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Never been: A dining series digging into American classics

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Jan. 11, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
January 11, 2013 12:00 am
Chicken fried steak is a diner classic served at Ma's Place in Puyallup. Staff photo/Lui Kit Wong
Chicken fried steak is a diner classic served at Ma’s Place in Puyallup. Staff photo/Lui Kit Wong

You know those quirky restaurants that have been there for an eternity, yet you never bothered to try? I have a whole list of those. I call them “never beens.”

This year, I’ll visit some of my “never beens” and report back, and I’d appreciate reader suggestions for this occasional series. (Find my contact info at the end of this story.) Parameters are easy: The restaurant should be at least 15 or 20 years old (the older, the better) and it should have an aura of grit (read: diners, dives and places known for serving a stiff drink). Better even are restaurants that serve good ol’ American classics. You know, like chicken and dumplings and chicken fried steak. Bonus points will be awarded for meatloaf on the menu.

Take a read now of two “never beens” I’ve finally conquered: Ben Dew’s Clubhouse Grill and Ma’s Place.

Ma’s Place
Where: 720 39th Ave. SW, Puyallup (across from the mall)
Information: 253-845-8449. Facebook here.
Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Every time I pull into Ma’s Place, I curse the packed parking lot of the Puyallup restaurant that’s been serving South Hill diners for 60 years. Yet even when the lot is full, the dining room sometimes isn’t. That was a mystery until I glanced into the lounge on one visit. Oh, that’s where everyone goes. East Pierce’s answer to the bar at Harbor Lights?

Settling into a booth in the seat-yourself dining room that looks decorated by your grandma, you might be overlooked for a few minutes, but don’t panic. The service was competent, friendly and helpful – except not always at full capacity. You’ve been warned. Weekend breakfasts can be a zoo, and with good reason: Prices. Ma’s Place not only has decor cutely stuck in the last generation, some of the prices are, too. Finding a diner with fairly competent cooks with daily $3.99 breakfast specials was something I had given up on – until Ma’s Place.

Competent is a relative term, so let me define that. Hash browns or home fries should be griddled golden brown and arrive hot and evenly heated. Eggs-over-easy should spill ribbons of yolk when pierced. Gravy should flow like a river, not clump like a flour dam. For half of my must-execute-well list, Ma’s Place kitchen did fine. Eggs were spot-on perfect on three visits. The hash browns were, too, although they were under seasoned every visit, but that was easily fixed. The miss was the gravy. It was acceptable, not great, and fell somewhere between river and dam. It tasted different visit to visit, but the pasty texture remained consistent.

As for those bargain daily breakfast specials, get breakfast special A: Two hot cakes, an egg any way you want it and two links or bacon strips. For the other daily $3.99 special, you’ll get hash browns and toast instead of the hot cakes. No substitutions are allowed and breakfast specials only are available before 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday. Breakfast combo A was hearty and good, except for the sausage casing with an unwieldy snap and strange color. I have a rule about never eating suspicious looking breakfast meat. An easy fix: get the bacon.

Other decent bargains peppered the breakfast menu, which is served all day. Get the chicken fried steak ($8.59) with eggs, toast or hashbrowns or the economical biscuits and gravy ($5.99) made with light-and-fluffy biscuits (no hockey pucks here) and that pasty, yet sausage-laden gravy. Here’s great news for home fries fans: you can sub cubed home fries at Ma’s Place for shredded hash browns. The cubed fries are just that – no onions or peppers mixed in.

As for the rest of the menu, its purely old-style American comfort food and diner classics. I tried a few average sandwiches. A side salad came with past-its-prime lettuce. Stick with the simple, cheap breakfasts.

Ben Dew’s Clubhouse Grill
Where: 6501 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
Information: 253-564-4442. Facebook here.
Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Remember two years ago when I went burger crazy and decided to find the best 20 bar burgers in the South Sound? My arteries are still recovering and I’m still eating my way through burger recommendations from readers. Ben Dew’s Clubhouse Grill was nominated by many who have a thing for the restaurant’s burgers, available in the family-friendly dining room or the attached lounge that seems perpetually busy day and night.

I’m with the readers who nominated Ben Dew’s – I’m a fan of burgers executed with flame-grilled precision. A beefy patty was served on a buttered and griddled bun with a one-two punch of Thousand Island dressing and mayo. Lettuce, red onions and tomatoes were crisp. Fries were serviceable, but the potato salad was better – the kind with a mayo dressing (no mustard, no sweetness). $8.50 gets you the burger, plus extra for cheese.

The burger at Ben Dew's Clubhouse Grill is a worthy menu item to try.
The burger at Ben Dew’s Clubhouse Grill is a worthy menu item to try.

Ben Dew’s was a place that had been around as long as dirt — like its neighbor the Cloverleaf Tavern – except the original Ben Dew’s closed in the mid-1980s, then revived in 1997 as a reborn Ben Dew’s Clubhouse Grill. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find Sunday family supper specials of fried chicken, and mature servers who have worked their entire career competently shuttling chicken-fried steak. The dining room has an old-fashioned charm with funny knickknacks on display.

Besides the great burger, the food on two visits was serviceable – prices solidly higher than $10 will scare bargain hunters. It’s one of the few places I’ve tried that gets a monte cristo sandwich ($11.99) almost right – the triple decker of ham and turkey came on egg-dipped bread that was almost crispy. Most places serve the sandwich on the far-too-wrong side of flaccid.

Tip: A plastic cup of jam tasted just like homemade freezer jam.

If you order anything besides the burger, make it the chicken and dumplings ($12.99), made with dumplings of the doughy-and-biscuity variety, not those solid dumplings that fall with a thud when you drop them.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Send her tips by calling 253-597-8270 or email


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