In spite of its bustling seaport, picturesque neighborhoods, and spectacular views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, Tacoma has always been more reminiscent of a past-its-prime Rust Belt town than its more cosmopolitan neighbor to the north. Museum of Glass and UW satellite campus aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much foot traffic downtown on weekends; vacant urban storefronts are as commonplace as occupied ones; and the smell of heavy industry—pulp, in Tacoma’s case—fills the air. Hence, the much-deserved “Tacoma Aroma” branding.
Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis peaked in the mid-20th century, around the time the T-Town mainstays Frisko Freeze and the Cloverleaf Tavern opened a few short miles apart in the same year, 1950. The former is essentially Tacoma’s answer to Dick’s Drive-In, only not as fast and slightly more expensive. Frisko’s fries are thicker and less salty than Dick’s, but equally revered among natives. The burgers, dripping with grease and served in a wax pack, are the perfect balance between gourmet and fast food, and the shakes are thick enough to requirea spoon.
Frisko Freeze, a Googie-style (see: the old Ballard Denny’s) landmark which recently earned a spot on Tacoma’s Registry of Historic Places, is located in close proximity to Tacoma’s notorious Hilltop neighborhood. Don’t let this scare you away; the Hilltop of today isn’t the Hilltop of the ’80s and ’90s, when the media painted a portrait of an area where residents dodged bullets like drops of rain. The reputation was overblown to begin with, and the neighborhood’s placid feel nowadays has rendered it all but moot.
Further west, closer to the Narrows Bridge, Sixth Ave. is a cross between Aurora Avenue North and Anysuburb, U.S.A., an off-ramp commercial hodgepodge that tilts toward big-box retailers and sharply away from pedestrian friendliness. Local character is hard to come by—until one happens across the Cloverleaf, an iconic tavern and pizzeria famous for its cracker crust (another Rust Belt hallmark rarely replicated ’round here). As unpretentious as unpretentious gets, Cloverleaf pies are sized “regular” and “huge,” with the Turco (pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, hamburger, bacon)—named after a former owner—rating as especially formidable/tasty. As crucial as the crust here is the tavern’s red, zesty sauce.
While the Cloverleaf has several micros on tap, it’s the sort of place where ordering anything other than Rainier or Bud feels a little off. On Memorial Day, when a bartender referred to Stella Artois as one of the tavern’s “classy” offerings, a regular shot back: “Yeah, but we’re at the Cloverleaf.” Case closed.