Oh, strip malls. How we love-hate you.
Architectural eyesores, but necessary destinations for tending the mundane details of our lives.
Dry cleaning, hair cutting, nail grooming and check cashing: Not a lot of excitement, right?
Not so fast.
When a strip mall lands on my radar, it’s because it harbors an impressive eatery. Greek, Indian, Hawaiian and Cambodian – I’ve hit culinary jackpots at strip malls throughout the South Sound (scroll down to read more stories in this series).
Today, I share with you my favorite strip mall for quick dining. On the edge of James Center, a shopping complex near Tacoma Community College, sits a row of three unfussy and family-owned restaurants.
They’re Asian eateries serving honest food for a fair price. I count on them for reliable take-out dinners after a busy round of shopping. And there’s a bonus: Right next to the strip mall is a stand-alone taqueria with great carnitas.
Kim Anh Vietnamese Restaurant
1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-460-7200
Atmosphere: An inviting Vietnamese cafe. Pendant lighting casts a warm glow, and a gurgling fish tank and greenery make it cozy. Owners Thinh and Nghiep Nguyen offer a carafe of warm tea to every diner, whether dining in or out.
Menu: A broad mix of Vietnamese grill, rice and noodle dishes, and soup.
Budget dining: Small entrees are priced $7.55. The “I can’t believe I found beef short ribs for $7.55” moment made me a happy diner.
Cheap find: The lemongrass chicken banh mi sandwich at $4.95. You’ll pay more here than in the Lincoln neighborhood (Tacoma’s best for Vietnamese dining), but Kim Anh does superior sandwich construction. Built on a crunchy baguette, citrusy lemongrass permeated the chicken. The flavors were deepened by a splash of soy, fish sauce and caramelized onions. Finely-shredded carrots and widely-sliced cukes added crunch, sprigs of cilantro and jalapeno slices provided punch.
Splurge a little: Jammed to overflowing with shrimp, the $11.55 Vietnamese crepe is worth the price, and worth sharing. A doubled-over lacy-edged crepe was filled with snappy bean sprouts, a tray of lettuce and fresh herbs on the side.
Oriental Noodle and Grill
1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-565-1921, orientalnoodleandgrill.blogspot.com
Atmosphere: More bistro than in-and-out family-style Thai joint, Oriental Noodle and Grill sports a handsome dining room with dark, wooden tables dressed with linen napkins and substantial flatware. Muted lighting spotlights art on wood-clad walls.
Menu: Thai and other Southeastern Asian finds. High-quality ingredients were a fair trade for higher menu prices than other restaurants featured here.
Takeout find: Take-out containers with tight-fitting snap-on lids made soupy dishes, such as curry, easy to transport.
For a first visit: Green curry with beef ($9.95) came punched with heat and laden with peppers, eggplant and plenty of basil. Try the rama with pork ($9.95), a substantial serving of still snappy spinach with a thick rama sauce. Basil chicken ($10.95) was stewed in a garlicky sauce, topped with fried basil leaves.
Super soup: Spicy prawn soup with a pungent chili-flecked broth ($9.95).
Beware of upcharges: Rice for $1.50. Look out.
I Love Bento
1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-460-0675
Atmosphere: A quirky find. The dining room merges the atmosphere of a diner, an ice cream parlor and a Japanese tea house. Private tatami rooms line the back; rice paper screens at the front shield diners from exterior traffic. You may have to find your own seat if a server is not on the floor. Service can be slow; phone your order ahead.
Nice touches: If dining in, a warm cleansing towel begins your meal. An ice-cold sectioned orange tucked into a hollowed orange peel finishes your meal.
Menu: Broad mix of Japanese items with Korean flourishes: bento combination plates, sushi, donburi bowls, bibimbap, udon soup, yakisoba, katsu and teriyaki.
Splurge a little: Extra care is given to maki sushi rolls, with well-tended additions of radish sprouts and tobiko, plates decorated with squiggles of wasabi. A tightly wound spider roll ($9.99) held fried crab with a katsu-like breading; tempura shrimp ($8.50) tasted sweet and delicious.
Bento: Combos small and large. The chicken teriyaki Combo A ($11.99) is worth sharing, with tempura, a four-piece California roll and sizeable portion of teriyaki. The meal came with an assortment of Korean-style banchan, including soy-teased bean threads, seasoned spinach and pickled daikon.
Great finds: Tempura bento ($7.99) with salad and soup, served with lots of battered vegetables and shrimp. A katsu donburi bowl ($9.99) was an exceptionally delicious bowl of rice mixed with seasoned vegetables and breaded pork katsu.
Skip: Nabe yaki udon fish cake soup ($9.99), which is premium priced, but with a too-briny broth.
Bonus restaurant: Taqueria El Sabor
1636 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-565-0501
Atmosphere: Ignore the jarring fluorescent painting on the windows advertising the specials of the moment. This little restaurant isn’t much to look at, but it’s tidy and outfitted with a drive-through.
Menu: Affordable and portable taqueria eats such as tacos, burritos, grilled meat plates, salads and soups.
Great find: A serve-yourself salsa bar with a half dozen freebie condiments, and help-yourself tortilla chips. Plates are finished with grilled onions and jalapenos.
Splurge a little: At $9.99, the carne asada is the highest-priced menu item, but it is an abundant plate of tender steak, with rice and beans.
For a first visit: Try the torta sandwich ($5.24, with avocado) with carnitas, which were crispy. The sandwich was finished with a healthy swipe of mayo, sliced jalapenos, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. A chipotle burrito with adobada ($5.49) was light on chipotle, heavy on ingredients. Pork chile verde ($7.99) came in an impressive portion for the price.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.
More stories in my strip mall series:
August 2012 - a visit to Tacoma Szechuan, Ikonos Real Greek Souvlaki and Ayothaya.
October 2011 – a visit to Cham Garden Korean BBQ, Long Beach Cafe and Mitapeap.
January 2011 – a hidden gem in a long stretch of a strip mall, Flying Fish in Westgate
YOUR TURN: Tell me about your favorite strip-mall eatery.