Over the last few years, South Tacoma Way has seen its fair share of changes. A once bustling area that was hit hard by the recession, the business district has always had plenty of character, but in the years since the financial crash it’s struggled to bounce back. But with the addition of new bars, music venues, and the reopening of the Airport Tavern, the strip is becoming something of a destination.

In August 2018, South Tacoma Way will be getting a new addition – The Church Cantina. In the building that once housed the Ah Badabing pizzeria, the bar and restaurant will serve Cuban-inspired food in a laid-back, eclectic atmosphere.

The Church Cantina is a joint venture between husband and wife team Adam Jones and Nicole de la Paz and their business partner Rusty Fawver. All long-time Tacomans, the team is no stranger to the local restaurant scene. Nicole has worked as a chef at top local establishments like Dirty Oscar’s, Marrow and Top of Tacoma. During her years in the kitchens of some the city’s favorite restaurants, she and Adam always mulled over opening their own place. In fact, the bar has been in the pipeline for a while now. As Adam explains, “We had the concept, and the menu has been written for two years.”

So when the couple found out they were expecting their first baby, it provided them a chance to shift gears and really consider opening the bar. “We had always thought ‘it’s the bar or the baby,’” Nicole muses, “but I guess it’ll be both.”

Church Cantina
The Church Cantina, South Tacoma Way’s newest addition, is slated to open in mid- to late-August. Photo credit: Kaitlin Armstrong

When they got wind that Ah Badabing may be looking for a new tenant, they saw a big opportunity. The couple moved quickly, made an offer, and within weeks they were moved in and sprucing up the space. Both are big believers in the potential of the South Tacoma Avenue strip. “It’s an up and coming neighborhood,” says Adam, referencing the music venues, reopening of the Airport Tavern, and more newcomers slated to move in. Both see South Tacoma Way as having a bright future and feel lucky the bar has found a home there.

Concept-wise, Adam and Nicole aimed to create something they felt Tacoma was in need of. “Think of it as a ‘sexy date night dark bar,’” Adam says. The couple hopes to create a space that can just as easily host a date night as a group of friends out for some fun, a space with killer food but that maintains a laid-back setting. And after years working of around Tacoma, they wanted to realize a vision all their own. “We knew we wanted it to reflect on us,” Nicole explains. For the couple, who is known for throwing elaborate Halloween parties, that means a darker atmosphere, but one where they can also display collectibles and work ‘80s references into the menu.

The kitchen will serve Cuban-inspired fare, with Nicole, who is of Cuban heritage, at the helm. The menu offers favorites like fried plantains and Cuban sandwiches, but also veers from the traditional in inventive ways. Take the cherry mole barbecue wings, or the croquetas served with a side of cumin honey dijon mostaza. There will be vegan-friendly options, alongside bowls with braised meats, beans and rice; deluxe burritos; and perhaps most enticingly – brunch every day.

Church Cantina Tacoma
New lighting, a fresh coat of paint, and updated decor are just a few of the changes the team has made to the space. Photo credit: Kaitlin Armstrong

In the short span since taking over the building, the team has renovated it from top to bottom. Long days spent stripping tables, installing new lighting, patching walls, and applying fresh coats of paint have revealed a more open space that features decor scoured from all over Tacoma.

“Most of it is sourced locally,” Nicole says – along with the help of family and friends, the couple has found pieces everywhere from thrift stores to OfferUp. Gold mirrors and faux metallic taxidermy are hung against brick and bold red walls, and the wooden booths have gotten an update as well. The new burnt wood finish was a result of some creative DIY. “We took a blow torch to them,” Adam explains. While the update isn’t complete – they’re still working on the back space – the room has undergone a notable transformation.

The Church Cantina is located at 5420 S Tacoma Way. They’re scheduled to open in mid- to late- August, and will operate from Tuesday to Saturday. For more updates and a sneak peek of their progress, follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

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