Gone are the chain-draped chandeliers, the cushy high-back banquette seating, the menu of steaks and chops.
In are heavy iron accents, shellacked wooden booths and a menu with an even ratio of margaritas to tacos.
Red Star Taco Bar Tacoma opened April 3 in the Walker building in the St. Helens neighborhood and is quite the opposite of its fine dining predecessor, Maxwell’s, which opened there in 2008 and closed in 2016.
Think of Red Star as a high energy bar with a penchant for tequila and inexpensive tacos.
It fits nicely into a neighborhood quickly adding to its food and cocktail roster. Devil’s Reef cocktail lounge opened nearby in January, and just down the street is the new Moshi Moshi Bar + Ramen.
Here’s a first-bite look. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service in a restaurant’s first month.
The owners: Billy Beckett is the on-site co-owner who bought a house in Tacoma. Co-owner Padraic Markle will stay in Seattle and operate the Fremont taco bar. Their other business partner is Joseph Cable. The original Red Star Taco Bar opened in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood in 2014. Tacoma is a near duplicate of the Seattle location, from the menu to the bar atmosphere.
The dining room: Like a tavern collided with a modern cantina. Concrete floors, dark stained wooden booths, iron accents and a colorful second-story mural depicting a desert landscape with a surprise appearance from Mount Rainier. A front entry staircase and catwalk takes diners to a newly accessible second-story dining room that will handle spillover dining when busy (or private dining). While it most definitely is a bar, children are welcome until 8 p.m.
More tacos? This is the fifth Seattle-based taco joint to duplicate in Tacoma: Matador (2006), Brewers Row (2016), El Borracho (2016), Casco Antiguo (it operated from May-October 2017) and now Red Star Taco Bar.
Hey, Seattle: Stop sending us taco bars. They’re fun and all, but we need Ethiopian or Middle Eastern next, 'k?
Frame of reference: Speaking of Seattle tacos, Red Star is comparable to all of the above. It’s got a little Tex-Mex on the menu like Matador, handmade tortillas like El Borracho and the cocktails nod in the direction of where Casco Antiguo was going before it shuttered. Like Brewers Row, all meats, salsas and accompaniments are built from scratch.
The menu: Tacos are the star of the menu here with 15 varieties. This is not traditional taqueria-style by any stretch. Taste overrules purity.
“We took our favorite things in the world and turned them into tacos,” explained Beckett. That’s why diners will see carnitas and carne asada alongside Buffalo chicken and Korean short rib tacos.
Tacos are $3 to $5 with happy hour and bulk discounts. The rest of the menu lists Americanized quesadillas called “gringas” ($5 to $8), grilled asadero cheese tacos called “taqui-queso” ($9), nachos ($9), wings ($7), taquitos ($8), queso ($8), tamales ($6), taco salad ($8) and torta ahogadas ($9). Chips and salsa come with a $2 surcharge with more fees for guacamole ($6) and pico ($3).
Dietary restrictions: Tofu or sweet potato tacos, tamales, nachos, more for vegetarians and vegans. All but the shredded beef, short ribs and flour tortillas are gluten-free, but grill cross contamination can happen. Give the server a heads up and the kitchen will try and accommodate a fresh cleaning surface, said Beckett.
The cocktails: 15 margaritas, each tastier than the last ($7 to $11), plus eight specialty cocktails ($8 to $10).
A pomegranate slushy margarita swung tart then boozy ($7). The house margarita was heavy on Arette blanco, with triple sec and a sour mix more sour than sweet ($8). Roasted pineapple sweetened up another margarita, with a rocket fuel finish from a strong pour of Arette blanco ($9). The house sangria could become my favorite in town, with swirls of peach liqueur, rum and a tart citrus and garnacha finish ($8).
On a first visit: Pick the springy house made corn tortillas over the soft-and-puffy flour tortillas (that are outsourced).
Breaded, fried catfish came with a sweet crunch and spicy remoulade ($4). Carnitas carried crispy edges with pico and salsa verde ($4).
Tasty tequila-lime chicken was grilled and topped with lettuce, pico, salsa verde and a squiggle of crema ($3). Plump shrimp were brushed with a Sriracha honey sauce packing a wallop of spice, dressed with cabbage, cilantro and cubes of fresh pineapple ($5).
Buffalo chicken was tastier than I imagined with spicy grilled chicken carrying serious tang and heavy spice, shredded iceberg and a sprinkle of good blue cheese ($4). Kick it old school with a crunchy ground beef taco with cheddar, black olives, shredded iceberg, pico and a drizzle of crema ($2, happy hour only).
A tamale arrived double layered in corn husks, steamy hot, with spicy salsa verde and a channel of slow cooked chicken ($6). Nachos were built as a pyramid with a blanket of refried beans, pico, black olives, cheese, crema, salsa roja and a big glob of guacamole ($9).
Happy hour: I predict this will be the do-not-miss happy hour of St. Helens and Stadium. 4-6 p.m. daily and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday. Cheap tacos ($2 to $2.50), $7 house margarita, $3 Tecate, nachos ($7) and more. All day $2 tacos on Taco Tuesdays.
What’s next: Lunch coming in the next month or so.
Red Star Taco Bar Tacoma
Where: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma
Info: 253-275-0550, redstartacobar.com
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily