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Meals by the Mile: Exploring Vietnamese dining in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on March 29, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
March 28, 2013 4:57 pm
Pho soup at Vien Dong, a restaurant that opened in 1989 in the Lincoln neighborhood near Lincoln High School. The neighborhood is a destination for affordable Vietnamese food. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Pho soup at Vien Dong, a restaurant that opened in 1989 in the Lincoln neighborhood near Lincoln High School. The neighborhood is a destination for affordable Vietnamese food. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

In 1989, Vien Dong opened at the corner of South 38th and Yakima, and Tacoma began its obsession with pho, the Vietnamese soup (pronounced “fuh”) made with a volcanic bubbling broth spiked with anise, garlic, ginger, thin-cut meats and chewy rice noodles. Consider pho the gateway dish to Vietnamese cuisine, now part of everyday culinary vernacular in South Sound.

During the past decade, from Tacoma to Bonney Lake, little Vietnamese restaurants have sprouted everywhere. In tracing the culinary tale of Vietnamese cuisine in South Sound, the story leads back to the Lincoln neighborhood.

Nearly a dozen Lincoln cafes, stores and restaurants serve Vietnamese cuisine. Diners there will find affordable meals in modest, low-tech eateries, small businesses run by Vietnamese families. None are fancy, but all deliver meals designed for economical lunching.

In recent years, the eating district surrounding Lincoln High School has matured beyond pho, banh mi sandwiches and those fresh salad rolls called goi cuon. Lincoln has emerged as a magnet for sushi, tortas, burritos, burgers, dim sum and even Southern-style soul food.

As part of an occasional dining series examining clusters of restaurants in a single neighborhood, come with me as I take a tour of the far-flung eateries in the Lincoln neighborhood, a community that should be at the top of every adventurous eater’s list – and not just for pho.

Sarah Anderson, left, enjoys a bowl of pho with her co-worker Alex Ropes at Vien Dong. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photpgrapher
Sarah Anderson, left, enjoys a bowl of pho with her co-worker Alex Ropes at Vien Dong. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photpgrapher

Vien Dong

3801 S. Yakima Ave., 253-472-6668

It was pho that put Vien Dong on the map in 1989. The soup was served then as it is now, with trays of whole leaf basil, sliced jalapenos, lime wedges and an assemblage of sauces flavored sweet, sour, salty and spicy – the four-note symphony that fuels Southeast Asian cuisine.

Thuy-Linh Nguyen was a child, but recalls when her parents visited Tacoma from Seattle, looking to open Vien Dong. “We walked around, we found this community so warm. My parents’ first impression 24 years ago, this is a community where we have to get involved.”

She remembers the Lincoln District with two words: “small and friendly.”

Like her family’s pho, Vien Dong’s specialties are prepared today as they were in 1989. Prices have barely increased: a small bowl of pho 20 years ago was $4.25, it’s $5.50 today. The only change has been an addition of vegetarian dishes.
The Nguyen family recipes live on with Thuy-Linh in the kitchen. She roasts the vegetables and aromatics – ginger, garlic and anise – that go into the pho broth. The menu’s popular red curry dish gets an added blast of fresh, minced basil just before cooking.

Nearly everything except the pho broth is cooked to order, said Nguyen, who runs the restaurant now with her husband, Kevin Le. He’s the tall, smiling man who effortlessly works the tidy dining room located in a visible storefront. The room often has steamed-over windows in the colder months.

This chicken and vegetable stir fry is #48 on the Vien Dong menu.
This chicken and vegetable stir fry is #48 on the Vien Dong menu.

Order pho in a number of configurations. The broth is lighter, leaning toward aromatics. It’s bargain-priced at $5.50-$7.50.

Look to the house menu for the real specialities. No. 50 is Nguyen’s favorite dish – she eats it near daily, while Le eats a bowl of pho every morning. A safe bet is No. 48, a stir-fried vegetable mixture with chicken in a spicy (or not) basil garlic sauce ($7.25).

Want more rice with your order? Noodles? Double the basil and jalapeno? Vien Dong doesn’t ding diners for extras.

I like them for that.

 

Chau and Vivian Dang opened Pho Dragon in May 2012. The restaurant specializes in healthier Vietnamese preparations. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Chau and Vivian Dang opened Pho Dragon in May 2012. The restaurant specializes in healthier Vietnamese preparations. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Pho Dragon

757 S. 38th St., 253-472-6153

Vietnamese cuisine is a dining style that’s always been friendly to healthy eaters. Cabbage and noodle-based salads come flavored with herbs, pickled vegetables and light vinaigrettes. Meat is secondary in most dishes. Soup is light but filling. Vivian Dang makes subtle tweaks to enliven flavor while reducing sodium, sugar and calories at her 10-month-old Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Dragon.

Instead of sugar, she sweetens with honey. She eschews the seasoning agent monosodium glutamate. She doubles the herbs and vegetables in her salads and soups. She relies on ginger and garlic to fuel flavor. She touts her seafood offerings to newcomers.

She pursued more healthful cooking after losing her father to a stroke, a malady she attributes to her father’s sometimes unhealthy diet. Dang learned to cook in her father’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. She opened Pho Dragon with her husband, Chau Dang, last May.

Calling the restaurant a pho restaurant is a misnomer. While pho is on the menu, the 50-item menu includes several styles of soup, rice dishes, noodle dishes, salads, Vietnamese crepes and sandwiches.

Hospitality played big in this adorable cafe filled with carved wooden tables and pendant lighting and intentionally mismatched, colorful plates.

The duck salad, bun mang vit , at Pho Dragon.
The duck salad, bun mang vit , at Pho Dragon.

Banh xeo ($6.99) usually isn’t the most healthful dish – the Vietnamese crepe is a leftover from French occupation and traditionally is made griddle fried – but Dang uses a gentle hand with the oil. She filled the crepe with twice as many vegetables as I’m accustomed to seeing. The same was true for the duck salad and soup dish bun mang vit ($7.99).

A purple cabbage salad was topped generously with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and roasted duck, with a plucky ginger vinaigrette for dipping and dousing. The mild accompanying soup came with dried bamboo shoots, which added as much texture it did earthy flavor. I’d like to nickname her com dac biet bo ($7.99) the hungry man plate; it’s a combination of marinated beef short ribs and a fried egg perched atop rice. It’s a great value and a lot of meat – not exactly Dang’s style of healthful eating, but not so bad if you share the entree.

 

Sushi chef Kazuya Kamada holds one of his specialty rolls, a scallop dynamite. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Sushi chef Kazuya Kamada holds one of his specialty rolls, a scallop dynamite. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Gari of Sushi

1209 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-475-3456

In Kazuya “Kazu” Kamada’s sushi world, maki rolls are more fish than rice, sauces add dimension and nigiri is treated to artistic garnishes.

Kamada opened Gari of Sushi on the edge of the Lincoln neighborhood’s Vietnamese district in 2002. A fire closed the restaurant from December 2007 to August 2008. It reopened made over inside and out. Gone was the garish yellow exterior and the segmented dining room that used bamboo mats to separate tables. The new open dining room was much more modern, filled with warm lighting and glass artwork.

What remained was the menu of sushi that Kamada calls “Osaka style,” a modern type of sushi that relies on contrasting flavors and textures. Kamada began his sushi career in Osaka more than 25 years ago. He learned from sushi masters who Kamada said would kick sushi apprentices who made mistakes in the kitchen. There’s – a-hem – no kicking of staffers at Gari of Sushi. Kamada is the smiling chef behind the sushi bar. He works solo, which can mean delays on busy weekend nights, but staffers alert diners when the wait turns long. Kamada takes extra care with presentation. Sauces adorn plates in precision patterns, nigiri comes topped with impeccable adornments, such as a deftly cracked raw quail egg, watercress, slivers of jalapenos and razor-thin beet strips. Kamada adheres to the Japanese aesthetic that food should look as beautiful as it tastes. His ingredients and presentations are modern.

Interesting artwork adorns the walls - and separates the dining areas - at Gari of Sushi. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Interesting artwork adorns the walls – and separates the dining areas – at Gari of Sushi. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Kamada’s menu lists more than 40 maki rolls with many signatures diners won’t find elsewhere, such as the mango paradise roll ($13.25), which paired creamy ingredients – mango and salmon – with crunch from tempura shoftshell crab. Kamada topped it with electric green wasabi-spiked tobiko and a spicy sauce, the flavors zigzagged expertly between subtly sweet and spicy hot. Spicy tuna ($6.50) tasted like the real deal. A zonie ($11.95) intersected Northwest and Southwest – salmon paired with cilantro, avocado and jalapeno. The flavor was grassy and delightful.

A barbecue pork plate at Tho Tuong BBQ in Tacoma's Lincoln neighborhood.
A barbecue pork plate at Tho Tuong BBQ in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood.

Tho Tuong BBQ

715 S. 38th St.,253-474-2279 (cash only)

A counter worker told me his family has been slow-cooking duck, pork and chicken in the street-facing roaster at Tho Tuong BBQ for at least a dozen years.

