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Puyallup dining – finding a few gems in a community short on dining options

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on March 1, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
March 20, 2013 10:02 am
Brewer Eric Akeson  has made a lot of friends making friends selling craft beers and ales at the new Puyallup River Alehouse. The alehouse operates in the site of the former Pioneer Bakery  in downtown Puyallup. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer
Brewer Eric Akeson has made a lot of friends making friends selling craft beers and ales at the new Puyallup River Alehouse. The alehouse operates in the site of the former Pioneer Bakery in downtown Puyallup. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer

The Puyallup area earns its reputation as the land of strip malls and big-name chain restaurants now that it’s home to two Red Robins, two Applebees, two Rams and duplicates of just as many fast-food restaurants. I’ve learned to not give up hope, though. Occasionally a food find will magically appear. Crockett’s Public House, for instance. That downtown Puyallup restaurant and bar was recently featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Count Puyallup River Alehouse as a recent bright spot in a small, but slowly growing dining landscape – and it’s not far from Crockett’s. The taproom opened three weeks ago and after perusing the taplist, I’m calling it the Parkway Tavern of East Pierce County. Speaking of food finds in and around Puyallup, three other businesses opened in February that are generating buzz: Epic Donuts and Forever Sushi on South Hill, and El Toro on Canyon. Read on for first impressions.

Samplers are available at Puyallup River Alehouse. The alehouse features 24 taps.
Samplers are available at Puyallup River Alehouse. The alehouse features 24 taps.

Puyallup River Alehouse
120 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-268-0955, puyallupriverbrewing.com

Last April, Eric Akeson began bottling under his label Puyallup River Brewing and he built a following at South Sound bottle shops. One problem, though: He couldn’t serve his brews directly to the public from his South Hill backyard brewery.

What’s a brewmaster to do? Open a taproom, of course.

Puyallup River Alehouse is something like 7 Seas in Gig Harbor or Wingman Brewers in Tacoma. Those working breweries double as taprooms that only serve snacks. Puyallup River Alehouse doesn’t make its own food, but sells refrigerated sandwiches, salads and appetizer snack packs from Puyallup wholesale caterer Joeseppis On the Go ($3.50-$4.50 for appetizers, $6 for sandwiches with chips). As with most taprooms, patrons can bring their own food to eat at the alehouse. Because his brewery operation remains at his South Hill home, Puyallup River Alehouse doesn’t carry the allure of a working brewery like 7 Seas or Wingman. However, Akeson has turned his taproom into a regional destination with not only his own Puyallup River beers, but with a tap list of more than 20 beers that looks like a who’s who of craft brew near and far: Dogfish Head, Black Diamond, Green Flash, Elysian, MT Head, Old Schoolhouse, Odin and more. Craft beer can be found all over East Pierce – Buckley is home to Elk Head Brewing, after all – but you’d have to jam together at least three or four far-flung East Pierce taverns and breweries to compete with the deep taplist at Puyallup River Alehouse.

What Puyallup River Alehouse has working against it – besides not having a kitchen – is that it’s been packed every weekend since it opened. If you are a beer lover who wants to sit and sip quietly, visit during an off hour on a weeknight.

The front entry of El Toro on Canyon.
The front entry of El Toro on Canyon.

El Toro
12115 Canyon Road E., Puyallup, 253-256-4639, eltorofamily.com

There are no surprises on the menu at the newest El Toro on Canyon Road, but what will impress is the decor – it doesn’t look anything like a chain Mexican restaurant of yesteryear. Details in the sprawling 160-seat restaurant look tended, all the way down to the tortilla chip baskets made from metal rings. Pillars flank a soaring entryway set with chandeliers and painted concrete floors. In the dining room, light fixtures dance light over booths that are high-backed and appear custom made.

It’s not especially fancy in a “don’t bring the kids” way (that would never work in that neighborhood), but El Toro is attractive and unlike anything nearby.
The shortage of nearby dining options explains why there have been long lines since El Toro opened. A recent visit found straightforward Mexican-American dining – the usual suspects of tacos, burritos, combination plates and a handful of house specialties. The restaurant seemed overwhelmed, which is why you should wait before visiting. The oversights were excusable for a new restaurant, but irritating nevertheless. A quesadilla for a young dining partner wasn’t fully cooked. The water had a terrible tap taste. Plating and the temperature of food was off. Staff appeared a bit frazzled, although friendly. Our server couldn’t answer many questions – he was new on the job and had not yet learned the menu.

Dinner entrees are solidly in the $13 range; lunch yields better deals.

This El Toro has been many years in the making. The restaurant was supposed to be built in 2007, but the economic backslide in 2008 put that on hold. The restaurant chain has six outposts and was started in 1979 by the Arias family. Ruben Arias Jr., son of founder Ruben Arias Sr., manages the restaurants and more siblings work there, too.

Epic Donuts
12314 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup, 253-845-0246, epicdonutspuyallup.com

It was a long wait for South Hill residents eager for doughnuts in a community without a doughnut bakery (short of grocery stores). Epic Donuts opened last week after a two-month construction delay. It’s the project of Tom and Erin Dobrinski, South Hill residents for 14 years. Tom is a former restaurant manager – with chains like B.J.’s Brewery and Tacoma’s Harmon on his résumé – and Erin is a real estate agent who formerly taught in Puyallup schools. Their bakery aims to capture young South Hill diners with novelty doughnuts and a quirky mascot named Epic Eddie. They’re doing a fine job of appealing to families and kids. However, after paying $3.98 for two doughnuts, I wondered whether diners will balk at those prices, which range from 99 cents to $1.99 and higher. Of course, I never thought people would pay $3 for a cupcake and plenty of diners do that.
The bakery has no seating – it’s takeout only.

Forever Sushi opened Feb. 22. It's a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with small plates.
Forever Sushi opened Feb. 22. It’s a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with small plates.

Forever Sushi
4301 S. Meridian, 253-268-0335, Facebook

A new conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, Forever Sushi, opened Feb. 22 on South Hill next to The Rock and Pita Pit. If you’re doing a double take on that address, that’s because it really is the same space where another conveyor belt sushi restaurant operated from 2010-2012, Sushiland. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants have been a tough sell for South Hill diners. Sushi Station at Sunrise Village closed last year after a two-year run. I paid visits during the final months of both sushi restaurants and I can see why they closed – the quality and variety on the belt had seriously declined.

I visited Forever Sushi on opening week and found a very typical setup – a spinning belt filled with mostly maki rolls. As with most kaiten sushi restaurants, many rolls were built on the typical foundation of a California roll with different add-ins and toppers. I did see a few nigiri plates roll around the belt. Seaweed salad, gyoza, a few other appetizers and sweet bites also rotated through. Most plates were priced $1.50-$3.50, although a few more expensive items circled the belt. The sushi was fine, but not memorable.

If you’re a newcomer to conveyor-belt sushi – it’s a serve-yourself concept where diners can pick and choose what they want to eat from small plates of sushi – covered with plastic lids – that circle the room on a conveyor belt. In the center of the restaurant are chefs who make maki rolls and other appetizers as diners watch. It’s a fun concept for group dining, but it’s not a place to go for elevated sushi dining. Think of kaiten as the fast food equivalent of sushi.

Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.

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