collectibles. Mall hours are the same as the cafe; 253-539-0117.
Mike Kamerer left a corporate chef gig for one big reason: You can’t make pie on a whim, or from scratch, in a big commercial operation that serves food from packages. His new career as cafe owner means he can bake a berry pie on a Wednesday afternoon or chocolate cupcakes on a Saturday. His bakery case – and the frequent smell of those freshly baked peanut butter cookies – is a primary draw for Cups and Cakes Cafe, a tiny place tucked into the back of the Pacific Run Antique Mall, located near where Pacific Avenue collides with state Route 512. It opened in January 2011.
Kamerer met the owners of Pacific Run at a potluck party. They liked his food, he liked the sound of the small cafe space they had open.
Cups and Cakes looks to be furnished from granny’s attic. The tiny dining room has old tables with matching sturdy wood chairs and a few neat collections: tea cups, tea pots and quirky artwork. (It’s all for sale.)
An equally tiny menu of grilled and deli sandwiches are priced $6.50-$6.95, with a constantly changing dessert menu of all housemade baked goods, priced $1.75-$2.50.
Kamerer left a 20-year truck-driving career after a back injury, and retrained for a career in cooking at South Central Community College’s culinary arts program a decade ago. He runs the cafe with his daughter Michelle, who makes the espresso and provides friendly table service. His wife, Beth, helps with decorating cakes, but Kamerer otherwise makes all the desserts himself from scratch. Another daughter, Lauren, just married and moved to California, but previously helped at the cafe.
First-time visitors should give the smoked salmon BLT sandwich a try ($6.95). Built on toasted sourdough with a slather of lemon-dill mayo, the sandwich gets a one-two punch of salty-smoky flavor – I don’t think I’d ever think to pair fish and pig in a sandwich, but it really works (because bacon makes everything better, right?). The Rachel ($6.50) is another solid choice: a grilled sandwich with turkey, Thousand island, kraut and cheddar on dark rye. Sandwiches come with chips and a pickle.
For dessert, don’t miss the chocolate cupcake with vanilla butter cream. Apple caramel and berry pies were recently on the menu. If you smell fresh baked cookies, consider yourself lucky if it’s peanut butter cookie day.