I was just in Tacoma, Washington, the forgotten city south of Seattle, for a quick trip. As I meandered through the lovely old neighborhoods, I asked myself why everyone isn’t clamoring to live in this jewel of a city. The views of Commencement Bay and Mount Rainier are incredible, the neighborhoods and downtown vintagely beautiful, and as two recent meals suggest, the food is over the top delicate and delicious.
At Hilltop Kitchen, owners Chris Keil and Matthew Schweitzer serve up Latin American cocktails and food that has echoes of the same region. But saying this doesn’t mean much until you’ve sat down in front of, say, their sea green, Lost Steps cocktail, garnished with a curl of cucumber. Based on cachaca, (fermented sugar cane juice), it is a gingery , limey, basiley blast of brightness in a glass. Another drink, Have Mercy, includes their home-infused Tequila, vanilla and peach flavors, and chili-based Hellfire bitters. What makes these house-tailored cocktails addictive (it’s hard to drink just one) is their jolt of exciting flavors that are enhanced, not overwhelmed, with alcohol.
The food is even better. The Street Corn (Deconstructed) is toasted corn kernels richly flavored with adobo, queso fresco, cilantro and chili powder, garnished with a scallop of avocado and buttermilk cream. It’s a plate intended to share, but no one really wants to. The menu offers tacos that are small, corn tortillas which are absolutely traditional. Little, though, about the fillings is. My favorites were the barbacoa lamb with cotija, mango mustard and cilantro, and the pork cheeks with grilled pineapple and cilantro. I wanted to try the cauliflower and buttermilk/chive aioli tacos, and those filled with mushrooms and sea bean chimichurri, but as so often happens – So much to taste, so little time.
We had brunch at Dirty Oscar’s Annex, (DOA), and didn’t think to try their “home crafted” cocktails there because of the early hour, but noted them for next time.We did, however, plunge into their New American versions of classics. Eggs were omnipresent: on the lusciously peppery biscuits & gravy; the braised elk hash rich with strips of tender meat and red bell peppers and onions, and the cinnamon rolls and crisp maple bacon, all surrounded by crisp potatoes, a simple, American wonder. The North End Omelette was made with egg whites, which were so pretty, and loaded with sausage, apples, arugula. I wanted to try the Dead Elvis French Toast, which features vanilla custard, banana puree, and peanut butter and can include eggs, but will also have to save that pleasure for another time.
Both restaurants bill themselves as neighborhood cafes (though DOA adds that it is also a Moonshine Bar), and this is the feel they cultivate. The drinks and food, though, make them quite a bit more. And they are just a small part of what’s happening – food wise – in Tacoma.
Hilltop Kitchen, 913 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, WA 98405. Tel: +1 (253) 327-1397
Dirty Oscars Annex, 2309 Sixth Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98403. Tel: +1 (253) 572-0588