Despite the city’s lack of fine dining restaurants, Seattle-based chef Blanca Rodriguez chose to open Pimienta Bistro and Bar in a small strip mall next to the Brown Bear car wash and gas station. “I just couldn’t afford the rents in Seattle … so I had to come all the way here,” explains Rodriguez. “I did a little research on the area, and I noticed it didn’t have anything unique — a lot of chain restaurants but nothing (like a) little bistro that I wanted to have. It was a risk.”
But the risk paid off as word eventually spread about her artfully plated dishes filled with exciting flavors.
Spanish for peppercorn, Pimienta opened its doors in 2010. The menu showcases a fusion of Rodriguez’s roots in Latin America along with her lifelong admiration for European cuisine. Growing up in a family of chefs in Guadalajara, Mexico, every meal was a grand affair. “(My mother) never knew how to cook small,” says Rodriguez. And it’s clear that Rodriguez follows after her — the full plates at Pimienta are the proof.
At the age of 15, Rodriguez moved to Seattle and eventually went to work for Nordstrom as a line cook — the beginning of a 12-year restaurant career, which shaped her high standards as a chef. Her responsibilities expanded, and she eventually oversaw restaurant operations in five states and also wrote two cookbooks.
After more than a decade at Nordstrom, Rodriguez took a trip to Europe that changed her culinary outlook and inspired the opening of Pimienta.
“Being in Europe kind of gave me this idea that I need to be cooking what I really want to cook.” Rodriguez had always been fascinated by Mediterranean cuisine, particularly French cuisine.
During her trip, she found herself captivated by the food in Paris, asking chefs if she could observe them in their kitchens — some were accommodating. Returning to the United States with new knowledge and inspiration, Rodriguez decided to fully realize her own style of cooking with a restaurant of her own.
Stepping inside Pimienta, you’re effortlessly transported away from traffic and the hustle and bustle of life. Warm terra-cotta painted walls serve as a backdrop to global artwork, and weathered wood panels decorate the walls and cozy bar area, reclaimed from a 100-year-old barn. While the tables may be covered in white linen and set with wine glasses, the atmosphere at Pimienta remains unassuming, and the menu approachable.
Rodriguez stresses the importance of local, quality ingredients, so several items change with the season. The paella Valenciana has been a staple since the bistro’s beginnings and remains one of the most popular dishes. It arrives in a skillet, overflowing with seafood and bursting with color. Plump rice is cooked in a tomato base with saffron and chorizo before being adorned with a bountiful array of fresh seafood — giant mussels, prawns, scallops, and seasonal fish.
While lamb boulettes appear on the menu as an “aperitivo” (Italian for appetizer), they’re large enough to be a main dish. They resemble meatballs, and three boulettes arrive atop a fire-roasted tomato sauce along with a vibrant green chimichurri sauce. The acidity of the tomatoes and herbs in the chimichurri balance out the richness of the meat. Pork loin chop is served with Parmesan polenta and kale along with an ancho chile butter sauce. It’s the type of food Rodriguez would cook for her friends and family, and everyone who eats at Pimienta joins that community.
Rodriguez aptly calls her take on happy hour, “Social Hour.” The intimate dining space makes it easy for conversations to start between tables as neighbors catch up over drinks and hearty bites. It’s not uncommon for conversations to start across tables after a few sweet yet refreshing basil martinis. Rodriguez can often be found out of the kitchen, still wearing her formal chef’s coat, but chatting with regulars and new patrons.
“I do whatever needs to be done,” says Rodriguez. She likes to keep a watchful eye on her guests and their dining experiences; she still does much of her own shopping for the bistro. Never one to boast, Rodriguez praises sous chef Dennis Espinoza, with whom she shares a culinary connection that verges on telekinetic.
Since opening Pimienta, Rodriguez has opened Greenbridge Cafe in Seattle, located in the burgeoning Greenbridge neighborhood. Her wife and sister primarily operate the cafe, but the food philosophy and commitment to fresh, local food remain the same.
As chain restaurants threaten to overtake Federal Way, Pimienta provides a welcome escape from stale strip malls and monotonous franchises. The bistro’s unusual location has made it a local secret, but more people are taking notice. According to Rodriguez, business is better than ever, so grab a group of friends, or just bring yourself to Social Hour. Either way, Rodriguez will make you feel at home, and you’ll leave with a new perspective on strip-mall dining.
When You Go:
34029 Hoyt Road S.W., Suite C,
Open from 4-9 p.m. Tues.-Thur.,
3-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.,
and 5-9 p.m. Sundays