TNT Diner

Pork belly tacos, duck taquitos and plenty of tequila on the menu at Tacoma’s newest waterfront restaurant, Casco Antiguo

Al pastor tacos are one of eight kinds of tacos served at Casco Antiguo. The tacos are served a la carte as duos.
Al pastor tacos are one of eight kinds of tacos served at Casco Antiguo. The tacos are served a la carte as duos.

I don’t know which was better: the churro or the cocktails. The view?

That view from newly opened Casco Antiguo yielded the same vistas as nearby Museum of Glass and Social Bar and Grill on the Foss Waterway: Boats floating in the marina. The bustling working waterfront. Residents walking dogs along the esplanade.

Those churros and cocktails were both served in abundance. And there were also al pastor tacos, tequila flights, pork cheeks and duck taquitos at the restaurant that opened last week inside The Henry, a retail-residential building.

Here’s a first-bite visit of Tacoma’s newest waterfront restaurant, which is an outpost of the Seattle restaurant with the same name. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month.

The space: Breezy, expansive space with most of the dining room real estate devoted to terrific waterfront views from just about every seat. Four-person tables line two walls of oversized windows. Some of those floor-to-ceiling windows slide open to a plaza overlooking the waterfront.

Table spacing is airy. Two large tables fit parties of eight. The bar holds high-top seating. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant fits about 100, plus seating on the patio that is just above the walkway that spans the waterway. The decor is minimalist-industrial with blocky blonde wood tables, metal chairs, polished concrete floors, exposed brick and a garden wall with potted plants rising to the ceiling. A dramatic mural spans the wall opposite the windows. An open kitchen flanks the bar and provides a little kitchen theater.

Noise: I worried polished concrete floors would bounce noise, but there’s baffling in the ceiling. Pulsing electronic music might make for loud chatting, though.

Food concept: No mounds of free chips, cheap tacos or margaritas made with bottle mixer. This Mexican restaurant and bar reads much more like downtown Tacoma’s Matador than chain restaurants Azteca or Mazatlan. Casco Antiguo looks sophisticated, advertises higher quality ingredients, keeps portions small and shakes cocktails from scratch.

Dress-up place? It’s come-as-you-are casual, but sophisticated enough for a date night. Kids are allowed in the dining room, but not the bar.

Menu: Food is Mexican cantina brushed with a bit of Northwest flair. Happy hour is 3-6 p.m. with a list of appetizers priced $6 and cocktails at $7. Lunch items included eight appetizers ($5-$12); eight a la carte taco duos ($8-$10, add rice and beans for $5) to three enchilada plates ($12-$13) and three entrees ($10-$13).

Dinner offered a meatier menu with nine appetizers ($5-$12); seven la carte taco duos ($8-$11); three enchilada plates ($12-$13) and five entrees plates ($15-$18).

Drinks: One page of tequila-by-the-shot ($7-$65, and that’s not a typo); seven margarita choices ($8-$12) and five specialty cocktails ($8-$13). Beer and wine/sangria also listed, plus tequila flights ($12-$18).

On a first visit, eat: From the appetizer menu, select a duo of taquitos filled with shredded, slow-cooked duck and served with a puckery side of pickled red cabbage, carrots and onions ($11). A single empanada was fried deeply brown, filled with sweet plantain and thick black beans, with a thick avocado sauce to slide the turnover through ($8). Yes, appetizer portions are small.

Tacos at lunch improved the value-to-size ratio if that’s a diner’s priority. (Personally, I’ll take smaller portions with better ingredients over a big plate of mediocre food.) Tacos al pastor were modeled after Mexican street tacos, but with flavors and ingredients you might not expect (pork belly, brisket, octopus). Pastor style translated to jiggly wedges of fatty-edged roasted pork belly, topped with a guajillo sauce, grilled pineapple, fresh cilantro and diced red onions ($9).

At dinner: Dig into a trio of sherry-braised pork cheeks, the tender pork perched atop a corn mash with a pleasant texture and surrounded by a pool of chile sauce ($15).

Drink first: Cocktails are an excellent introduction and the ones that arrived at my table were well shaken. Try the slightly more-smoky-than-sweet mezcal margarita with Peloton de la Muerte mezcal, the slightest splash of orange liqueur, agave and a rim rolled through smoked salt ($11). The double platinum was something like a paloma-margarita hybrid with Hacienda Sotol Platinum paired with grapefruit and lime juice and elderflower liqueur ($13). The rough-edged sotol margarita was softened some by orange liqueur and a heavy citrus squeeze ($12). The dulce de tamarindo was as sour as it was laden with rum, with a bit of heat from Ancho Reyes chile liqueur ($12).

All were served over ice in rocks glasses (also known as lowballs).

Those churros: A half-dozen churros stacked tall in a skillet and served with dulce de leche ($7). They offered an eggy, resilient texture like a delicious cousin to a French cruller doughnut. Dusted with cinnamon and sugar, they made a fabulous counterpart to the sticky dulce de leche.

Parking: Yes, it’s a pain. A rare street spot yields lower city parking fees. Limited parking is available inside the parking garage at The Henry, in spots 1-40 only, with a charge of $2 for up to three hours. Other paid lots and garages are within walking distance. Also: The waterfront is gorgeous. Get out of your car and hoof it.

Casco Antiguo

Where: 1901 Dock St., Tacoma; 253-212-0665; Serving lunch and dinner daily.