Some people judge a year based on health or wealth. I judge mine based on how well I feasted.
In this column, take a tour of the best things I stuffed down my gullet in 2013. I’ve also got a recap of the neatest restaurant openings of 2013, and a look ahead to cool things coming in 2014.
(Note: Some menu prices and items might have changed during the year.)
Primo Grill, the Tacoma eatery broadly brushed with Mediterranean flavors, sealed itself as a favorite this year. Longtime Tacoma chef Charlie McManus and his wife, Jacqueline Plattner, opened Primo on Sixth Avenue in 1999 and made an announcement recently that the restaurant will move in 2014 (read more below). Over the course of several visits, I came to crave anything licked with flame from Primo’s wood-fired grill and oven. I feasted on fire-grilled shrimp ($22.50) atop a bed of spinach-threaded risotto and a beautiful medium-rare New York strip ($35.95) with a butter bath. 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma; 253-383-7000, primogrilltacoma.com.
Ammar’s Mediterranean Grill
Ammar and Sorada Mannaa have spent the past year expanding their restaurant footprint, which began in 1989 with the opening of Mediterranean Palace in Freighthouse Square. On the heels of opening Ammar’s Mediterranean Grill in late 2012, they bought Gig Harbor’s Ikonos Greek restaurant.
First-time diners at Ammar’s Mediterranean Grill must try Mannaa’s lamb gyros sandwich ($8.99), tinged with smoke and tucked into a griddled pita. Every vegetarian in town should try the falafel sandwich ($9.99). Creamy discs of spiced ground garbanzo beans were fried and split, fragrantly garlic against a punchy yogurt tzatziki sauce. 409 E. 26th St., Tacoma; 253-272-1047, palacemediterranean.com
Shake Shake Shake
In March, local artists Steve Naccarato and Robert Stocker opened Shake Shake Shake, their stylish retro burger diner in the Stadium district, a neighborhood that also saw the opening of Art House Cafe in 2013. Naccarato joined his brother Gordon Naccarato, owner of Tacoma’s Pacific Grill, to build a menu of roadside burgers that harken to yesteryear. One of my favorite burger moments of the year was digging into the hickory burger ($4.29), offering what every good burger should: a toasted bun, a griddled patty (cooked medium), diced onions, chopped iceberg lettuce, crinkle-cut dill pickle chips and a tangy barbecue sauce. Must-try shakes: Butterscotch-miso, the banana mocha malted and the signature Tiger shake, made with Almond Roca. 124 N. Tacoma Ave., Tacoma; 253-507-4060, shakeshakeshake.me
Lincoln District Vietnamese eateries
In my 2013 installment of 10-in-1, a series where I review 10 restaurants in a single neighborhood, I dropped into Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood, a district rich with Vietnamese restaurants. Two must-try restaurants in Lincoln: Vien Dong (3801 S. Yakima Ave., 253-472-6668) for a steaming bowl of pho, and Tho Tuong BBQ (715 S. 38th St., 253-474-2279) for slow-cooked pork, duck and chicken, served as a lunch plate with rice and pickled vegetables (cash only).