The tiny dining room sports just a few tables plus a dining counter where you’ll find locals chatting.

The menu is short and features the slow-roasted meats. The pork and duck were simply spiced, but delicious from a long, slow roast. Those wary of fat should beware of the meat here – it’s loaded with fat and flavor.

You can watch as staffers chop the pork, which is sold for $7-$7.99 per pound for roasted or barbecued.
Whole roasted ducks and chickens run $12-$19.99.

If you don’t want to commit to a pound of meat, visit for lunch and pay $8 for a rice plate with pickled jalapenos and vegetables and your choice of pork, duck, chicken or a combination of meat.

Thurmond Brokenbrough holds a sample platter from Uncle Thurm's soul food restaurant. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Thurmond Brokenbrough holds a sample platter from Uncle Thurm’s soul food restaurant. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Uncle Thurm’s Soul Food

3709 S. G St., 253-475-1881

Thurmond and Linda Brokenbrough have been serving ribs, fried chicken, catfish and soul-tinged Southern eats for more than 15 years in South Sound.

They started at the Doo Drop Inn in Fife in 1998, then moved to the Lincoln District in 2001 after they were recruited by Jim Stevenson, who was running Lincoln Bowl at the time.

They ran the Rail Splitter restaurant inside the bowling alley until 2006 when they moved a few blocks to G Street. They named their latest incarnation Uncle Thurm’s Finger Lickin’ Chicken and Ribs, but most everyone just calls it Uncle Thurm’s.

It’s a homey space, adorned with music posters and a sound system in the corner that pumps out jazz and R&B.
Thurmond Brokenbrough, a self-described square from Delaware, knows a thing or two about slow-and-low cooking.

He has a five-tiered barbecue smoker fueled by hickory and mesquite that turns out solid ribs tinged pink and tender. The ribs were divine as a dinner ($15.95) with a choice of sides. Catfish ($15.95, dinner with sides) and Southern fried chicken ($10.95, dinner with sides) came with equally clingy jackets that had just the right touch of crunch.

The sides tasted straight out of a Sunday church potluck in Georgia: sweet candied yams, vinegar-spiked collard greens, ham-scented red beans and rice, creamy mac and cheese.

Don’t think about the calorie count.

The sweet tea is the best I’ve had in town – made sweet and a light hit of pucker.

If you want to get a good idea of Brokenbrough’s cooking, try the soul food medley ($10.95), which gives a taste of most everything. A larger version ($18.95) is enough to feed two.

Friday nights feature live jazz music. I have long pledged to give the breakfast menu a try, but the ribs and chicken always beckon.

The hum bao at Lobster House. The restaurant offers a small dim sum menu.
The hum bao at Lobster House. The restaurant offers a small dim sum menu.

Lobster House

711 S. 38th St., 253-471-8982

A sidewalk sandwich board declaring a Tacoma rarity – dim sum – beckons diners inside the Lobster House Chinese restaurant. Owner Michael Mac brought dim sum and the Lobster House to Tacoma in October 2011. He founded the New Hong Kong Dim Sum Restaurant and Hong Kong Seafood, both in Seattle.

Dim sum aficionados won’t find a familiar setup. Menu ordering, not a roving cart laden with the bite-size Chinese appetizers, is the protocol at Lobster House. The 16-item menu lists the usual dim sum offerings of steamed or fried dumplings, buns, spareribs and sticky rice.

I found hits and misses during multiple visits. Hum bao ($2.75), squishy steamed buns stuffed with sweetened pork, consistently delighted. Shumai steamed dumplings ($2.75) spawned disappointment – the ground pork filling was rubbery, the wrapper chewy and sulfuric on more than one visit. Spareribs, sesame balls and fried pot stickers ($2.75) proved reliable. Chinese broccoli (market price) tasted sublime – steamed until tender, but still sporting that crucial crunch, with a splash of hoisin adding sweetness.

Beyond dim sum, the menu lists straightforward Chinese classics and an unexpected find of hot pot, another rare dish in Tacoma.

The dining room was mostly tidy, although the menus could use a cleaning. Seating was comfortable except for the occasional draft (bring a sweater). The decor is slightly funky in shades of salmon and magenta. Service has varied from friendly to distracted.

