Venue Review: Uncle Thurm's Finger Lickin' Chicken & Ribs
Tacoma News Tribune
One of the things I love about living in the Northwest is the abundance of exotic cuisine around these parts. From naan to nigiri, it's all within a few minutes' drive from my apartment in Stadium District.
But every once in a while, I get an intense craving for another type of grub that folks around here may think exotic. To me, it's just comfort food and a reminder of my Southern roots. I'm talking soul food, and when I first moved to Washington 11 years ago, first to Bellingham, I was surprised at how hard you have to work to find it.
I hail from Louisville, Ky., which isn't necessarily Deep South grits-and-chitlins territory. (Frankly, I can't mess with chitlins.) But there are definitely everyday staples I took for granted growing up.
Just the other day, I was interviewing a source from Mississippi and between questions we mused nostalgically about the hard-to-find chow we miss: buttery homemade cornbread and savory collard greens; being invited to barbecues that actually involve barbecue sauce.
So I gave my source this tip: Check out Uncle Thurm's Finger Lickin' Chicken and Ribs. Namesake Thurmond Brokenbrough and wife, Linda, opened this downhome joint at 3709 G St., around the corner from Lincoln High School, about 2 1/2 years ago. And it's one of my favorite joints for satisfying my soul food fix.
Thurm is the guy with the Mr. T haircut you'll see in his cozy dining room, when he's not busy cooking, chatting up customers about music, sports and politics; the fast-talkin' fellow who answers the phone, "You've reached Uncle Thurm, the man with the plan, the master of disaster, the geeter with the heater, the square from Delaware. How can I help you?"
Recently, I picked the Brokenbroughs' - Thurm and wife Linda - brains on the art of soul food, my stomach grumbling from the aroma of sizzling bacon and pulled pork wafting through their cramped kitchen.
Where did you learn to cook?
It actually started at home (Delaware). My father was a single parent, and I had a sister who was five years older than me. When push came to shove, she was playin' with her friends and this that and the other, and I'm starvin' like Marvin. I just got used to the kitchen when I was very young. But as far as learning how to cook, just watching my sisters in the kitchen; you know, during the big meals of the year. And I was the first male to take home economics at my high school.
Why don't you take me back to the start? How long ago did you get started with the restaurant? And how many soul food options were there in Tacoma?
(Thinks) Southern Kitchen. I think there were six or seven. (Alludes to some that have closed.) Southern Kitchen's still there, and Porter's is still with us. You've got to include Famous Dave's, because he does barbecue.
We moved here about 2 1/2 years ago. We were down in Fife at the Do Drop In. (Thinks) I opened the Do Drop in October of '98 (his first restaurant, which has since closed). (My second place) at Lincoln Lanes, the name of that was the Rail Splitter (also closed). See, we were leasin' from them. (Big grin.) Now it's Uncle Thurm's Finger Lickin' Ribs and Chicken.
With there not being a lot of soul food options here, did that motivate you?
We knew goin' in that if we did not have a reason to bring people across town, we would be a regular restaurant like every other restaurant, you see. So we really created our menu to expand our perimeter. We have people comin' down from Seattle, Everett, Fort Lewis. I mean, we get soldiers on a daily basis. We have a good 40-mile perimeter. Not every day do we get someone from that distance. However, every other day we have somebody from Seattle.
We do the festivals in the summertime.
Last time I ran into you, you were headed up to the Sub Pop festival at Marymoor Park.
Absolutely. That's excellent. We get folks from there. Sunbanks is over (near) Grand Coulee Dam. We went over there to do a festival. And lo and behold, they showed up.
How long have you done the festivals?
Just this summer. It really is a lot of fun - a lot of exposure. We did from Willie Nelson to Erykah Badu, Sheryl Crow, Boston, Styx; all of 'em. That was a good time for us.
What kind of response do you get?
Very positive everywhere we go because the food is unique (in the Northwest). The people just love the cultural difference.
What's the key to really good soul food, if you can boil it down to one or two things?
If I could sum up soul food in a minimum amount of words (big grin) comfort food prepared with TLC. I know Linda, she has her ideas. But that's the way I would sum it up.
What would you say, Linda?
Linda: Cooking from the heart. With soul food, you can't follow a recipe. It's a little bit of this, that and the other.
Thurm: And we definitely don't want our culture to disappear. I don't care what nobody says. We'll cook chitlins until the cows come home.
(Considers) A lot of people just say soul food is just a black thing. But down South you look on the same street, on the west side it's called soul food, on the east side it's called Southern food. It's primarily a comfort food that everybody can enjoy.
You mention the chitlins. Are there a handful of key dishes that you especially have to get down if you have a soul food place.
Yeah. You've gotta have greens, chitlins. Actually, it's pork-based. Most of your foods are seasoned with pork, so you can't keep that aspect out. . . . I can't imagine having turkey as a base for my greens. I have to have my smoked hocks, my smoked bacon. And that's a starter. You've got to have that. If you don't have that, it's not soul food. You're just cookin' a vegetable.
So I guess if you're countin' your carbs, you're not looking for soul food.
Absolutely. You know how the dietary field is trendy. Some people will say I'm on the Atkins diet or the Sunny Side California diet; I forget what it's called. They'll mention that to us as they're orderin' a medley, you see. I'm gonna start this diet, and I'm gonna get this out of the way. . . . Instead of comin' back soon, they'll send someone else in to get their meal.
It seems like you have a bond with your customers. I always see you out talkin' and hangin' out with people.
Absolutely, we love our customers. . . . We've really had a lot of success in dealing with our customers. At the Do Drop, we used to play bid whist down there. And that brought in a lot of customers who didn't necessarily eat. But they still experienced the hospitality; and the hospitality is second to none.
We've got a good relationship with our customers. They know they can come in talk music, talk sports, talk current events. . . .