April brought the opening of a creperie, something sorely needed in Tacoma. Savor Creperie’s chef-owner Tom Vigue offers a dozen each of savory and sweet crepes. The vegetarian-friendly duo of pear and aged gouda ($8.50) zigzagged between sweet and savory; a scattering of fresh thyme turned the crepe earthy. The smoked salmon crepe reminded me of a Sunday morning bagel, layered with capers, red onions, chives and a smear of creamy boursin cheese ($12.50). 1916 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-365-5534, savorcreperie.com
My rib odyssey in the spring took me to six barbecue restaurants. My favorite of that tour was Uncle Thurm’s, a soul food restaurant in the Lincoln neighborhood. Licked with hickory, Thurmond Brokenbrough’s ribs were tender, but with a slight chewy resistance and a clingy sauce that held building heat and a backbone of molasses. The four-bone dinner ($15.95) was magical with corn bread and potato salad. 3709 S. G St., Tacoma; 253-475-1881, facebook.com/unclethurm
Marzano Italian Restaurant
The Parkland restaurant Marzano this year celebrated a quarter century of producing rustic Italian fare brushed with Northwest flavors. Elisa Marzano opened the tiny restaurant in 1988 before moving to a larger space in 1993. A highlight of the menu is pasta, much of it housemade. Anything made with bolognese sauce or the house-made rigatoni is a must order. Boscaiola ($18) combined both – thick tubes of rigatoni swelled with the slow-cooked beefiness of the house bolognese, fortified in this dish with rosemary and cream. A late-spring dish of ravioli al dragoncello ($19) showcased tiny purses of fresh pasta with ricotta and spring peas tinged with tarragon. 516 Garfield St.; Parkland, 253-537-4191, dinemarzano.com
In my Never Been series – a look at the region’s forgotten or overlooked restaurants – I delved into three Italian restaurants with deep history in South Sound. Of the three reviewed, Pizza Casa was my favorite. Dan Harris’ family opened Pizza Casa in 1958 and not much has changed other than menu prices. The most popular menu item is the meat sauce, a nutmeg-nudged sauce cooked for eight hours, then cured for a few days before serving. Spaghetti with meat sauce ($12.25) should be eaten with a side of meatballs ($2.65), velvety and tasty from the one-two pow of pork and beef. 12924 Pacific Highway SW, Lakewood; 253-588-8135, pizzacasa.com
* I was an instant fan of the smoke-kissed pizza of Paesan, which opened in June on the Foss Waterway and is the sibling restaurant to Social, situated steps away. 1701 Dock St., Tacoma, 253-301-3835.
* This year saw the opening of Gangnam BBQ, a stellar destination for Korean tabletop barbecue and a worthy addition to Lakewood’s Korean dining district. 9104 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-1200, gangnambbq.net.
* Latin merged with soul food became the basis for Soul, a new restaurant that opened in an upstairs space in the Proctor neighborhood. The restaurant got a shaky start, but recent visits found more polished experiences (look for a review in January). 2717 N. Proctor St., Tacoma, 253-761-7685
Big nods for high-style restaurants
This year brought two stylish and highly anticipated restaurants to Tacoma: Shake Shake Shake in the Stadium neighborhood and Hilltop Kitchen in the Hilltop neighborhood. I’m giving an extra nod to these two restaurants for their beautiful interiors and their polished concepts.
Shake Shake Shake is an example of what happens when two artists – Steve Naccarato and Robert Stocker – open a restaurant. On display through oversized windows is a striking palette of aqua set against electric orange. The funky dining chairs look right out of a bowling alley — because they are. In a former life, they lined the lanes at the Old Elks Club bowling alley.
Up the hill, diners will find Hilltop Kitchen, a restaurant and cocktail den from Chris Keil, who built a national reputation for his housemade tinctures, unusual spirits and stylized brand of apothecary cocktailing at Tacoma’s 1022 South (now called 1022 South J).
Hilltop Kitchen feels more cavernous than it is. The long, narrow room still carries the bones of its predecessor Tempest Lounge, but strikes a more modern pose with exposed ceilings and hanging fixtures sprouting exposed bulbs. 913 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Tacoma, hilltopkitchen.com
Big restaurant announcements
The last quarter of 2013 brought two announcements that will mean great news for dining in 2014.
Gordon Naccarato announced his plans for Smoke + Cedar, a restaurant he plans to open in early 2014 at the new Elks Lodge building at the Allenmore Golf Course (both open to the public). Much like Naccarato’s Pacific Grill, the restaurant will serve modern fare. Expect playful spins on classic American dishes. Naccarato specializes in food with a 1960s sensibility and 21st-century presentations.
Meanwhile, Primo Grill owners Charlie McManus and Jacqueline Plattner announced that they’ll be moving their Italian restaurant a few blocks away from their perch at Sixth and Pine. The new location is in a Sixth Avenue building that also houses their sibling establishment, Crown Bar. The new restaurant space will be more modern, but will still have the infrastructure that has made Primo Grill regionally famous: a wood-fired oven and grill.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.