Jaime Beltran the owner of Taqueria La Fondita holds a plate of pork tacos in front of his taco truck on the corner of S. 38th and G Streets in Tacoma. File photo 2009. Janet Jensen/The News Tribune
Jaime Beltran the owner of Taqueria La Fondita holds a plate of pork tacos in front of his taco truck on the corner of S. 38th and G Streets in Tacoma. File photo 2009. Janet Jensen/The News Tribune

La Fondita taco truck

Gravel lot at 3737 S. G St.,253-472-2577

Since 1998, Jaime Beltran has been grilling tacos and tortas at La Fondita, a restaurant on wheels parked in a bumpy gravel lot at South 38th and G streets. He’s the guy with the cook’s hat, ever smiling, turning out crispy-edged carnitas and pollo asado from his mother’s handed-down recipe. This truck consistently churns out some of the most satisfying portable Mexican eats in town – and that it comes from a grill in the back of a food truck is simply admirable.

The ratio of bread to fillings is just right at La Fondita, a taco truck in the Lincoln neighborhood.
The ratio of bread to fillings is heavy on fillings, light on bread at La Fondita, a taco truck in the Lincoln neighborhood.

Try the carnitas torta sandwich ($4.99), simply the best I’ve bitten into around town. Beltran gets the ratio of bun-to-fillings precisely right – the sturdy bun restrains the unwieldy stuffings of griddle-fried roasted pork, a smear of mayo and salsa, shredded lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cilantro and pickled jalapenos. A small surcharge adds avocado.

Fish tacos ($1.50) are a bargain lunch of tilapia stuffed into a flour tortilla. Birria ($5.99) was a chili-spiked stew of slow-cooked meat with tortillas for scooping garlicky beans and rice.

Torta sandwiches are served with potato chops at El Zocalo.
Torta sandwiches are served with potato chops at El Zocalo.

El Zocalo Tortas and Bakery

701 S. 38th St., 253-474-9000

This combination torta cafe and adjoining bakery offers little aesthetic appeal beyond display cases filled with sweet treats.

The torta side of the cafe lists the area’s largest selection of Mexican sandwiches: 16. They’re shockingly large and priced $7.25-$8.49, served with an order of house-fried potato chips.

The sandwiches tasted bready, the torta bun oversized. My favorite was a vegetarian (suiza, $7.75) – think of it as a Mexican grilled cheese sandwich with the usual torta accompaniments of mayo, lettuce, jalapeno and tomato. The cubana ($8.49) was a sandwich so huge, it looked like a food dare. It had steak, pork, sausage, ham and, yup, a fried egg. A Hawaiian torta ($7.25) could be considered a Hawaiian pizza rolled into a sandwich.

Flavors are fun here, but traditional tortas are listed on the menu, too.

The bakery side of the business is self-serve. Display cases are filled with sweet buns, a large selection of cookies and a dozen different turnovers, filled pastries and doughnuts.

Look for pig-shaped molasses cookies, the apricot-filled turnovers, and sweet buns shaped like sea shells. Criss-crossed puff pastry buns filled with a sweetened cream cheese were tasty, but some cookies and pastry tasted stale.
Prices are low, starting at a quarter and rarely going above a dollar.

The noodle salad bowl with pork is #23 on the menu at Nhy Thuy.
The noodle salad bowl with pork is #23 on the menu at Nhy Thuy.

Nhu Thuy

758 S. 38th St., 253-474-3991

I didn’t know much about this restaurant except for what a vegetarian friend told me – they have vegetable broth pho (No. 15, $5.99) and the prices are a bargain. I knew that’d be great news to my vegetarian readers (who should also try Vien Dong and Pho Dragon for vegetarian eats, but be sure to ask questions about which items are truly vegetarian).

Add Nhu Thuy to the category of quick-style Vietnamese restaurants that are huge in Tacoma. The eatery – decorated in mint green with a dining room full of roomy tables – looked tidy.

Stick with the pho ($5.99-$6.50) or simple items like the noodle salad bowl with pork ($6.99, No. 23).

A banh mi sandwich at Cafe La Vie. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
A banh mi sandwich at Cafe La Vie. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Banh Mi cafes

Consider the corner of 38th and Yakima the banh mi nexus of Tacoma. Turn a circle and find multiple cafes selling the culinary leftovers of French imperialism.

Banh mi, which rarely cost more than $3-$4, combine the French ingredients of a crusty baguette and a smear of mayonnaise or pate with the mainstays of Vietnamese cuisine: pickled vegetables and marinated, grilled meats. Flavor tweaks come from spicy shards of jalapeno and cilantro sprigs.

