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Best of Tacoma 2014 Staff Picks: Food and Drink

We chose The Red Hot, Boathouse 19, Smoke + Cedar, Chef Hudson Slater, BITE, Little Jerry's and others ...

BEST COFFEE: Valhalla Coffee pours the tastiest brews, according to Weekly Volcano readers. Photo credit: Jason Ganwich

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Smoke + Cedar

Perhaps you see cauliflower on the menu and instantly get flashbacks. It's the 1980s. Your mother has boiled up some of the vile white vegetable and you have to eat it before you can get back to your paused Super Mario Bros. game. Bowser awaits. Children starve in Africa on your behalf for your refusal. Forget all you've ever known about cauliflower. Smoke + Cedar has taken cauliflower to a whole new level. Gone are the days of boring boiled cauli. Enter the new era. The Crispy Buffalo Cauliflower era. Even if you don't think you like this particular veggie, you're wrong! Once doused in sriracha buffalo sauce and given a quick fry in some sort of delightful batter (hence the crispy), cauliflower gets a new lease on life. Add in Greek Yogurt Ranch Sauce and you'll get a new lease on life, too. It's that good. And it's practically health food, FTW. 2013 S. Cedar, Tacoma - Kristin Kendle


Boathouse 19

Boathouse 19's house made roumalade is utterly divine. Especially gratuitously and evenly spread upon grilled ciabatta stuffed with meaty shrimp in a N'Awlin's Po'boy and maybe even more so alongside your fries and anything else Boathouse 19 deems worthy of its presence. This mayo-based concoction is a zesty, spicy potion of delicious. When I inquired what produced this pop of zest, whisper of smoky, kick of heat, I was told there were so many ingredients they couldn't begin to recite them without recipe in hand but it included cayenne pepper, paprika, green onions and celery. Whatever is in there this Creole inspired sauce could be sold by the gallon and I'd dress every dish in it. 9001 S. 19th St. - Jackie Fender


El Gaucho

El Gaucho has held a tight rein on best service in Pierce County. At this point, it's not as though this fine-dining treat needs some of?cial stamp of approval. But that's precisely because its popularity remains richly deserved - thanks not least to a waitstaff that's every bit as gifted in its bailiwick as the chefs are in theirs. From the hostesses to the bartenders to the servers, everyone strikes that crucial balance between fuss-free formality and agreeability rather than familiarity. 2119 Pacific Ave., Tacoma - Ron Swarner


Engine House No. 9

Every restaurant has a theme these days, and most of them are completely uninspired. The average theme restaurant takes what is best described as the Britney Spears approach. It works thusly - take some cheap, marginally palatable meat; overlay it with a thin, heavily market-tested veneer; and market the s--- out of it.

Good theme restaurants, on the other hand, begin with gritty reality and build from there. The best example of this wise approach can be found just off Sixth Avenue at Engine House No. 9. Built in 1907 and placed on the National Historical Register in 1975, the facility containing E9 is gorgeous, exploiting natural features and authentic history to create a fantastic experience. There is none of the kitschy, faux minimalism that characterizes upscale theme eateries, and none of the desperate, chaotic weirdness of those catering to folks looking for something affordable (seriously, enough with the quirky antiques already). Add a new menu, brews from an award-winning, in-house brewery, and a gorgeous bar, and you have a theme that wins awards. 611 N. Pine St., Tacoma - Paul Schrag

>>> BEST DOUGHNUTS: Legendary Doughnuts has a doughnut for that, according to Weekly Volcano readers. Photo credit: Jason Ganwich


Off Menu at The Red Hot

Little-known secret at Tacoma's favorite hot dog joint extraordinaire-you can go off menu! While the menu dogs offer awesome flavor combos designed to please, sometimes one's flavor palate must expand beyond the confines of the menu, and the Red Hot folks are cool with it so long as they actually have the stuff to create your dog of choice. Best option that might not sound great, but is amazing? The hot dog or brat of your choice with cream cheese and jalapenos. Fight the feeling that cream cheese doesn't belong on a dog ‘cause it so does. - KK



