Uncle Thurm’s, Tacoma’s beloved soul food restaurant, has closed
Uncle Thurm’s, Tacoma’s revered soul food restaurant, has closed its doors.
The Lincoln neighborhood restaurant served its last meal on Wednesday, September 15, 2021.
“There were multiple factors that brings us to this point, including Covid-19. My lease is terminated through sale of the property among other things,” said co-owner Thurmond Brokenbrough, who has operated Uncle Thurm’s since 2006 with wife Linda.
They’re in search of a new spot, but as Brokenbrough noted, it’s tough to find commercial space in this city (read to the end of the story for a way to help him find a new home).
They served their last meals on Wednesday, but they intend to move and organize through the rest of the month.
Recent months were tough for the couple with pandemic restrictions and supply-chain issues. They moved their model to take-out instead of dine-in to better cope with the uncertainty of running a restaurant in this era.
He put up a sign a few weeks ago announcing the closure. Locals and regulars popped by to say goodbye. “I love ‘em, my customers,” said Brokenbrough. “I appreciate their patronage and allowing us to serve them over the last 20 years in this district. I tell you, I have people coming up from Portland. That’s good and they go back to Portland and then they send another four or five people up. I’m not braggadocious or anything like that, but we’ve got to understand we’re doing something right here. We feel good about that. We’re going to miss it.”
He said employees have shed a few tears and so have some regulars, but hopefully, they’ll get back at it if they can find a new space.
Anybody who loves fried chicken, ribs or soul food likely has already discovered Uncle Thurm’s, but if not, here’s what you need to know.
Thurmond and Linda have served their ribs, fried chicken, catfish and soul-tinged Southern eats for more than 20 years in Pierce County. They opened the Doo Drop Inn in Fife in 1998, and then moved to the Lincoln District to operate the Rail Splitter at Lincoln Bowl. They ran the Rail Splitter until 2006 when they moved just a few blocks away to G Street where Uncle Thurm’s Finger Lickin’ Chicken and Ribs was born.
A LEGACY OF GOOD COOKING
Brokenbrough, a self-coined “square from Delaware,” has a reputation for being a master of slow-and-low rib smoking with his five-tiered barbecue fueled by hickory and mesquite pellets. His ribs separate from the bone with the barest tug, and arrive slathered in a sauce with a molasses finish. You’re doing it wrong if you don’t order mac and cheese on the side to go with those finger-lickin’ ribs (or chicken).
For the uninitiated, his fried chicken recipe is the stuff of legend around Tacoma. Coated in a clingy jacket, the chicken is prepped and marinated the night before with a rub of paprika, garlic powder, cumin, celery salt and a dredge through flour. The seasoning seeps deep into the chicken, which is fried in a combination of peanut and vegetable oil until it’s crispy on the outside and steamy hot and juicy inside. There’s a crackle of a crunch on the chicken.
Oh, that catfish. So good. It always surprised me that Brokenbrough didn’t add a little cornmeal to his fried fish and he told me there’s a solid reason why: cornmeal burns. He doesn’t like that flavor much. If there’s anything you should trust, it’s Thurm’s palate when it comes to fried food.
TACOMA BUCKET LIST: SOUL FOOD MEDLEY
I told readers for years that Uncle Thurm’s soul food medley should be on every diner’s bucket list for the best of Tacoma eating. The mammoth meal is a little taste of everything from the restaurant: that exquisite chicken, smoky ribs, fried catfish, light-and-fluffy mildly sweet cornbread, red beans and rice with a kick of heat, cheddar-fortified macaroni and cheese made with big, bouncy noodles, yams that taste straight from grandma’s Thanksgiving table and toothsome greens goosed with vinegar.
The restaurant is a truly homey space, adorned with posters of musicians splashed against electric blue walls. A sound system in the corner always seemed to play jazz or r&b, and occasionally supported a live musical act, such as Kareem Kandi.
MORE ABOUT THE SQUARE FROM DELAWARE
My favorite part about visiting Uncle Thurm’s was when I would call to place a to-go order. Thurmond’s phone greeting went something like this, “Our chicken is finger lickin’ good. This is the square from Delaware.” Who answers the phone like that? Nobody but Brokenbrough.
He credits his sisters with teaching him how to cook as a youngster who grew up in a big family in Delaware. The cooking bug bit early in his life.
In high school, he was the first male to take home economics at his school. “Initially, a lot of folks laughed at me,” he told me a decade ago. “We had a teacher who was fantastic and what she did was she allowed us to cook based on what the menu was that she would provide, and then she would invite certain corporations, like the DuPonts. It was called the Satellite Lounge. I was one of the cooks and I was the maître d’. Let me tell you. I wore a cummerbund, a lightweight tuxedo, and I mean this program was so popular, we made it on the front page above the fold in the newspaper.”
He described his home-ec teacher as “a real hoot.” He added, “This was 1969 and integration had just hit our area so it was interesting to experience because I hadn’t known too many white teachers at that point,” he said. They grew a mutual respect for one another. “Right from the start, she had a lot of confidence in me. Obviously, I had a big mouth. I was the clown, but she saw something in me. And she said, ‘You’re going to be my maître d’.’ And I mean, I just loved it.”
Once he left high school, he knew he wanted to work in food service. He joined the military and got excellent training. “I got to, you know, learn restaurant design because I went to school when I was in the military. (I learned) small quantity food prep, pastry making and baking, hotel/motel management. I took advantage of them. I was a night baker in the military for like three years,” he explained to me about five years ago when I asked him how he started his career.
Personalizing recipes is something that comes naturally to him, a correlation to his formal cooking training with the military. “I put a little twist on it. I want it to be known that you can only get that at Uncle Thurm’s. I have a couple of marinades and I love them. I got one, it’s a vinaigrette that I use with the catfish and a lot of people put it on the chicken. Again, I just don’t settle for the (ordinary). We experiment with our food.”
Here’s hoping we all get to eat Thurm’s recipes again.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR UNCLE THURM’S
Thurmond and Linda definitely are taking suggestions for a next location. They’re also selling off kitchen equipment and overflow tables they won’t need even if they open another spot. “We have tons of tables and chairs, a couple deep fryers, tons of chafing dishes and things of that nature, a couple warming ovens,” he said. Know where they could move? Want to buy some kitchen equipment? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.