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Between the tracks

Dining options at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square

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The weather outside, although not exactly frightful, wasn’t all that inviting either. I was wet, a little cold and very hungry. But once I got inside, I knew I wanted to take my time before I chose how I would satisfy my hunger. For the moment, it was enough to sit in the warm and dry common area of Freighthouse Square’s International Food Court and decide whether I wanted to eat Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese, German, Greek — or maybe take the plunge into sushi.

Freighthouse Square, which originally served as the western freight terminus for the Milwaukee Railroad, is a restored antique industrial building that has housed a mix of shopping, dining, office and gallery spaces covering some three city blocks since the 1980s. And it remains an inviting, sprawling and refreshingly eclectic destination for shoppers and diners alike.

The mix of eateries at Freighthouse Square, although always international in nature, has changed over the years. But there are signs of constancy as well. Wendy’s Vietnamese food concession, which has served MSG-free food since before it became fashionable, has been there since the beginning.

“It was slow at first,” recalls Wendy’s owner, Douglas (husband of Wendy) Au, of the early days at Freighthouse Square. But the trade has steadily built for Wendy’s.

There are other perennials, too, set among the relative newcomers at the food court. Paya Thai Fish and Chips, for example, has been serving patrons near the court’s center since the early 1990s.

“Our lunches keep us alive,” says owner Teresa Samalee. “And Dome events are a big bonus.”

Samalee also credits some of the changes in traffic flow, specifically rail traffic, that have come to the Freighthouse Square environs in recent years. Although the days of the Milwaukee Road’s freight business have long since faded from memory, rail traffic has been increasingly active around the old freighthouse. Now described as a “multi-mode transportation hub,” FHS is the point-of-origin for Tacoma’s light rail system, which links the Freighthouse Square District with destinations in the Museum District and downtown. Another neighborhood resident is the new Tacoma Dome Station — the Tacoma terminus of the Sounder Commuter Rail train. And finally, the freighthouse now houses the Washington Dinner Train office with boarding for dinner/murder mystery excursions just west of FHS across East “D.” Street.

Because of the increased traffic surrounding Freighthouse Square, the common seating at the International Food Court seems fuller than ever. So diners at the various concessions mix freely — and servers from the component restaurants somehow seem to find their customers as they work their way among the densely clustered tables and chairs carrying food trays and condiments. A few restaurants, Santa Fe Mexican Grill, for example, have separate seating set off from the main concourse, adding a measure of privacy to the FHS dining experience.

But how to choose from among the variety of cuisines available at the International Food Court (or down the corridors leading from the restaurant section and hidden among the main hallway shops)? The choices include Gratzi, an Italian-style bistro and the Mediterranean Palace (which serves gyros, kabobs and salads), as well as a sushi bar, an Asian barbecue restaurant, a traditional burger house, and even a Subway concession — more than a dozen restaurants in all.

But on that particular rainy afternoon, I decided not to rush my decision. I just sat for a while, waiting for my clothes to dry, and for the rich aromas drifting across the court from every direction to find and seduce me.

[Freighthouse Square, 2501 East “D.” St. Free parking along South 25th Street and at Tacoma Dome Station.]

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