Fans of Maxwell’s, the restaurant that closed in 2016 in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood, will recall a single dining room with linen-clad tables, sparkly chandeliers, occasional live jazz and a menu of semi-fussy steaks, chops and seafood.
When new operators reopen that two-year-vacant space, there will be a second-story dining area with a catwalk, wooden booths seating up to 10, a menu of tacos and a bar with 50 types of tequila.
To say the space won’t be recognizable is an understatement, said co-owner Billy Beckett, who is opening Red Star Taco Bar in the Walker Building.
The official opening of Red Star will be March 27 if all goes as planned (conveniently, that’s a Taco Tuesday).
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Red Star Taco Bar Tacoma will be a duplicate of Beckett’s Fremont neighborhood bar and taco restaurant in Seattle.
The design is reminiscent of the Fremont location with handbuilt wooden booths holding parties large and small, reclaimed wood accents to soften the hard edges of the industrial vibe and a newly built staircase at the front of the restaurant that leads up to a space that will hold spillover crowds or private parties.
The menu, cocktail list and Beckett himself will be exported to Tacoma.
Beckett won’t just work here, he also bought a house here near Cheney Stadium, which is convenient considering he just bought season tickets to the Rainiers.
Like other Seattle restaurant operators who have expanded to Tacoma, Beckett said T-town’s amenities and affordability pulled the owners south.
“It came down to, we liked it. It’s affordable. It’s up-and-coming. Saying that, up-and-coming, sounds like I’m taking a dig at Tacoma. It’s not at all what I mean. This place has its own spirit, its own character. We just connected with it. When we found the Maxwell’s space, we were all in. There was never a discussion. After we toured it, we looked at each other and nodded our heads,” said Beckett.
Business partner Padraic Markle will stay in Seattle and operate the Fremont taco bar while Beckett will oversee Tacoma’s Red Star.
They also have another business partner, Joseph Cable.
The trio met as restaurant workers in Seattle.
Markle and Beckett met at The Ballroom and became close friends before building Red Star Taco Bar from scratch in 2014.
Their story sounds a little like Seattle’s El Borracho. Kittie Davidovich and Adam Pomerleau were also restaurant workers who opened a taco restaurant with a bar that they duplicated in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood in August.
Exporting taco bars from Seattle is becoming a familiar theme. Last year, Casco Antiguo opened on the Foss Waterway in May and closed in October. Brewers Row opened near the Proctor neighborhood in 2016 and is a close duplicate of its sister Seattle restaurant, TNT Taqueria. (Hey, Seattle, could we get Ethiopian restaurants next, please?)
Like El Borracho, Red Star Taco Bar will have a robust happy hour program twice a day, 4-6 p.m. daily and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday.
Prices are about what Matador charges, which is yet another Seattle-based bar with tacos that expanded to Tacoma.
Tacos at Red Star are built on house-made corn tortillas (flour tortillas are outsourced). All fillings are made from scratch, including salsas, sauces and meats broken down, marinated and cooked in house.
Some menu flavors and certainly the cocktail menu are inspired by Mexico, where Markle spent a year living, but Beckett said the menu is broader because much like burgers, tacos are a flexible vehicle for a wide range of ingredients and flavors.
They built their menu with flavors they like, which is why carnitas tacos are listed next to Korean short rib, catfish and Buffalo chicken tacos.
The appetizer menu includes house-fried chips and salsa for $2, taquitos ($8), nachos ($9), tamales ($6), a tortas ahogadas sandwich ($9) and quesadillas ($5 to $8). The menu also lists something called a taqui-queso, which is a cheesy taco-quesadilla hybrid ($9).
A taco plate with any two tacos plus rice and beans is the bargain on the menu at $10.50.
A menu of 15 tacos also are served a la carte $3 to $5 each, with beans and rice a $3 upcharge.
Beckett’s bar program focuses on a wide range of tequilas that are affordable (Altos or Arette blanco, $7) to higher end (Don Julio 1942, $24/Fortaleza anejo, $20). The cocktail menu lists 10 margaritas ($7 to $11) and a half dozen other specialty cocktails ($8 to $10). The tequila menu is one page and there’s another page of mezcal.
To start, the taco bar and cocktail lounge will be open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, but the bar will eventually expand to lunch.
I took a field trip to the Seattle Red Star Taco Bar. Here’s advice for what to try on a first visit in Tacoma, plus notes on what to skip.
The Mezcal Michelada carried a double punch of smoke from Del Maguey Vida Mezcal and chipotle-flavored Tabasco, plus plenty of acidity from tomato juice and lime ($9). Margarita slushies sound like a spring break booze dare, but order the pomegranate with a seesaw of sweet-and-tart built for a grown-up palate ($7). A house margarita was well beyond serviceable with Arette blanco, triple sec and a house-made sour mix heavy on lime ($8).
Don’t hesitate to order the Korean short rib taco, no matter how much this culinary mash-up violates your personal food-purity edict. The salty-sweet marinade suggested the flavor of kalbi. Sweet pops of fresh pineapple topped the slow-cooked meat with a velvety tug. Piled high on a pillowy house made corn tortilla, and dressed with cabbage ($5).
Carnitas carried crispy edges, as they always should, dressed with pico and salsa verde ($4). Smoky pork adobo also came with crunchy fresh pineapple plus a sprinkle of cotija, cilantro and onion ($4). Blackened rockfish was good on fish flavor but not on seasoning, unfortunately ($4). Skip it. A breakfast taco sported an over-hard fried egg with cinnamon-laced house-made chorizo, garnished with pico and salsa verde ($4).
Vegetarians don’t get shafted here with a bland pile of disappointment. A sweet potato and black bean taco was the most assertively spiced of all sampled. Sweet potatoes (not yams) had a spicy-sweet marinade with more spicy reinforcement from salsa verde. Garnished with iceberg, like crunchy tacos of yesteryear ($3). Speaking of which, they list crunchy beef tacos on the happy hour menu for $2.
My jury is still out on these hybrid quesadilla-tacos made with fried cheese, called taqui-quesos. Is it possible that cheese on a taco can be gratuitous? Possibly so when asadero is grilled until almost crunchy and piled on a taco dressed with iceberg, pico and cotija ($9). I couldn’t taste the shredded beef through all that cheese.
Red Star Taco Bar Tacoma
Where: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, redstartacobar.com
Opening: March 27, if all goes as planned.