Here are my four favorite stops for banh mi in the Lincoln neighborhood:

Huong Que Deli: 3813 S. Yakima Ave., 253-476-7805, cash only
This tiny sandwich shop has a niche in bahn mi with a half-dozen versions priced fairly at $2.50-$3. While shredded pork and meatball beckon, I keep coming back for No. 10, the barbecued pork ($3). To be good, the baguette has to be so shattery crisp, it leaves shards of lunch trailing down the front of your shirt and Huong Que didn’t disappoint me. The pork was tweaked with salty-sweet marinade, the vegetables crisp. Look to the drink menu for Vietnamese delights. Try the salted lemonade ($3), chang moui, a refreshing treat, although quite salty.

Cafe La Vie: 3724 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma, 253-472-3724, cash only
This cafe tucked into a converted house formerly specialized in bahn mi, but the menu has expanded to soup and stew in recent years. After Huong Que, it’s my top pick for barbecue pork banh mi ($3.50). You won’t find a better composition than at Cafe La Vie: crisp baguette, toasted perfectly, with a healthy zap of spice from lengthwise slices of jalapeno, the flavor intensified from extra cilantro. Marinated cukes and carrots were cut broader here, adding more crunch. The pork marinade wafted ginger. If you order anything else, make it the Vietnamese coffee ($3) which can politely be described as the most delicious rocket fuel you can imagine, sweetened with condensed milk.

38th Street Deli/Deli 38: 750 S. 38th St., 253-475-0684
The menu lists soups, salads and noodle dishes, but I find myself returning for the grilled pork banh mi ($3). My only complaint was having to ask for the jalapenos, which spice haters will appreciate. Beyond the menu of three sandwiches, I would return again and again for No. 6 – xiu mai, a Vietnamese version of the Chinese shrimp-and-pork shumai dumpling.

Trung Chanh Cafe: 773 S. 38th St., 253-507-4521, cash only
This cafe listed six menu items and looked more like a place to watch sports and play cards than a cafe. Counter help was a friendly man who also did the cooking. English may not help you here. If all else fails, point to the menu item you’d like. The pork banh mi ($3) was exactly right – crusty baguette and grilled pork with lightly charred edges.

Lincoln District restaurant map

Shopping

East Asia Supermarket
602 S. 38th St., 253-473-3799
In the early 1980s, East Asia Market anchored the Lincoln neighborhood. Some credit the creation of the Vietnamese eating district to owner Andy Chang and his family, who opened the first version of East Asia Market in 1981. The market imported ingredients diners previously could not access outside Seattle’s International District. With the introduction of those ingredients and a growing influx of Vietnamese immigrants, the Vietnamese dining district followed. East Asia Market changed locations once before adding “Super” to its name, ultimately moving to the former Red Apple Market space. Find canned goods, produce and ingredients to make everything from pancit to Thai curry to banh mi sandwiches to yakisoba. The grocery store also sells deli items.

Hong Kong Supermarket
3816 S. Yakima Ave., 253-471-0744
Find an excellent selection of fresh produce here, as well as condiments and packaged foods.

060608 Flying Boots sign.jpg

Extra helpings

Flying Boots
614 S. 38th St.
This neighborhood institution is one of the oldest restaurants in town – and showing its age. Breakfast was hit-and-miss in my experience, but here’s something worth a walk-by – the classic roadside Flying Boots sign. It looms over Lincoln, neon-lit boots adorned with angel wings with a tagline advertising the attached bar, the Spur Room. There are not many signs like it still around, but there is another neat one in the Lincoln District: the old Golden City Cafe sign near South 38th and Yakima. The business is long gone, but the sign remains.

Burger Ranch
820 S. 38th St.
That particular block of Lincoln was interesting when it pitted Jubilee Hamburger Restaurant against neighboring Burger Ranch. Now with Jubilee closed – it was rumored to be reopening, but that hasn’t proved to be true – Burger Ranch sits alone. Staffers don’t rely on charm for repeat business. What this restaurant has going for it is a long list of shake flavors and decent burgers. Lincoln High School students are a daily sighting.

About this series

Ten-in-one is a dining series exploring restaurant clusters in a single neighborhood. We’ve eaten our way from East Tacoma to the Hilltop, from Parkland to Proctor. Here are past articles in the story series:
Dining on Mexican in the McKinley neighborhood
Exploring the Korean cuisine of South Tacoma Way (a four-part series)
Dishing into eclectic eats in the Hilltop neighborhood
A review of the Freighthouse Square food court
A dining roundup of the Proctor neighborhood
The eateries around Parkland

Sue Kidd dines anonymously. All meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or sue.kidd@thenewstribune.com

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