Think there's no such thing as free food? Then you didn't observe happy hour where I did today. And you probably weren't of legal drinking age the last time a bar or restaurant served free food at happy hour.
Maxwell's, the month-old speakeasy restaurant in the 81-year-old Walker building, is reviving a totally '80s trend that'll stoke your wallet in what's otherwise a grotty-to-the-max economy: free happy-hour food, and not just deep-fried nuggets of gnarly grub.
Today, Maxwell's lead line cook, Jesus Boites, cooked up a do-it-yourself taco bar. Grilled chicken was tender. Ground beef was studded with carrots and onions. Corn tortillas were soft and grilled. Everything was kept warm and fresh in a warm-water-bath chafing dish. Tomatillo salsa, pico de gallo, shredded jack and cheddar cheeses, shredded lettuce and cabbage and sour cream rounded out the buffet.
Tuesday's freebies will be chicken wings and assorted sauces. Wednesday is jambalaya. Thursday is braised meat sliders. Get this: One of the guys in kitchen whites will build the sandwiches to order for guests in the bar on Thursdays with what Maxwell's honcho Troy Christian said will be "the meat of the week."
No free food on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, just $1 off on small plates, from halibut cheeks to tenderloin tartare. Cheese and cured meats ($3 each or four for $9, with nibbles like olives and almonds) are attractive any time.
After eating two free tacos, a few small plates, one shared entree and nursing two cocktails (all except the tacos were billed to my expense account), here's my First Bite take on Maxwell's Speakeasy + Lounge: things are tasting and looking good.
Maxwell's has easy-going, upscale style. Diners are greeted by chain-draped chandeliers and gauzy curtains that made me feel like I'd stumbled into a flapper's dressing room. Low ceilings, moody earth tones and shadowy lighting give the bar and warrens of dining areas an aura befitting Maxwell's speakeasy subtitle.
The menu (overseen by consulting chef Sean Quinn and executed by Pacific Grill/Beach House veteran Matt Colony) is built around small plates and sharable entrees (beef tenderloin, grilled King salmon, potato-crusted cod) and side dishes (savory cheesecake, buttered pasta, sauteed mushrooms with truffle oil), most priced $6-$21. The pricey exception is a $32 rib steak.
On opening night April 25, I savored three lamb porterhouse chops from Ellensburg, dressed in mushrooms, almonds and lemon. The tender and tasty chops were bubblegum pink inside and charry-black outside. Onion soup made with Walla Wallas was a bowl of sweet-salty depth and bliss, with sherry and cave-aged gruyere bookending the lively onions. Aside from fantastic flavor and total comfort, there were onions, cheese and croutons in every spoonful.
Since then, beef tenderloin tartare was a heavenly hillock of raw meat infused with sassy soy-kaffir sauce, ginger-lemongrass relish and Thai pepper oil. That raw quail egg on top wasn't just pomp; it was a creamy protein condiment that goosed each bite. I nursed two fresh-squeezed cocktails: a twist on the sidecar with Italian lemoncello and Greek brandy, a rocks margarita with a tequila (Patron) worthy of the drink's $10 price tag.
I'll review Maxwell's around late July or early August. I'll expect better of the halibut cheeks (dry and string) and the bitter-sweet pomegranate mignonet that was served with briney oysters.
Also coming up for Maxwell's: sidewalk seating and lighting.
Maxwell's Speakeasy + Lounge: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma; 253-683-4115. Hours: 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 5 p.m-9 p.m. Sundays. Happy hour: 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (free happy-hour food Mondays-Thursdays)