Tacoma, it’s time. Our food writer discusses why area restaurants need a critical look
I tend to focus my work on the bright side of our local food community. Where larger publications may have a number of correspondents on the beat of food, with one or two specializing in restaurant criticism, I’m just one. I only have so much time, and I feel it best to offer the highlights, to encourage you to venture out to a random intersection in Puyallup for great tacos or to Lakewood for Korean donuts, and to praise the boundary-pushing (for a mid-sized city next to one of the country’s culinary beacons ) and friendly service where it shines.
But our region is changing and growing – look at all those cranes! – And with that comes both creativity and competition to swipe your credit card.
I never intended to avoid criticism entirely. When I arrived in Tacoma in December 2019, I had every intention of developing my voice as a writer and critic. I moved here sensing that the Tacoma area was on the cusp of a culinary transformation, and that many restaurants—particularly popular waterfront destinations—may have been resting on their laurels. (The Lobster Shop’s new owners are spending millions to update the space and the menu speaks to that premise.)
Then the pandemic threw my plan into disarray. Following my fellow food writers, I knew any harsh criticism would have to wait.
At some point last year, we turned a corner.
Most importantly, I should note that I’m not anonymous: I hosted a public panel discussion last fall, and I get to meet people I show up all the time because it allows me to tell stories I couldn’t tell otherwise. I can’t explain how the chef of The Red Hot cuts and dips a hearty Italian beef sandwich without even being in his kitchen. I cannot showcase the amazing work ethic of a Cambodian refugee who has been making cakes every day since 1985 without spending the morning at his bakery. When I visit restaurants as a customer, I never advertise myself (which for some reason people regularly ask me if I do). Even if I meet the owner or chef, it is rare for the staff to recognize me, and if they do, we have a mutual understanding that I am a paying customer who chose to be there.
The range of food media has deviated dramatically from her strict 20th century methods, and I think we’re all better for it. Food writers, no matter who defines themselves as critics, can publish recipes and travel stories as easily as they can uncover harassment scandals and farm-to-table myths. Perhaps most poignant is that I don’t want to build a box around what I can and can’t cover and how and why. I just want to point you in the direction of great food, unforgettable hospitality, unique experiences, and compelling stories about food and people. Sometimes I achieve this goal by sitting for an hour with someone in their place; In others, it means dinner at the bar with my partner on a regular Thursday.
To those who ask, I said my opinion of restaurants, especially new ones, speaks volumes about choosing to write about them at all.
So why did I take the time to review this young steakhouse if I thought it was missing something?
The answer is simple: the place is crowded night after night. Wake up one Friday morning and think, let’s book tonight or tomorrow? Cuerno Bravo is booked, at least until 9:30pm, you can try and get a seat at the bar, but even this is a shot in the dark.
It opened at a difficult time, and prepared to debut before the pandemic. It closed for several months and then got stuck due to limited capacity for more. Recruitment was very difficult, to say the least. But I’ve had several meals there, dropping hundreds of dollars, and each time I’ve been blown away by so much food, service, and execution. I came back because I felt I had to.
I could let many mishaps happen if the food was amazing. At best, it was inconsistent.
You deserve to know if one of the most popular restaurants in town, where two people will easily spend over $100 and a group of four over $250 with drinks, is worth squeezing. Likewise, restaurants like Cuerno Bravo deserve a chance to reflect, and for their apparent importance to the development of downtown Tacoma, I hope they will adapt.
As I wrote in a recent preview, ambitious projects are afoot. One due to open later this year promised me it would be the best restaurant in town. With that kind of confidence, you’ll need a watchful eye and many an empty stomach.