FAMOUS FOR RIBS
By Don and Peg Doman
Just down the street from the Tacoma Mall is Tony Roman's. Located in the Evergreen Plaza at 5221 Tacoma Mall Boulevard is the stucco building remiscent of the southwest. Actually, Tony Roma's started out in North Miami Beach before the franchise rights were purchased by the owner of the Dalla Cowboys.
Peg and I had never eaten at Tony Roma's before, so we were in for quite a treat. For this sampling we were joined by Debbie and Donn Irwin, who had eaten a number of times there.
Peg and I arrived early for our two o'clock snack. I like to look around and take some exterior photographs. I saw a gentleman in a white shirt talking to someone in a delivery truck. He came over and introduced himself. He was Jeff Fishel, the area director fro Tony Roma's. Jeff and everyone we saw at the restuarant seem happy and very friendly . . . and proud.
When I walked into the lobby I was greeted by Sam Woodlief, general manager. We were still early for our reservations. Standing in the lobby I looked over the colorful combination decor of neon, plaster and wood. Adorning the walls were signs and plaques from past Zoobilee participation. Jeff explained that there were signs from eight different years on the walls and two more that they didn't have room for, yet.
Dobbie and Donn Irwin of MailMedia joined us at exactly two o'clock. The four of us are co-chairs for the food and beverage committee for Zoobilee 2004. Once we were all at the table, Jeff and Sam sat down and chatted. Sam made sure we had plenty to drink, however. Donn and I were served huge mugs (twenty-four ounces) of Thomas Kemper Root Beer on draft. Peg had Sprite, while Debbie had an Arnold Palmer (ice tea and lemonade).
Jeff has worked for Tony Roma's for fifteen years. He was working for another organization in Anchorage (which he loved) before joining Tony Roma's. He works out of the corporate office in Federal Way. He's originally from Indiana. Sam came to Tacoma via Fort Lewis. He has a soft Carolina (North) accent. Management and other volunteers supply the manpower for Zoobilee. Sam says, "Zoobilee? It's a hoot, We wouldn't miss it."
We initially had two platters of ribs with two slabs on each platter. Each slab offered a different barbeque sauce. One platter featured Carolina Honey sauce and Blue Ridge Smokey. The other slabs starred the new Nada Lotta Carb and their orginal sauce. Debbie said, "I'm shocked at how good the no carb sauce is."
Most of the sauces come from corporate headquarters, but they do make two in the kitchen: Dixie (Cajun) and Chipotle Honey. Both Jeff and Sam remember the days when they made them all from scratch.
Jeff and Sam cut up our slabs for easy sampling by the four of us. Normally, a diner would just grab a slab and start ripping and chewing. The Carolina Honey was tangy. The Blue Ridge Smokey tasted a little bit darker . . . and had a little bit of zing in it. The original was excellent and the low-carb offering was so good you couldn't tell it was diet. You can purchase bottles of the sauce to take home. They even have a four-pack to-go. You can also buy the original sauce at Larry's Markets, QFC, and Costco.
There's only one way to eat ribs and that is with your hands. This probably drives Europeans crazy, but it's the only way to truly enjoy ribs. Of course, as everyone knows ribs means "pork" ribs. Tony Roma's serves the St. Louis cut.
The St. Louis cut gives a meatier and more lean portion. Tony Roma's is the largest purchaser of ribs in the world.
Sam says that the wholesale price of ribs keeps up with the price of gasoline. But Tony Roma's hasn't raised prices for quite a while. One of the table cards caught my eye. Monday night at Tony Roma's is Endless Slab Night. All you eat ribs! I've got to come back. We also noted that kids (12 and under) eat free on Sundays. That could be a good day for entertaining grandkids!
When Peg and I first looked over the table cards we saw a couple of desserts that appealed to us. One was an apple crisp and the other was actually a drink which featured Southern Comfort, Kahlua and Bailey's Irish Cream. On another visit those orders might come into play. On this day, however my pile of ribs mounted up and resulted in no further food or drink . . . except for another 24 oz. mug of Thomas Kemper to wash the ribs down.
I'm sure Tony Roma's has others food on their menu. I think they even have fish and chips. This day was devoted to ribs.
As I said, Donn and Debbie had eaten at Tony Roma's before. They will eat their again. Tony Roma's has two banquet rooms. One will accomodate up to 65/70 people. A number of organizations have committee and board meetings there. I can understand why. On an average weekend day they will serve five hundred meals. On Mother's Day, their busiest day of the year, they serve a thousand.
While we were sampling the ribs, a family celebrated a birthday behind us. We picked an early afternoon which is the slow period at any restaurant, but still there were people enjoying the food . . . with Delta Blues playing in the backround.
Tony Roma's has been providing catering since they began. The Tacoma Mall restaurant opened in 1990 and they bought their first trailer grill in 1993. They have two portable grills and eight delivery trucks. They can either cook the ribs entirely on-site or add the finishing touches with the sauces depending on the needs of the clients.
Jeff and Sam presented us with a nice, relaxing and informative afternoon. Did you know that Tony Roma originally was the general manager for Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club? It's true. He even appeared on the Dinah Shore talk show where he made his sauce in a cooking segment. Tony Roma sold out in 1980. There are now more than 200 Tony Roma restuarans world-wide with fourteen in Japan alone. One is even planned for Lebonon. I don't know how they are going to work out the "pork" rib menu there, but everyone needs a challenge.
The Tacoma restaurant is a training restuarant for new workers and managers from the mid-West. It's easy to see why. The restaurant doesn't feel like a chain operation at all. There are old black and white photographs on the wall of Tacoma and the atmosphere is friendly, but effecient and professional.
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