Tacoma, it’s time. Our food writer discusses why area restaurants need a critical eye

This week, I did something I really haven’t done in my three-plus years as your Tacoma food writer: I was critical of a restaurant.

I tend to focus my work on the bright side of our local food community. Where larger publications might have several reporters on the food beat, with one or two specializing in restaurant criticism, I am just one person. I only have so much time, and it feels more advantageous to offer the highlights, to encourage you to head out to a random intersection in Puyallup for awesome tacos or to Lakewood for Korean doughnuts, and to praise boundary-pushing (for a mid-sized city next to one of the country’s culinary beacons) and amiable service where it shines.

But our region is changing and growing — look at all those cranes! — and with that comes both creativity and competition angling for a swipe of your credit card.

I never intended to eschew criticism entirely. When I arrived in Tacoma in December 2019, I had every intention of developing my voice as both a feature writer and a critic. I moved here sensing the Tacoma area was on the cusp of a culinary shift, and that many restaurants — notably the popular waterfront destinations — had perhaps been resting on their laurels. (That The Lobster Shop’s new owners are spending millions modernizing the space and menu speaks to that hypothesis.)

Then the pandemic thrust my plan into disarray. Following fellow food writers, I knew any tough criticism would have to wait.

At some point last year, we turned a corner.

The writer encourages you to explore unique culinary offerings, like the chapssal, Korean sweet rice doughnuts available at Bon Bon Bakery in Lakewood.
The writer encourages you to explore unique culinary offerings, like the chapssal, Korean sweet rice doughnuts available at Bon Bon Bakery in Lakewood.

Importantly, I should note that I am not anonymous: I hosted a public panel discussion last fall, and I meet the people I feature all the time because it allows me to tell stories I couldn’t otherwise tell. I can’t explain how the chef of The Red Hot slices and dips a luscious Italian beef sandwich without being in his kitchen. I can’t showcase the incredible work ethic of a Cambodian refugee who has been making doughnuts every day since 1985 without spending the morning in his bakery. When I visit restaurants as a customer, I never announce myself (which, for some reason, people regularly ask if I do). Even if I have met the owner or the chef, it’s rare that the staff recognizes me, and if they do, we have a mutual understanding that I am a paying customer who chose to be there.

The scope of food media has veered wildly from its stringent 20th-century ways, and I think we’re all the better for it. Food writers, regardless of their self-identification as critics, can just as easily publish recipes and travelogues as they can uncover harassment scandals and farm-to-table fables. Perhaps more poignantly, I don’t want to build a box around what I can and cannot cover, how and why. I just want to point you in the direction of great food, memorable hospitality, unique experiences and compelling stories about food and people. Sometimes I achieve that goal through sitting down for an hour with someone in their space; in others it means having dinner at the bar with my partner on a normal Thursday.

To those who ask, I have said that my opinion of restaurants, particularly new ones, speaks in the choice of writing 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 packed, night after night. Wake up one Friday morning and think, let’s make a reservation for tonight, or tomorrow? Cuerno Bravo is booked, at least until 9:30 p.m. You could try and get lucky with a seat at the bar, but even that’s a shot in the dark.

Cuerno Bravo, a steakhouse in downtown Tacoma, touts its wood-fired oven and sourcing of “wagyu” beef from the U.S., Japan and Australia.
Cuerno Bravo, a steakhouse in downtown Tacoma, touts its wood-fired oven and sourcing of “wagyu” beef from the U.S., Japan and Australia.

It opened at a difficult time, prepped to debut before the pandemic. It closed for several months and was then stymied by limited capacity for many more. Staffing has been incredibly challenging, to say the least. But I have had several meals there, dropping hundreds of dollars, and each time left baffled by much of the food, the service and the execution. I went back because I felt like I had to.

I can let slide various mishaps if the food is spectacular. At best, it’s been inconsistent.

You deserve to know if one of the most popular restaurants in town, where two people will easily spend $100-plus and a group of four upwards of $250 with drinks, is worth the squeeze. Likewise, restaurants like Cuerno Bravo deserve a chance to reflect and, for the sake of its obvious importance to downtown Tacoma’s evolution, I hope, adjust.

As I wrote in a recent preview, ambitious projects are afoot. One set to open later this year even promised me it would be, hands-down, the best restaurant in town. With that kind of confidence, it will need a watchful eye and many empty stomachs.

Is wagyu enough to splurge at Tacoma’s trendy downtown steakhouse? Our writer has her say