The first rule of culinary scouting: Never be dissuaded by the tanning salon next door. Excellent restaurants, run by rookie chefs who'd rather spend money on ingredients than rent, are so frequently found in characterless strip malls that an adjoining trophy shop or 99-cent store is considered a marker of credibility. With neighbors like that, the logic goes, the place has got to be good.
PIMIENTA BISTRO AND BAR 34029 Hoyt Rd. S.W., Suite C, Federal Way, 253-838-2398, pimientabistro.com. 4-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; noon-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 5-9 p.m. Sun.
But for most food obsessives, that truism only holds if the restaurant specializes in the cuisine of a country with a Peace Corps presence. A strip-mall location may herald fantastically tender tamales or crisp dosas, yet it's rarely interpreted as a trusty oracle of finely tuned French sauces and pastas gilded with artichoke hearts and sheep's-milk cheese. For that kind of cooking, most eaters head to in-town restaurants that don't share parking lots with cash-advance stores.
There is an Advance America location alongside Pimienta Bistro in Federal Way, and a Brown Bear Car Wash across from it. "I'm next to a gas station," says chef Blanca Rodriguez, who capped her decade-long career in Nordstrom department-store kitchens by overseeing restaurant operations in five states. "It's very different, because all my years of working have been in Seattle." Although the scenery's changed, Rodriguez's standards haven't slipped: At Pimienta, she conclusively proves that a setting usually associated with cheap, homey chow is thoroughly compatible with glamorous, glorious food.
Rodriguez didn't just work at Nordstrom: She wrote a pair of cookbooks for the upscale chain, and has clearly internalized its tasteful aesthetic. Her color-splashed dishes are boldly seasoned, but composed on the plate with such classy reserve that I wondered whether she'd had a hand in the food styling for one of those cookbooks, Entertaining at Home (she didn't).
The store's reputation for service is also reflected in her menu, packed with the dishes most diners are seeking when they eat out. If you're exhausted by the prospect of piecing together another restaurant meal of short-rib flatbread and ramp gnudi, you'll find relief in Pimienta's lineup of soups, salads, and intelligible entrées, including a pork chop, chicken breast, and strip steak. Rodriguez is adept at making comfort food for smart people.
The steak, for example, is a convincing battle cry on behalf of meat and potatoes. The plate's only concession to fashion is an accompanying cluster of trendy cauliflower blooms, softened, buttered, and—lest eyelids droop at the sight of so much white—interspersed with neatly trimmed slivers of sweet red pepper. A loop-handled crock burbles with a thickly cheesed, hand-cut potatoes au gratin that resembles the "before" image in healthy- cooking magazines that purge recipes of calories and fat. Broiler-crisped around the edges, the gratin has a sharp, rich flavor that plays off the centerpiece bow tie of beef. The remarkably juicy steak wears an ankle-deep crust of black pepper that Rodriguez would surely call her "flair." It's terrific.
Although she wasn't formally trained, Rodriguez grew up cooking in her family's restaurants in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was born, and later Miami, where her siblings were chefs. She says she forged her "fresh, local, simple" philosophy under her mother's tutelage. "I usually take what I grew up with and make a little twist," Rodriguez says.
Though she previously held the executive-chef post at Cactus, Pimienta is the first restaurant that Rodriguez considers her own. Rodriguez and Hector Auffant opened the restaurant as Peppercorn Bistro in 2010. It's since been bought by Adriana Monroy, who in January re-opened it with the same menu, the same chef, and a new name. "My style is the same," Rodriguez affirms.
The red-walled dining room is also largely unchanged. The restaurant's done its best to drive "strip mall" from customers' minds, but it's stuck with a boxy layout and an all-glass storefront that's pummeled by sunlight, washing out any notion of ambience. The room's accessorized with gauzy Pier 1-ish sconces and floor-length linen curtains cinched at the middle, a day-spa look reprised in the bathroom, where the liquid hand soap has a "stress relief" label. I'm pretty sure Madeleine Peyroux's music wasn't playing every time I ate at Pimienta, but it seemed like the right choice whenever it came on the stereo.
Still, the room's mood is set mostly by the bustling servers, who are attentive and properly enthusiastic. They're often joined on the floor by Rodriguez, who sometimes makes a conversational circuit, but more frequently buses plates and wipes down tables, unobtrusively keeping tabs on her staffers and guests. Unlike many Seattle chefs, Rodriguez wears a traditional white coat, buttoned from top to bottom.
There's no hint of sloppiness on her plates, either. A basic spring salad, which elsewhere would be a tousled jumble of strawberries and greens, is arranged so the berry segments form a rough eight-pointed star around sprightly baby spinach leaves, touched with just the right amount of dark-cherry vinaigrette and seeded with pistachios.
"Every one of my dishes, I feel like it's a work of art," Rodriguez says. "I don't even know how to explain it, I have to make it look pretty."
The kitchen's insistent emphasis on shapes and hues could make a cubist out of the most visually stunted Pimienta customer—and a well-fed cubist at that. Rodriguez serves a perfect rectangle of spongy Mexican cheese, coated in panko bread crumbs and fried to a crisp, flaxen finish. The cheese and four grill-marked pita triangles are painstakingly positioned in an Easter egg-green cilantro-and-pumpkin seed cream sauce.
During my visits to Pimienta, I didn't encounter anything I wouldn't happily order again, except maybe a side of tough, twiggy French fries. A stew of shrimp, scallops, Portuguese sausage, and clams is made riveting by a zesty tomato sauce propped up by fennel and smoked pepper. The burger is flat-out fantastic, thanks to ground chuck Rodriguez sources from a wagyu rancher in Oregon (sadly, his operation is too small to supply Rodriguez with grass-fed steaks). The beef flickers with more fresh fennel and paprika.
For dessert, there's a spectacular brownie made with Mexican chocolate, posed in a pool of almond dulce de leche and topped with vanilla-bean ice cream. The sophisticated brownie was a special when I tried it a month ago, but it's still lingering on the menu. Rodriguez says customers would kill her if she rescinded it.
Pimienta is typically jammed with customers, so Rodriguez has plenty of eaters to please. The restaurant has acquired lots of loyal patrons from surrounding areas, who—to Rodriguez's surprise—don't mind dining near a gas station. "I'm very lucky," she says. Her customers have every reason to feel the same way.
Panela frita $9
Strip steak $30