Trying to fit a sit-down lunch experience into an hour lunch break can be tricky, if tricky is defined as damn near impossible without excessive rushing of the chow. But if you know the right dish to order, suddenly it becomes possible to enjoy both a sit-down experience and a pleasantly paced lunch. The right dish is ... (drum roll here) ... the Daily Soup and half Sandwich from BITE, which is located in the ever-lovely Hotel Murano on Broadway. For $10, you get a half "sandwich of the moment," a cup of soup, and a side salad. Granted, you must be open to whatever the sandwich of the moment is, but the order is almost always delivered to your table within minutes. Disclaimer: This experience is only possible if you work within a quick drive or walk of BITE. If you work a half hour away, this experience will not work for you and that is not our problem. 1320 Broadway, Tacoma - KK


Metropolitan Market

Oddly, my most memorable picnics have been impromptu, often indoor gatherings. Once, sitting on a friend's bedroom floor, listening to a double LP of Vincent Price's musings on all things mysterious, I nibbled from a tin platter rippling with lovely cheeses, crackers, thick slices of herring, blood oranges and tiny plastic spiders. Makeshift meals like that one have taught me that a picnic is made by spontaneity and friends, and if you try to find the perfect spot in the wilderness, ants will mock your impudence. Gucci-style grocer Metropolitan Market has all your picnic needs: fruit, bread, meats, wine, dessert and 10,000 cheeses.  They even carry the baskets and linen. (Insert Vincent Price laugh, although I don't know why.) 2420 N. Proctor, Tacoma - RS


Hilltop Kitchen

It's no secret that the Hilltop Kitchen team is among some of the most talented when it comes to concocting boozy, flavorful adventures that beg for happy hour, or any hour imbibing. I'm a believer that the true testament to one's booze slinging prowess is how well they can mix some of the classics. Admiring bourbon, the Old Fashioned is a MUST. It's a simple cocktail that is so often ruined. Hilltop Kitchen uses some sort of witchcraft and sleight of hand building a perfect Old Fashioned that goes down smooth like date nights with candlelit, smoke filled rooms with a bluesy songstress crooning in the background and far too easy to sip on one after the other and then maybe another. Well you get the idea. 913 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma - JF


Mad Hat Tea Company

Mad Hat Tea Company is an enchanting little hole in the wall place, tucked into one of the delightful nooks and crannies of downtown Tacoma. And while they have an awesome online shop, the Tacoma goodness really pops with an in-person visit.  Quietly slip through the front door to disappear and to sip, savor and just hang out and relax with a wildly-good, super-colossal variety of teas. Mad Hat has more than 250 teas, botanicals and herbal remedies in its midst while doing the whole fair trade, organic, sustainably produced thing.  Coffee? Meh. Here's the real kicker though: Mad Hat is EVERYWHERE. We are not kidding. Featured in tons of local eateries and incredible local shops, Mad Hat is the coveted real deal.  Better: it's the secret (and no-so-secret) ingredient in some delicious eats and drinks such as local made smoothies and ice cream. Yes. 1130 Commerce, Tacoma - Kim Thompson


Little Jerry's

You don't have to be a Seinfeld lover to love you some Little Jerry's in Tacoma. This intimate joint serves up breakfast and lunch greasy spoon specials such as biscuits and gravy and burgers with a twist such as funky monikers that only fans of the sitcom will understand. But I digress, because whether you know who or what they are naming their grub worthy diner dish after you won't walk away disappointed. Little Jerry's "Kramerica" is a hearty way to start your morning featuring a fluffy biscuit topped with a mountain of bacon and poached egg just swimming in hollandaise sauce. Oh yea, and there's veggies in there, too - thickly sliced fresh tomato and aromatic basil leaves. That signature funky jingle or Elaine's dance moves will be stuck in your head in no time. 8233 S. Park Ave., Tacoma - JF


STINK - Cheese and Meat

STINK - Cheese and Meat isn't just the world's go-to spot for gourmet toasted cheese sandwiches, paired wine and served by people cooler than I'll ever be. It also happens to be the spot to grab a bottle (or four) for your impressive meal. Owner Kris Blondin has a knack for suggesting food and wine combinations that can make a single-course, simple meal shine like a diamond solitaire or that can make a multicourse, full-day meal build like a symphonic crescendo. No, really. Her knack for making fabulous recommendations even goes so far as to make me want to entertain more or, at least, to buy and consume more wine and awesome food. 628 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma - RS


