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Senior moments

Turn on your left blinker and hit fancy food on the cheap

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The 1973 Buick Century parked outside my house is a relic, a dinosaur, a horse that has been put out to pasture. Last week that Buick was also my only form of transportation.

The Buick Century is, as it is appropriately named, an old person’s car. If you were to strip that car down to its skeletal framework or just open up the hood, you would see that at the heart of every ’70s Buick Century there is a pacemaker.

When my grandfather went out of town and asked if I’d watch his ’73 beauty, I decided to drive it for this piece on eating fancy food on the cheap. Climbing into my grandfather’s car was like adding 42 years of driving skills onto my 31-year-old body. The entire week I was a 73-year-old woman driving 45 mph in the fast lane of Interstate 5 with my left turn signal flashing the entire way.

My dining companion, Amanda, wasn’t immune to the wily ways of that Buick Century. She sat in back shouting warnings such as, “You’re driving way too fast,” “Keep your eyes on the road!” and “Oh, great. Now we’re lost.”

So, in keeping with the situation, we focused our dining visits during senior dining hours — 4-6 p.m., which just so happens to be happy hour. Tacoma’s finer dining establishments discount their gourmet food during these hours. Prices below reflect the happy hour discounts.

Pacific Grill

The Buick’s first stop was at the Tacoma king of bar food — Pacific Grill.
Gordon Naccarato, the incurably inventive owner/chef at this fine establishment, defines successful bar food as serious yet fun.

“I think a great bar menu includes great snacks, sandwiches, small plates and so on that are not full meals but are fun to eat and, of course, delicious,” Naccarato explains. “I also like a lot of choices. When most people are drinking they want messy, gooey, cheesy, crispy, spicy, salty, anything to put something in their belly to preemptively ward off the inevitable hangover ... or to maintain their drinking so they don't get drunk too fast.

“I can be just as happy at the Ram eating their ginormous appetizer platter with its huge variety of decent bar food as I am at Licorous on Capitol Hill eating one or two of award-winning Chef John Sundstrom's exquisite ‘foodie’ bites.”

According to Naccarato, just as a great bar has to be serious about its drinks, a great bar menu needs to be serious about food. Basically, if you’re going to do a burger slider make it the best slider you've ever tasted.

“Right now we have a seriously fun and delicious Reuben slider ($5.75) that my chef, Ian Thompson, came up with. First, our pastry chef, Erin Powell, makes a homemade pretzel roll the size of a slider that we go to the trouble of griddling; Ian corns our own beef for 11 days before we braise it in bourbon. Sliced very thin, we melt cave-aged Gruyere cheese over it and make our own thousand island dressing.”

Pacific Grill reduces its well-priced bar menu during its happy hour 2-6 p.m. Monday-Friday (as well as 9 p.m. to close and 5-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close on Saturdays), knocking off 50 percent.

In terms of value, the Reuben slider — which takes them almost two weeks to make — is certainly a good value. The cheeseburger slider ($5.50) is a quarter-pound of ground sirloin with skinny French fries that have olive oil-poached garlic cloves and are showered with crispy fresh sage and rosemary. The oyster shooters ($1.25 each) are made with Stolichnaya Citrus vodka. And the huge bowl of Pasta Arrabiata for $6.48 made with extra-virgin olive oil and imported San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and grilled La Brea Bakery bread is a steal.
Our favorite Pacific Grill gourmet snacks include the roasted dates and reggiano wrapped in apple-smoked bacon “meat candy” ($3); the spicy Asian baby back ribs decorated with sesame seeds ($6.50); “World’s Best” salami sandwich ($4.25) featuring truffled goat cheese, arugula, shaved reggiano, lemon and extra-virgin olive oil on sliced baguette; and grilled Kobe hot dog sliders ($3).

El Gaucho
Back to my Buick influenced excursion. Inside El Gaucho Amanda and I complained about everything from the neighbor kids traipsing across my lawn to the fact that The Golden Girls eventually got canceled. There were no complaints lodged against the inexpensive food bartender Silvia Tapia suggested. Most El Gaucho menu items require a loan from the AARP.

However, the exquisite downtown restaurant offers a “Power Hour” from 4 p.m. to close Monday and 4-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close Tuesday-Friday, knocking half off its appetizers. Added this summer, the delicious slow-cooked pulled pork sliders came with barbecue sauce and massive tomato slices served on flour-dusted rolls with coleslaw on the side. The penne pasta coastal cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese ($6) bubbled in a large bowl for maybe five minutes before we polished it off. The prized, caramel-like flavor of the English coastal cheese put it above the ilk. Last, the tenderloin diablo ($8) secured its heat via El Gaucho’s own Cajun spice product. Twenty or so steak bites swam in a creamy, spicy sauce. The tenderloin grabbed first place during our tasting.

Other inexpensive appetizers during Power Hour: tomato, mozzarella and basil salad; tuna tartare; crab cakes; wicked shrimp and chicken; and baby back ribs.
Stuffed, I went home, turned on Matlock and took a nap.

Stanley & Seafort’s

Not showing any signs of a slumping economy, Stanley & Seafort’s Steal, Chop & Fish House packed them in last Friday. A third of the diners were of my pretend age — the bar far younger. Stanley’s also knocks half off its worthy appetizers during happy hour, which is 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close Sunday-Friday. Although I think it’s a waste to ground Kobe beef into meatloaf, Stanley’s Kobe meatloaf sliders ($4) put slider inventor White Castle to shame. The Kobe disappears into a blend of olive mayo, sweet hot mustard, jalapeño stuffed olives, and bacon for gourmet gratification. A stick stabs grilled jumbo scallops wrapped in house smoked salmon for a bon vivant’s lollipops ($8).

Other inexpensive appetizers during happy hour: warm brie with macadamia nut crust; Bering Sea red king crab cakes; teriyaki tenderloin; and Pacific tiger prawn cocktail.

Lobster Shop

Fine dining doesn’t have to be pricey, especially if you’re willing to break routine by beating the dinner crowd. The Lobster Shop on Ruston Way serves a Twilight Menu from 4:30-6 p.m. every day. The new menu presents delectable meal options of a slightly smaller size and lower cost — two courses for $14.99 and three courses for $16.99. Choose from 10 dishes including Atlantic salmon (three ways), potato crusted cod, Pacific swordfish, and tempura prawns. An extra $2 lands you a flat iron steak, which the server will ask you to slice open to inspect. And an extra $3 buys you prime rib. On the average, a third of the Twilight crowd has the potential of falling asleep in their soup or salad option — which is always exciting.

Other Great Values

Il Trattoria di Merende serves small bites of its meat and pasta dishes priced more than $20. The small bites — ranging from $5-$9 — include such delicious items as caramelized onion and goat cheese tart, tomato-basil risotto, sautéed calamari calabrese, and garlic seared white prawns.

C.I. Shenanigan’s on Ruston Way offers a two-for-one happy hour deal 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday (and 9 p.m. to close Monday-Sunday). Therefore, you’re shelling out $9 to $12 for chicken nachos, king crab quesadilla, kalibi beef yakisoba, steamer clams, herbed calamari but receiving twice as much. Shenanigan’s also serves a $9 ahi poke appetizer that’s not on the happy hour menu.

Special note to my grandfather: For the love of God, please come get your car. I want to act my age, not yours.

Pacific Grill
1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.722.1490

El Gaucho
2119 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.882.0009

Stanley & Seafort’s
115 E. 34th St., Tacoma, 253.473.7300

Lobster Shop
4015 Ruston Way, Tacoma, 253.759.2165

il Trattoria di Merende
813 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.722.1993

C.I. Shenanigan’s
3017 Ruston Way, Tacoma, 253.752.8811

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