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Best of Tacoma 2009: Food and Drink

Readers pick Merende, Bob's Java Jive and more; plus our picks

Merende: Chef Jeff Bishop and Ian Lombardi, owner of Merende, offer good service and fine food. Photo by J.M. Simpson

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Readers’ pick Merende best new restaurant

Il Trattoria di Merende invites you to slow down, take small bites, and enjoy every one of them.

Merende is an Italian tradition of eating small meals in between lunch and dinner; the word literally translates as small bites. These smaller meals are generally comprised of fresh local fare, and served with tasty bread torn from the loaf.

A proponent of the so-called slow food movement, Merende is a vanguard in an effort designed to counter our tendency to eat processed crap. The slow food movement has its origins in the 1980s in Italy.  When McDonald’s planned to build a franchise outlet near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986, chef Carlo Petrini organized a demonstration in which he and his followers brandished bowls of penne as weapons of protest.  Their demonstration was successful and soon after, Carlo founded the International Slow Food Movement, which runs counter to fast food, fast lives, non-sustainable food production and the eroding of local economies.

The slow food movement is gaining momentum in the United States with the help of restaurants just like Merende, which offers small meals meant to be shared and enjoyed among friends, rather than wolfed down at whatever rate our hectic schedules will allow.

One of the key tenets of slow food is the belief in the right to pleasure.  The Slow Food Manifesto declares that:

“A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life. We have lost many of the traditional and artisan recipes that create the pleasures of dining socially.”

The slow food movement, and restaurants joining in, envision a new agricultural system that respects local cultural identities, the earth’s resources, sustainable animal husbandry, and the health of individual consumers.

Truly gratifying food is exactly what you’ll find at Merende, generally at truly gratifying prices. A char grilled Portabella mushroom sandwich, with herb and garlic roasted mushroom, smoked mozzarella, arugula, tomato, thin sliced red onion, roasted garlic aioli on toasted ciabatta roll runs an easy-to-swallow $10. You’ll also find wonderful pizzas, pasta, cheese plates, salads and soups that will challenge every assumption you’ve made about what constitutes good food. Chef Jeff Bishop clearly takes pride in his work, and compliments available meals with a full bar, plenty of cocktail offerings, and an extensive wine list. Slow down, Tacoma. Bring some friends. Remember what real food tastes like. — Paul Schrag
[Merende, 813 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, 253.722.1993]

Readers’ pick Bob’s Java Jive best dive

God bless Bob’s Java Jive. Seriously.

Perhaps the same can be said of other places, but in Tacoma — true to our linage and history — things can become famous (even “world famous”) by being kind of crappy. It’s a beautiful thing.

For this reason, it didn’t come as much surprise when the World Famous Bob’s Java Jive emerged victorious as “Best Dive Bar in Tacoma” in our 2009 Readers’ Poll. Never has a truer vote been taken.

Oh, and it’s not just the PBR. It’s not just Dave behind the bar. It’s not just the legendary karaoke. It’s not just stories about monkeys and Granny Go–Go, and it’s not just the fact all of this is packaged in a building shaped like a coffee pot. It’s not just the fact that Nirvana played there back in the day, and it’s not just the fact that despite a sub par sound system the concrete fixture on South Tacoma Way still plays home to some of Tacoma’s best shows.

It’s all of this. It’s the history. It’s the legend.

It’s Bob’s Java Jive — 2009’s Best Dive Bar. It’s a T-town fixture that, as much as anything, epitomizes this town we call home.

“It’s a total piece of shiy, but that’s what I like,” Lozen’s Justine Valdez tells me when I ask her what her favorite venue in Tacoma is. Naturally, she’s speaking of the Jive.

It’s a sentiment people share. The evidence is blatant. Why else would people continually venture to an otherwise industrial and vacant spot on South Tacoma Way just to drink crappy beer? Why else would bands from far and wide, from Tacoma and beyond, keep coming back even though they know the sound is going to be mediocre and the bassist won’t be able to fit on stage?  Why else would people still care about a place and a building that, truth be told, is a cramped relic of the past.

Because it’s the Jive. And the Jive is Tacoma. If Seattle is a martini bar and Portland is McMenamin’s joint, Tacoma is a crusty coffee pot with Miller High Life on tap and a bucket of stale licorice on the bar.

“We want to keep the doors open to everybody. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive,” the Java Jive’s main musical booker, Darren Sampson once told me.

At Bob’s Java Jive, much like the town it calls home, this isn’t difficult. — Matt Driscoll
[Bob’s Java Jive, 2102 S Tacoma Way, Tacoma, 253.475.9843]


BEST SCONES: Corina Bakery
BEST CUP OF COFFEE: Satellite Coffee (RIP Blackwater)
BEST NACHOS: Matador at happy hour
BEST BUFFET: Gateway to India
BEST NEW RESTAURANT: Merende (see article above)
BEST PIZZA: Puget Sound Pizza
BEST ICE CREAM: Cold Stone Creamery
BEST SOUP: Infinite Soups
BEST LOAF OF BREAD: Corina  Bakery
BEST CATERING: Pacific Grill
BEST WINE BAR: Cork (close runners up Vinum and Pour at Four)
BEST TAQUERIA: Vuelve a la Vida
BEST BRUNCH: Shenanigan’s and Shakabrah in a tie (how’s that for diversity?)
BEST DIVE BAR: Bob’s Java Jive (see article on page 7)
BEST BLOODY MARY: Hob Nob Restaurant and Lounge
BEST HAPPY HOUR: Pacific Grill


Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich
A grilled cheese sandwich can go terribly wrong. Experimenting with the classic formula, in this arena, can turn an American classic into a toxic-tasting mouth mutant. And Jesus hates mouth mutants. Well, thank God for Deanna Bender, who still makes the best grilled cheese around. Go ahead and bitch if you disagree. Then go down to Over the Moon Café on Opera Alley and try wine—soaked sourdough oozing with Gruyere, grilled to perfection and served with marmalade. Don’t be confused by the name — Croutes de Fromage. It means bread and cheese. This is the grilled cheese of the future. Better recognize. — Paul Schrag
[Over the Moon Café, 709 Court C, Tacoma, 253.284.3722]

Best Place To Catch The Organic Train
Toot!  Toot!  C’mon and hop on that crazy train taking you to a healthy lifestyle and regular bowel movements.  Organic is what’s in, what’s hip, and what’s hot right now.  Buying local organic produce has never been sexier, and watching a man cook up quinoa has never gotten me more excited.  Marlene’s Market and Deli offers all humans looking to jump on the latest fad-wagon a way to do so in a respectable and all-inclusive way.  Fresh produce, bulk grains, vegan meals, wheatgrass shots, and herbal vitamins make anyone’s attempt to stop their inevitable aging process a little easier. — Steph DeRosa
[Marlene’s Market and Deli, 2951 S 38th St, Tacoma, 253.472.4080]

Best Fried Chicken
I love fried chicken. I love it. The Scottish immigrants who resided in the Deep South had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat. Later, the slaves who became cooks incorporated spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine. And it tasted like the truth. For me, there is no better example of this then at 2121 Tavern where you can get four-pieces of chicken, jo-jos, and two sides for $8.75. The chicken is crispy as hell, and the surroundings are typical for a bar in the Midland area. Be warned: Don’t order a Cosmo with your chicken.  The repercussions could result in your termination from a world that fries animals. Tasty animals. — Chuck Dula
[2121 Tavern, 2121 112th St E, Tacoma, 253.536.2100]

Best Place To Get High Legally
It’s not just about the tea. I mean, let’s be honest. If there were a category for Best Tea Shop, Mad Hat Tea Company would blow most places in Washington out of the water. But there’s one thing that makes Mad Hat really, really special — Maureen McHugh’s healing teas. But we don’t have a category for that either. We do have one for best place to get high legally, though, and Mad Hat is it. Go in and ask resident alchemist Tobin Ropes to make you some Kava, or some Kava Mate. Trust me, you’ll be really glad you did. — PS
[Mad Hat Tea Company, 1130 Commerce St, Tacoma, 253.441.2111]

Best Place To Dine Next To A Homeless Person
Alright, I guess that’d be the Tacoma Rescue Mission. But coming in a close second is the Antique Sandwich Co. The restaurant is lucky enough to have acquired a relatively small but eternally loyal gang of homeless men. This is less a dirty annoyance than a generous-hearted haven for those who don’t have many other places to go. They eat for free, but in a place that makes them feel like any other person. An employee wants me to emphasize that their homeless customers are “whimsical.” Agreed. And if they sometimes sleep in the bathroom, well, chalk it up to whimsy. — Adam McKinney
[The Antique Sandwich Co., 5102 N Pearl St, Tacoma, 253.752.4069]

Best Place To Find Edible Pig Uterus
On a good day you can find freshly butchered pig uterus located next to the chicken feet in the meat section of Tacoma’s East Asia Market.  Carefully displayed in a chilled meat cooler, all your exotic and non-traditional animal parts await you.  All you have to do is locate the packaged cow intestines and you’ve hit the domestically repulsive jackpot.  What’s considered perfectly acceptable food fare in earth’s most ancient countries can be found right here in Tacoma.  Hey, if you can drink the milk that comes out of a cow’s breast — why can’t you grub on its uterus, too? — SD
[East Asia Market, 602 S 38th St, Tacoma, 253.473.3799]

Best Place To Get S.O.S.
I defy you to come up with a more delicious meal with a more disgusting name. Affectionately called “s*** on a shingle,” you couldn’t have paid me to eat this if I hadn’t been weaned on its more P.C. name, “S.O.S.” Consisting of piping hot sausage gravy suffocating the hash browns beneath it, there’s no finer permutation of this dish than what they serve at the Old Milwaukee Café. It doesn’t hurt that the Old Milwaukee is just about the cutest breakfast place around these parts, with Patti and Chad being the nicest restaurant owners in town. — AM
[Old Milwaukee Café, 602 S 38th St, Tacoma, 253.473.3799]

Friendliest Chef
Ah, yes, superlatives for adults.  As if we were in high school again, here we are with our opinion of who is best, and who isn’t.  Gordon Nacarratto wins my vote (the only vote swayed by free drinks) as “Tacoma’s Friendliest Chef.” As an equal opportunity offender, I like to push the envelope and throw questions at people hoping they’ll squeal some gossip.  This doesn’t work on Pacific Grill’s owner/chef Gordon Nacarratto. He’s too nice.  The man won’t budge now, but I’ll get to him.  You can expect next year’s superlative to be “Tacoma’s Naughtiest Chef”.  Just wait and see. — SD
[Pacific Grill, 1502 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, 253.722.1490]

Best Eggs In 30 Seconds
Screw the whole chicken and egg debate. Wittgenstein dismissed that long ago. I want to know where I can get the fluffiest, purest, most delicious scrambled egg in the world in less than 30 seconds. There’s one place. Renaissance Café on Pacific Avenue, near the University Bookstore. Owner Keith Flowers has a technique that must have been inspired by some demiurge that really likes scrambled eggs. He whips them with an espresso steamer, and they come out perfect every time. It’s an innovative masterpiece. You’ll never want pan-scrambled eggs again. Go down and try some. — PS
[Renaissance Café, 1502 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, 253.722.1490]

Best Soups
Mmmm, gazpacho. Yes, the two locations of Infinite Soups (including the newest, inside Sanford & Son downtown) have many more selections than the spicy-cool gazpacho, but it’s just so much fun to say gazpacho. C’mon, everybody, gazpacho! Gazpacho! — Suzy Stump
[Infinite Soups, 445 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma, 253.274.0232]

Best Specialty Drinks
The secret, apparently, is out. If you want a one-of-a-kind cocktail creation, you’re heading to 1022 South on Hilltop. Inside the little literary-themed, straight out of the Bay Area, spot replacing The Monsoon Room, you’ll find bartenders Chris Langston and Corey Lund testing new concoctions incorporating goodies like Black Maple Hill bourbon, Barbbancourt 15 year rum, Marteau Absinthe, and green VEP Chartreuse into works of art. Well, we can’t name all their concoctions here. You’ll have to see, er, uh, taste them for yourself. Special shout out to bartender Dino at The Crown Bar for a close second. He has cornered the fresh, organic farmers market fruit and booze scene. — Jake de Paul
[1022 South, 1022 South J St., Tacoma, 253.627.8588]

Best Breakfast
This tiny Proctor District bistro owned by Chef William Mueller and wife, Shannon, is a perennial Best Of winner. Sure, you might have to wait for a table, but once inside, you’ll promise yourself to come back every Tuesday-Sunday for breakfast. Mueller incorporates intelligent portion control with nontraditional ingredients — no massive portions like Marcia’s Silver Spoon, but he’ll extract the juice out of a Chardonnay seed for a dish.  Enjoy chorizo sausage with a custard egg, cranberry walnut cream cheese stuffed French toast, strawberry banana waffle with an Amaretto glaze — even a true Paris bistro breakfast. Top it off with an organic Bistro Blend (Indonesian and Ethiopian) lavender latte. — JDP
[Babblin’ Babs Bistro, 2724 N. Proctor St., Tacoma, 253.761.9099]

Best Hall Of Fame Restaurant
Consistency and a peak level of culinary excellence are the hallmarks of this restaurant owned by Chef Charlie McManus and Jacqueline Plattner. They invented creative dining in Tacoma. The interior blends modern with Old World, even ancient, influences that welcome shorts or an Armani suit. The Mediterranean meets Northwest menu features appetizers such as local mussels (sometimes wood-fired as a special!), goat cheese stuffed paquilla peppers, top-notch wood-fired pizza that you can watch from the chef’s line, and entrées such as saffron seafood risotto and grilled flat iron steak with a horseradish aioli. But try to leave room for the rich rum tiramisu — yum! Even if you order just the spaghetti Bolognese and a Sidecar, your palate will be wowed. — JDP
[Primo Grill, 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma 253-383-7000

Most Romantic Restaurant
So your sweetie’s a bit crusty, a little romantically challenged, and you want to loosen him or her up. An Italian dinner in a quaint neighborhood is a dependable start, but Sixth Avenue’s maddening crowds tend to defeat the purpose. Except, that is, for the lucky couples who grab the window tables at Il Fiasco. Candlelight, opera-diva décor, smart wine list, outstanding pasta topped with a pile of shaved Parmesan-reggiano and the Ave. as your entertainment — what more could you and your softie-on-the-inside ask for? Well, Over The Moon Café and El Gaucho on different nights.— JDP
[Il Fiasco, 2717 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-6688]

Best Vietnamese
Vietnamese restaurants seem to come and go in our area, but the long-running Vien Dong is still on top. The Lincoln District mainstay serves high-quality Vietnamese fare while you watch server mayhem from rickety chairs. Meat, poultry and seafood dishes are liberally seasoned with a variety of Asian herbs and spices, including basil, mint, coriander, ginger, hot chili peppers, garlic and lemongrass. Favorite items include any soup and the red curry with prawns. Start with iced French pressed coffee with sweet condensed milk. — JDP
[Vien Dong, 3801 S. Yakima, Tacoma, 253.472.6668]

Best Hot Dog And Beer
What’s left to say about The Red Hot (that we don’t say every freakin’ day on our blog, Spew)? The best spot for the biggest variety of ultimate mystery meat presentations — damn straight. The best place to drink pitchers of unheard of beer on a boring Sunday afternoon. Not a question for debate. The best place to watch the game and get clipped by a piercing — true dat. Everyone knows all of this. If you want to be an urban legend, you’ll have to visit The Red Hot. Because if you haven’t been, you’re nobody. Well, nobody special, anyway. — JDP
[The Red Hot, 2914 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.779.0229]

Best Coffee
This year’s Best of Tacoma issue is bittersweet – for, amidst the celebration of all the good things Tacoma has to offer, we can’t help but be forced to remember the good things Tacoma lost over the last year. The Helm. Little Holland. And, of course, Blackwater Café – which was pretty much thee place to get coffee for Tacoma’s emerging hip - and those just looking for a really satisfying cup of Joe. But don’t cry for me Argentinean coffee farmers getting raped by greedy, international coffee conglomerates, luckily in Tacoma there’s still Satellite Coffee. Whether above Supernova in its original, tiny, Stadium District outpost (that now has a deck, yo!), or now at Masa, Satellite’s shot pulling experts whip Portland’s Stumptown beans into pure coffee heaven. Seriously. If you haven’t experienced it yet you don’t know what you’re missing. – Matt Driscoll
[Satellite Coffee, 817 Division Ave, Tacoma, 206.953.7773]
[Satellite Coffee at Masa, 2811 Sixth Ave, Tacoma,]

Best Bacon
Bacon, sweet bacon — the smoky, salty, fatty pork meat that makes my world go round. It's the centerpiece of breakfast, the stuffing for my lunchtime sandwich, the base of my dinner's soup and subsequently, the reason this baby has got so much so-called back. Pacific Grill’s lip-smacking Nueske's apple-smoked pig strips are the best. Another one of my favorites, the always crispy bacon at The Spar in Old Town, nipped at Pacific Grill’s tender heels - but came up just short. Puget Sound Pizza scored well, too. I smell a bacon crawl! — SS
[Pacific Grill, 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.722.1490]

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