The Best of Both Worlds: Ricardo’s Restaurant in Lacey and Wood Fired Express in Downtown Olympia

Olympia SteakRick Nelsen, AKA Chef Ricardo, brings two delicious, distinctly different dining experiences to Thurston County: white tablecloth-worthy steak and pasta dishes versus picnic table pizzas and subs.

Both are fantastic and fitting, whatever your culinary mood.

Ricardo’s Restaurant is Nelsen’s award-winning Lacey restaurant, serving gorgeously plated dinners of flavorful pasta, in-house cut and dry-aged steaks, and an array of specials from organic duck and chicken dishes to wild Coho salmon and stuffed pork tenderloin.

Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express is Rick’s newest venture, a mobile eatery serving high quality (but low cost) lunch grub in downtown Olympia, between Acme Fuel and the Intercity bus depot.

Rick comes from impressive Lacey restaurateur lineage: his grandparents are Dave and Lorna Wilson, owners of longtime area favorite Dirty Dave’s Pizza Parlor.

“I’m native to Lacey, born and raised,” says Rick, “I grew up in the restaurant industry and just really found a passion for food.”

Rick interest in food shifted from the family focus of basic pizza and pasta to dishes with a more gourmet flair. “I love both places,” he says of Dirty Dave’s and Ricardo’s, “but I always had a niche for the finer things in life.”

olympia grinder steak sandwich His grandparents were supportive of Rick’s culinary aspirations, to a point.

“I initially approached them for some money to go to culinary arts school, and when my grandpa saw what it costs – he’s from the School of Hard Knocks – he said, ‘You want me to give you fifty grand to go to school to learn how to cook? You can practically open a restaurant for fifty grand!’ He’s old school,” Rick recounts, laughing at the memory. “He was like, ‘I ain’t paying for that.’”

So, with a proper loan from his grandparents – including interest, which was paid in full – Rick hopped right into the industry. He and his mother Toni opened Ricardo’s under a 50/50 partnership in October 2003. (He has since bought her out and is sole owner.)

“They were very supportive of us getting going,” says Rick of his grandparents. “My mom ran their restaurants for a long time, so they knew she could do the books and the managing and I could do the cooking and creating.”

Rick loves that Ricardo’s is small enough to allow him freedom to do what he wants.

Lacey Steak“We’re the only restaurant in Thurston County that actually does dry-aged beef,” he says, noting that it’s a lost art – and an expensive one, at that. “But the end result is a far superior product.”

Rick dry-ages all the beef in-house for 30 days, which is then cooked over screaming-hot mesquite charcoal. “I have my own meat-cutting band saw. It’s just one of the things we can do here that you will not find anywhere else.”

Unlike corporate-run or chain restaurants, Rick says he doesn’t have to be solely concerned with the bottom line. “That’s just not my main focus,” he says. “Obviously it’s nice to have a good bottom line, but I don’t make all of my decisions based on that.”

Instead, Rick says, he asks himself: What can we do to be the best at what we do?

Ricardo’s Restaurant is all about the slow down, savor and enjoy, fine dining experience. On the opposite end of the culinary coin, Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express is about quick (yet high quality) grab-and-go food.

Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. until the lines dwindle, Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express serves up made-to-order pizzas, sub sandwiches, polish dogs, Philly cheese steaks, and more. Most items are created in a wood fire oven that takes up (and heats up!) a good chunk of the truck’s real estate.

“It was just something where I kind of got a wild hair, which I do rather often,” says Rick of the inspiration for Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express.

olympia steak sandwich grinderHe’d already had success with an external trailer built for catering jobs, which included a 100-perent wood-fire oven that burned charcoal, cherry, and apple wood.

 

“It was a hit and we had a lot of fun with it,” he says. “The only downfall was if we were every somewhere and it started raining, we were out in the elements.”

Rick discovered how much he enjoyed working with real wood, and since the first trailer quickly paid itself, he decided to design an enclosed version.

“Then we said let’s just go downtown and do some lunch and see what comes about,” he says.

“It’s a seasonal thing,” Rick says of the food truck. “I’m not going to grind out the winter, but I’ll definitely be back at the start of the spring.”

On a recent Friday, at 10:45 a.m., at the food truck area at 400 State Street just down from the Intercity bus depot, folks milled about, waiting for the mobile eateries to open.

Rick’s was the last trailer to be pulled in. He jumped out of a blue pickup emblazoned with a Superman insignia on the doors and disappeared into the large black trailer to light the wood fire.

olympia steak grinderFifteen minutes later, this writer was enjoying a “Jake Jr.” sandwich assembled and fired by employee Shea Gray. It pays homage to Dirty Dave’s famous Jake sandwich.

The “Jake Jr.” is one of Ricardo’s three sandwich offerings – you can also building your own sub, choosing from a long list of tempting toppings.

“My grandpa’s “The Jake” is a sandwich that’s been a Dirty Dave’s tradition for a long time,” Rick explains. The same combination of pepperoni, salami, and Canadian bacon are warmed up, then topped with cold lettuce and dressing.

“I decided we’d do a ‘Jake Jr.,’” Rick says, “but where he used chopped romaine, I had organic field greens; where he used a mustard mayonnaise, I used a whipped cream cheese. I just kind of fancied it up a little bit to more suit what we do. Not that it’s better or worse, it’s just different.”

Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express’s take on “The Jake” also includes roasted red bell pepper, mozzarella, and a splash of special sauce.

“I joke and say I have to put the “junior” in there so they don’t sue me,” Rick says with a laugh.

 

Ricardo’s Restaurant

5211 Lacey Boulevard

Lacey, Washington

360.413.9995

 

Ricardo’s Wood Fired Express

400 State Ave. NE

Olympia, Washington

lacey ricados

 

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