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Off the radar: I hit a dining jackpot at a single strip mall in Tacoma

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Dec. 13, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
December 13, 2013 9:30 am
Thinh and Nghiep Nguyen, owners of Kim Anh, a restaurant in James Center on Mildred in Tacoma, hold egg noodle soup (left) and Kim Ahn's House Fried Rice. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Thinh and Nghiep Nguyen, owners of Kim Anh, a restaurant in James Center on Mildred in Tacoma, hold egg noodle soup (left) and Kim Ahn’s House Fried Rice. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

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

The lemongrass chicken banh mi at Kim Anh.
The lemongrass chicken banh mi at Kim Anh.

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

The spicy prawn soup at Oriental Noodle Grill.
The spicy prawn soup at Oriental Noodle Grill.

1620 S. Mildred St., Tacoma; 253-565-1921,
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.

The shrimp tempura and spider roll at I Love Bento.
The shrimp tempura and spider roll at I Love Bento.

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

At $9.99, the carne asada is the top priced item at Taqueria El Sabor.
At $9.99, the carne asada is the top priced item at 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.

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