I’ve been hearing from readers about “that new restaurant” Carne Aqui South American Kitchen.
It’s not a new restaurant, just a new name.
Many forkfuls into a juicy pork chop and after commandeering many more bites of my dining partner’s steak, I got the translation of carne aqui: “Meat here.”
It’s true, the menu is meat centric, but, hey vegetarians, there’s stuff for you, too.
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Tim Hall renamed the restaurant and painted the building in October, about six months after taking it over from another restaurant owner.
Chef Ben Herreid first opened the restaurant as the Roasthouse in October 2016 but closed it a month later due to financial difficulty.
Hall took over the Parkland restaurant and reopened it in March. At that time, Hall kept the name, but he always intended to change it.
“People would mention, ‘We thought Roasthouse was a coffee place or a roaster going in.’ They couldn’t line up the food, let alone the South American or Argentinean theme. It wasn’t clicking,” said Hall of the restaurant’s identity problem.
Did the name change help?
“I have to say 100 percent. Not just the people who were curious, but for us and our identity,” he said.
Hall has worked most of his life in restaurants. He’s the second generation owner of HG Bistro, a cafe his mother started in the 1980s as the Hungry Goose Bistro, a sandwich cafe and gift store in Puyallup. Hall took over the restaurant a decade ago and converted it into an upscale bistro.
Hall turned to a former HG Bistro kitchen staffer to lead the kitchen at Carne Aqui. Nathan Hawes is executive chef.
Hawes built on Herreid’s initial concept of a restaurant focused on roasted meats and grew it to include South American-inspired dishes, such as flame-grilled steak with chimichurri, merged with taqueria-style tacos and torta sandwiches.
His love of taqueria dining grew from his youth in California (he also lived in Hawaii). Hawes credits his mother’s adventurous palate for propelling him to attend the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas. He graduated just as the recession hit and it took him a few years to find his way to better job prospects.
For Carne Aqui, he wanted a signature flavor that was impressive. His research of South American flavors led to a house spice rub used broadly across the menu. It’s a rub containing 16 ingredients with a few secrets. There’s oregano, garlic, onion, chile powder and his favorite flavor weapon: ground coffee.
“We use a dark-roast coffee. We grind it and throw it into the mix. It provides a nice robustness. We want to make sure our flavors are full bodied,” said Hawes.
Making rubs, as well as sauces and appetizers such as empanadas from scratch, has helped Hawes and Hall lower the entree price point to $19 to $20 or below. Diners easily can assemble a meal for $10 to $15.
Occasionally, Carne Aqui will offer a special at around $24.95, and Hall has been surprised to find Parkland diners eager to pay that price, but Hall and Hawes said they don’t want a restaurant routinely priced for special occasion splurges. For the prices charged, the execution is unexpectedly polished.
Hawes continually modifies the menu to keep those prices low. He recently took the rib-eye steak off the menu because its cost had soared so high, the $18.95 price no longer was realistic. He swapped it with a New York cut.
Here’s what else you need to know about Carne Aqui:
The space: Comfortable with a come-as-you-are accessibility in both design and service. Table service is offered, but diners won’t find a host hovering at the door. Safe for kids, your grandma, office mates or a date.
Seating: Seating for 49 in a tiered dining room with stairs up to an upper dining area. Comfortable booths seat parties of four. Tables in the center can fit larger groups.
The menu: Appetizers include Argentina prawn skewers ($8), empanadas ($8), pulled-pork nachos ($9) and cheese-filled churros ($8). Salads will appeal to both meat eaters and vegetarians ($5.95 to $10.95).
The entree menu changes, but my visit found grilled carne asada ($12.95), slow-roasted pork shoulder ($12.95), a brined pork chop ($14.95), ribeye steak ($18.95), boneless short ribs ($16.50) and lamb shank ($15.95). Entrees served with seasonal vegetables, plus a choice of roasted potatoes, fries, quinoa or polenta.
Smaller plates of portable food includes a trio of tacos with a choice of meat or vegetarian ($8.95). Three kinds of torta sandwiches with a choice of pork, brisket or a burger torta ($10.95 to $12.95, all served with fries).
Must tries: A brined-and-grilled pork chop spilled juices at first cut, the sign of a well-handled chop. Those juices swirled around a sweet-and-tangy apricot chipotle sauce that collided with a fluffy quinoa salad and a side of flame-licked sliced yellow squash.
Impressive that an entirely different vegetable, tasty green beans, flanked the ribeye steak ($18.95, it’s now off the menu). Most restaurants will pick a vegetable side and serve it with every dish, but not here. The steak’s texture had an easy chew and delicious beefy flavor from flame grilling. It arrived perfectly medium rare and flavored with that coffee rub and chimichurri.
Definitely get the fried churros stuffed with green chiles and cheddar ($8) or the fried avocados ($8) if you’re not concerned about caloric load. If you are, try the Caesar lime salad, which was a big plate of romaine and crunchy veggies dressed with creamy dressing heavy on lime ($5.95).
For dessert: Save room for the cheesecake made with goat cheese. Lightly sweet with a pronounced tang complemented by a sweet blueberry coulis ($7).
Drink list: A short list of specialty cocktails, plus bottled beer and wine.
Carne Aqui South American Kitchen
Where: 14506 Pacific Ave S., Tacoma; 253-535-6328; facebook.com/CarneAqui.
Hours: Serving lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays.