Tacoma’s Wingman Brewers opens Little Radio. Here’s a first look
Little Radio in downtown Tacoma is all powered up. The restaurant and bar is from well-known Tacoma beer guy Ken Thoburn and his business partners at Tacoma’s Wingman Brewers. That brewery celebrated its ninth anniversary in April.
How do they celebrate an anniversary? By opening another business. This time, a restaurant, not a brewery.
The Little Radio restaurant project has been underway since late 2019 at 728 Pacific Ave., which is the former home of Tacoma Cabana, the tiki lounge from Robyn and Jason Alexander, who coincidentally were one of Thoburn’s first employers. Thoburn washed dishes at their Villa Caffe and Imbibery, the downtown eatery that predated their Tacoma Cabana, which operated at 728 Pacific Ave. from 2012 to 2018 (and The Fern Room from the Alexanders also operated there for a short time).
The Alexanders also operate Devil’s Reef, the nautical-themed tiki lounge in Opera Alley and are about to open Gilman House in Tacoma’s Stadium District in the former Copper Door location.
Little Radio is only half open. Thoburn and crew intended to open the entire space, but then Covid-19 struck and they scaled back their plans.
When the statewide construction shutdown hit and they were forced to stop work, Thoburn and his business partners – Paul Jackson, Derrick Moyer, Jim Shoemake and Michael Hilborn – scaled back their plans and started asking questions about what they could do differently.
“How do you make the best of a bad situation? What now do we have time to look at? How do you rethink everything and do it right while you have this time on your hands?” said Thoburn in April about how they redrew their project.
THE LITTLE RADIO SPACE
The front-and-back dining rooms of Little Radio encompass the same footprint as Tacoma Cabana. “And the left side of the building, of that space, we have good plans for it. We are really excited to bring that to Tacoma, but it’s just going to take some time,” said Thoburn a few months back. I’ll keep you posted on what those plans are.
Diners entering Little Radio won’t recognize the transformation from tiki refuge to a timber-town tavern. Thoburn and crew used layers of salvaged wood to create a timelessness to the decor.
You can’t turn your head without spotting some kind of reclaimed wood. Salvaged wood climbs from floor to ceiling at the service bar, where diners order food and beverages. The built-in bench seating also is crafted from salvaged wood. They painted the exposed bricks a jarring shade of orange.
The hallway between the front and rear dining rooms is like walking through the inside of a wine barrel, as Thoburn describes it. The wood came from a reclaimed floor from an old cattle barn. Bench seating and four high-top tables provide a space for solo diners.
The rear dining room is cavernous with two gorgeous communal wooden tables made from old-growth Douglas Fir that was reclaimed following a forest fire. A row of high-top tables and a lounging couch complete the rear dining room.
Antique radios and other 20th century artifacts pop up in nooks and crannies in a nod to the restaurant’s name, which has deep roots in Tacoma. The restaurant name is a nod to the Little Radio Shop operated by Ernie Little at the Viant & Pierce Building, circa 1937.
The order of service here is casual and order-at-the-bar. Seat yourself and a server will bring you a menu. Diners then order their meals at the service bar in the front dining room. You’ll be given a table number and then your food and drink are shuttled from the kitchen.
The dining room is family friendly and I spotted kids in the front and back dining rooms.
The unfussy menu has a little something for everyone and appeals equally to date-night seekers, families with kids and people who like good beer and cocktails.
The brew menu was heavy on Wingman Brewers, the sister business on the other end of downtown Tacoma in the Dome District.
The one-page opening menu is succinct and broken into five sections: appetizers, burgers/sandwiches, mac and cheese, salads and soup.
The uncomplicated menu is the work of chef Victor Mitchell, who has taken pub classics and added a chef touch here and there, such as halloumi croutons on a black garlic Caesar salad and housemade pickled red onions on the Smashburger.
That Smash burger arrived as a towering affair with a sturdy bun that had been toasted and two burger patties sizzled around the edges and glued together with cheddar ($15.50). The top bun held a swipe of puckery burger sauce. Pickled red onions, lettuce and a fat tomato slice anchored the bottom bun. Those pickled red onions provided the perfect pucker to offset all that goo and fat. It was served with crunchy house-fried potato chips that were sliced extra wide and thin. Diners can pair entrees and sandwiches with those house chips, or one of the other sides that includes house-made pickles, a salad, Brussels sprouts or a cup of mac and cheese. Beyond the Smashburger, the sandwich menu also includes a grilled cheese ($9.50), a vegetarian ($13.50) and a sausage-chicken sandwich ($14.50).
The mac and cheese menu included four versions, including plain ($10.50), a veggie version made with a beer cheese sauce ($13.50), a sausage-chicken version ($15.50) and a decadent version topped with crab dip ($18.50). That last one arrived at the table gooey with a cheese sauce draped over radiatori pasta and topped with a giant plop of creamy crab dip. You want decadent? This was decadent.
The menu also delves into slightly healthier eating with three salads: a house ($9.50), a mango-jicama salad ($12.50) and a black garlic caesar ($13.50) with halloumi croutons that tasted like cheesy puffs of halloumi air.
From the appetizer menu, do not miss the pretzels served with a beer-heavy cheese dip and fortified with a side of mustard ($10.50). Those pretzel bites tasted fresh from the oven. The same crab dip that was on the mac and cheese also was served as an appetizer ($16.50). The apps also included an heirloom bean hummus plate ($12.50) and fried halloumi ($12.50). Want soup? They’ve got two kinds – French onion and tomato bisque that comes with a half a grilled cheese sandwich ($6.50 to $10.50).
The cocktail and brew menu, from Little Radio partner Jim Shoemake, encompassed one full page and I loved that at least two of the nine specialty cocktails were made with brew. And of course those were Wingman brews. The Ace cocktail was made with aperol, orgeat, lemon juice and Wingman Ace IPA ($9). The Buzz the Tower came with prosecco, ginger syrup and Wingman Razma Attack ($9).
There was a little tiki on the menu, too, with a mai tai ($12) and a Painkiller made with coconut cream, pineapple and orange juices and Navy rum ($12). There’s also an old fashioned ($11) a Porch Swing with gin and Pimm’s No. 1 ($12) and more. There were six Wingman brews on tap, plus beers from Tacoma’s new Sig Brewing, 7 Seas and Wet Coast.
Where: 728 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
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