I dread Feb. 15 because of the Valentine’s Day dining complaints. They go something like this:
“The menu was tiny, why couldn’t we order off the regular menu?” (Answer: Fixed menus mean faster kitchen turnover.) “I made my reservations in July, why did I have to wait 45 minutes past my reservation time?” (Answer: Because restaurants are fully booked on Valentine’s Day, it’s a mess.) “I wanted my server to sing ‘All About Loving You’ by Bon Jovi to my girlfriend. Why wouldn’t he?” (Answer: Because he was working five other tables. Plus: Do not abuse servers with ‘80s music.)
I’ve heard them all. Expectations are high, kitchens are stressed. Restaurants sometimes perform superbly, sometimes they flop. It’s a tough night for everyone. Here’s the news you may not want to hear – if you have not yet made a reservation, you’re probably too late to score one at most of the city’s destination restaurants.
However, all is not lost. Your friendly restaurant critic to the rescue. But first, I need you to think differently about what defines a romantic meal. Is it steak, lobster and roses? Sure, it can be. But equally romantic can be Korean barbecue, Chinese hot pot or a steamy bowl of Vietnamese soup. Instead of stressing, think creatively. A few suggestions to guide you.
Bring on the sizzle with Korean barbecue
I can’t think of anything more romantic than sharing a big pile of meat – even better if flame and sizzle is involved. At Korean tabletop barbecue restaurants in Lakewood, you do all the cooking at your table. Your server shuttles plates of raw meat (keep your tongs separate, don’t cross contaminate, foodborne illness is not romantic). You’ll also get lettuce leaves or rice wrappers to roll up with various bits of banchan – little plates of marinated vegetables – and sauces aplenty. It costs less than $20 per person. I’ve reviewed every Korean barbecue restaurant on South Tacoma Way in this story, but here are my favorite three:
Cham Garden Korean BBQ
Where: 10518 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-584-2287
This low-key strip-mall eatery is light on atmosphere, big on flavor. Unlike other Korean barbecue restaurants with a set list of meats you order, Cham is a buffet. Help yourself to the meat you like – bulgogi and smoked pork jowl are the best – and then return to your table to cook over metal grate grills set over open flame (the best kind of cooktop on South Tacoma Way).
Where: 8602 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-582-6713
This is a small restaurant with a homey dining room that looks like it was decorated by a Korean mother (mostly because it was). High-backed booths offer more privacy than others in that neighborhood. The restaurant is the oldest of its kind on South Tacoma Way – owner Sun Ok Chung opened O-bok in 1989. She’s the one in the kitchen – and she knows what she’s doing. The banchan and meat marinades are all her recipes. If you order anything, make it the modeum gui combo with four kinds of meat. On my last visit, it was under $40 and fed a small Army. Booths are high backed here – safe for smooching.
Chung Ki Wa
Where: 8601 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-588-5976
Well-spaced booths offer some privacy for dining, but many tables are large and meant for crowds. Meat is cooked over a solid surface pan set over gas flame. I prefer the zippy meats and flavor-punched banchan of Chung Ki Wa. I also like the combo that comes with six meats (around $40).
Steamy pho for your sweetie
Bad news: Vietnamese pho restaurants usually are pretty low on atmosphere. Good news: They’re probably not going to be high on the radar for Valentine’s Day dining. I make the case that a hot bowl of pho is the ultimate in steamy dining experiences. My favorite pho spots:
Where: 3801 Yakima Ave., Tacoma, 253-472-6668
This restaurant is all about the steamy – from the windows to the soup. What I like best about Vien Dong is the deep flavor of the broth and the raft of herbs that tops every bowl of soup.
Where: Various locations in Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and beyond.
Usually pretty high on atmosphere compared to other Vietnamese pho restaurants, this restaurant is a straightforward soup shop that does spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches fairly well. Warning: They specialize in high turnover, so you may not be allowed to linger long.
Where: 757 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-359-0922
This new(ish) pho spot took over the space occupied by Bamboo Grill, a favorite, but short-lived, Vietnamese restaurant in the Lincoln District. Pho Dragon is much more cute inside than you’d expect for a neighborhood full of good, but not beautiful, restaurants. The decor is something like Le-Le on the Hilltop, but considerably less busy. The staff is incredibly friendly.
Chinese hot pot: Soup for swooning
They bring you a burner and a pot, you add the meat and vegetables. Chinese Hot Pot, like Korean barbecue, is a shared tabletop cooking experience. To try:
Where: 9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-0102
This strip-mall find has a lengthy Chinese menu and executes it very well in an atmosphere that is quite fetching and good for groups (read: the tables are close together). It’s also one of few restaurants in the area offering hot pot. If you’re not a fan of hot pot, consider ordering something that will sizzle your tongue – Chong Gin Hot Chicken. This dish should not be ordered by anyone with a timid palate. The dish’s Sichuan peppercorns deliver a lip- and tongue-numbing sensation.
Where: 711 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-471-8982
They had hot pot the last time I checked, but I’ve yet to try it. Still, a server’s description sounded tempting on a recent visit. Here’s something unusual for a dinner with your sweetie – try dim sum for two at the Lobster House. Quality can fluctuate, but you’re safe with the steamed pork buns and a house specialty called “football rolls.” They’re in the same neighborhood as Pho Dragon.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW: More on Valentine’s Day. Where to buy handmade truffles (my annual ode to chocolate treasures in Tacoma).