Gordon Naccarato

The Weekly Volcano likes the idea of wrapping cheese-stuffed dates in crispy bacon, or topping a piece of all-American steer with arugula, reggiano and lemon. We love tiny little hamburgers that don't taste like they were recently wrapped in plastic. All of this creative cuisine can be found on the menu at Tacoma's Pacific Grill. The creation of Gordon Naccarato and crew, the menu at Pacific Grill consists mostly of steaks, chops and seafood. Sound standard? Think again. This guy has made food for Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Walters, Jane Fonda, and Yoko Ono and is still alive and thriving. Naccarato masterfully rendered balances of flavor, flair and minimal presentation to wow your taste buds pretty much every time. For those new to the area, try the meat candy, which consists of a rich cheese-stuffed date, wrapped in bacon and baked to perfection. Go there. Eat a few. But save room - everything else is just as good. 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma - PS


Fujiya Japanese Restaurant

"The answer may surprise you." Much as we love using that sentence, it simply doesn't apply at Fujiya. Pierce County's sushi scene has become plentiful, from fancy rooms to sports banging from televisions. Fujiya, the first in the area, holds to a tight tradition. No one does edible extras like Fujiya. For every few courses, it seems, there's a bonus round to ooh and aah over: pan-fired oysters; spicy tuna tempura, sunomono, udofu and on and on. Surprise, no; with a joke from the chefs, you bet. 1125 Court C, Tacoma - RS


Marlene's Market & Deli

Earth Day isn't a day that brings on great celebrations. Maybe, if you're the ambitious sort, you go plant some trees. Maybe you reuse that plastic bag just one more time - a little high-five to Mother Earth. But there are no fireworks, no barbeques, no special menus at restaurants or appliance sales. But stroll into Marlene's on South 38th Street on Earth Day and you may start to think Earth Day is just the best thing since sliced quinoa loaf. Most years, this little shop filled with all products natural and Earth-friendly has a free sample fair on or around Earth Day - generous samples at that! Try out locally roasted organic and fair trade coffee. Take home some tea bags to try. Nibble on new energy bars or gummy supplements. The options are endless and - most importantly - FREE! 2951 S. 38th St., Tacoma - KK


Smoke + Cedar

It has been said the most important meal of the day is breakfast and really I couldn't agree more except to add that brunch is better. Let's look at the tasty facts. Brunch extends breakfast-style dining well into the afternoon and permits day drinking with no judgment, heck this feature calls their brunch "boozy" when introducing it to the masses-zero judgment, dare I say they encourage it, even. Though our fine city has some stellar brunch joints, newcomer Smoke + Cedar is top dog in this scribes book. Flavorful entreés are elevated to the next level with embellishments such as Crown maple syrup and Nunya sauce. Partner this with their compelling mimosa options or wicked smoky Mary and you have early morning, er, afternoon meal time matrimony bliss. 2013 S. Cedar, Tacoma - JF


Harbor Lights

Death. That's what they pour at Harbor Lights. It's been written a thousand times, but still holds true, even after their schmancy-fancy remodel. The tiny bar still can get you hammered in the shortest amount of time. The old saw about "adding just enough Coke for color" is more like a modus operandi here. It's all about drinking at Harbor Lights as far as I'm concerned, and there are too few bars in the world that are focused as simply - and as perfectly - on that wonderful activity. 2761 Ruston Way, Tacoma - RS



With the aid of modern technology everyone's a food critic/connoisseur. Yelp and the blog-o-sphere play as platforms for those who want to throw their two cents in, while Instagram is flooded with hashtag foodporn, hashtag tacomafood, hashtag omnomnomnom alongside stylized dishes. As an admirer of a well-crafted cocktail or culinary creation, foodnik pics are among my favorite. If you love the same follow @chefhudsonslater, filtered photo home of Chef Hudson Slater of Maxwell's Restaurant and Lounge. He hashtags his way through lovely, fresh and undoubtedly delicious dishes to lure diners to their doors or simply tease what's being featured on upcoming seasonal or special dining event menus. - JF


El Zocalo's Bakery

With the popularity of Food Network's Man vs Food, it's no wonder that dining joints are making up impossible, if not comical food challenges. I don't buy into the whole gut buster challenge but there is one place serving up monstrous sized portions, without the crown - El Zocalo's Bakery on the East Side.  Their Delciousa Torta ($7.99) can fill up an army of hungry men. I recommend some sort of heavy cardio early in the day to justify the impressive level of caloric and carb intake required to indulge in this beast of a sandwich featuring steak, ham AND bacon accompanied by gooey Mexican mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, jalapenos and onion. Get flavor wasted. 701 S. 38th St., Tacoma. - JF

Other 2014 Best of Tacoma readers' poll winners and Weekly Volcano staff picks

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