Photos by Ella Banken
This article was written prior to Gov. Inslee’s announcement on July 23 to rollback allowances on certain activities due to the increase in COVID-19 cases. This affects the businesses mentioned in this article, so let’s make sure to give them even MORE support, Tacoma!
There’s pretty much a consensus among restaurant staff on M.L.K. Jr. Way—the construction sucks.
I drove down M.L.K. the other day, and the construction between 9th and Earnest S Brazil was so obtrusive that at first I wasn’t sure I could even navigate through. I followed a small train of cars squeezing down the right side of the road headed south. I glanced to my right and saw the neon bubble tea sign in Pho King was illuminated, and Red Elm was taking orders through their front door.
Businesses are open, but it’s not so obvious.
I parked a block back from M.L.K. on L Street, where there was no shortage of street spots. I walked down the street and stopped in at the restaurants which have been subjected to the delightful sights and sounds of bulldozers and jack hammers.
(Heads up, you won’t be able to cross from one side of the street to the other unless you walk completely around the perimeter of the construction.)
When restaurants and bars were forced to stop serving dine-in customers due to COVID-19, the adjustment period for these businesses varied. Some restaurants on M.L.K. closed completely for months, like Pho King and Red Elm. Others closed and used the opportunity to remodel, like 1111 and Quickie Too. Lele re-opened as quickly as possible for take-out only, and has been open for months.
Regardless of their method of service over the past few months, they are all feeling the sting of the construction.
“It’s very bad,” Hung Nguyen told me at Pho King. After being completely closed for two months, this was not the ideal scene to return to.
Pho King and Pho Bac are both open for dine in. It’s not as busy as they would like, but they are happy to see customers returning. During the lunch rush on Tuesday, several tables were occupied at both establishments, and to-go orders were steadily moving out the doors.
Curbside parking feels like a distant memory, and, complicating matters, the construction is confusing for the GPS systems drivers for services like DoorDash and GrubHub rely on.
An employee at Lele told me that one of their main frustrations with the construction is the effect that it’s had on their delivery services. Without street parking or really anywhere to pull a car over, drivers are having to park and walk, sometimes from far away.
They’ve had many orders cancelled by delivery drivers because they just couldn’t figure out how to get there to pick up the order. Lele is hoping to open for dine-in service when the construction directly in front of them moves on.
At the edge of the densest construction area my attention was caught by the upbeat music and hammering sounds that were coming from Quickie Too. They’ve only been offering take-out for the past few months, but they’re hoping to open for dining after the completion of *drumroll please* their new patio!
The worst of the roadwork isn’t in front of their restaurant, but they have been feeling the effects of the upended M.L.K.. Quickie Too employee Cortwright Quinland told me people are driving in circles to try and navigate around the construction.
Sarah Joslyn, one of the three sisters who owns Red Elm, wrote on their social media a few weeks ago that the construction was bringing her down.
However, that didn’t stop her from greeting customers with a mask-hidden smile, some chit-chat, and maybe even a little dance while I was there.
Red Elm has a small seating area behind the building available for customers, but is not yet opening their doors for dine-in due to the increase in COVID-19 cases. They are taking it day by day.
“I love it here,” Sarah told me. “I wanna be here a long time.”
In order for that to happen, M.L.K. restaurants need the people of Tacoma to put a little extra effort into eating at their establishments right now. Taking the time to deal with the construction rather than avoid the congestion is one way to help ensure they’ll still be around when the dust finally settles.
These restaurants are just a few of the many Hilltop businesses feeling the squeeze right now. Tag your favorite spot in the comments below and tell us why you love them.