Along with property values, menu prices are on the rise, which means I’m on the lookout more than ever for dining deals.
Here’s today’s tip: Red Star Taco Bar’s new lunch service surprised me when I saw most of the menu items were $7 to $9 with only two dishes above $10.
The new restaurant in the St. Helens neighborhood opened in April and is a merge of a tavern and cantina (and safe for kids until 8 p.m.).
The local outpost is a duplicate of the Seattle restaurant and bar of the same name. Its co-owner Billy Beckett moved to Tacoma last year to open the St. Helens location.
Here’s a quick rundown of five things on the lunch menu you should order. Lunch service started in late May.
Tortas ahogadas: A torta ahogada typically is a sandwich drowned in a saucy bath, but here, it was treated more like a dip. Sturdy, but slightly stale, bread could have been toasted more, but the pile of roasted carnitas with grilled edges couldn’t have been more textbook. Melted cheese and grilled onions spilled out the sides. Served with a saucer of what I’d describe as Mexican marinara for your choice of dipping or drowning, $9.
Nachos: My first Red Star Tacoma trip in April yielded problematic nacho construction. A tower of chips held scant toppings sloppily applied. The return try at lunch was far, far better, with layers evenly coated with refried beans, gooey pockets of cheese, salsa drizzles, pico de gallo, black olives and a bright plop of guacamole atop the nacho mountain, $9. We paid an extra four bucks for carne asada, which was dry and chewy. Stick with carnitas.
Seafood on tortillas: After trying fish tacos at Red Star three times in three months, I can pronounce that any taco with seafood is a solid choice. On previous visits, I dug heartily into the crunchy catfish and blackened rockfish — both on the lunch menu — but I veered to the Baja Sur fish taco on this visit. It hit every cylinder of my fish-taco-lovin’ heart — well-seasoned grilled fish, cabbage pico de gallo and a thick(er) flour tortilla at its base. The meat tacos fare better on the house-made corn tortillas, which carry a bouncy texture and are thicker than you’ll expect. Fish tacos, $4 each.
Pepper queso dip: I dipped into trouble the first time I tried the cheese dip. So thin, it wouldn’t correctly cling to the warmed house-fried chips. Lingering over lunch proved that time improves this dish. The longer it cooled, the thicker it got, adhering like a cheesy drape after 10 minutes of cool-down time. As a dining partner noted, try treating the queso like a cheese course and eat it at the end of the meal. Be sure to mix in the fresh cilantro for more flavor to the dip made with menonita cheese. $8, with chips.
Tamale: A fat tamale double wrapped in corn husks held a channel of slow cooked chicken and a tangy verde sauce, with a double dose of salsa on the side for dipping. The steamed masa carried a soft, pliable texture with a sweet tease of corn flavor. Big and filling for six bucks.
Boozy bonus: Ok, ok. It was $11, so a little spendy, but diet margaritas can be a train wreck of overbearing fake sweetness.This bar’s Skinny Margarita was a refreshing blend of Pasote reposado, fresh lime, soda water and a light hand with the sweetener that made my heart sing.
The rest of the lunch menu: Taco salad ($8), taquitos ($8), wings ($7), bean-and-cheese dip ($6), baked potato served taco style ($9), 15 tacos ($3 to $5 each), quesadillas ($5 to $8), taco plate with beans and rice ($10.50) and taqi-queso, a house specialty of a double order of tacos layered with grilled cheese ($9).
Just added at lunch: Nine styles of rice-and-bean bowls with a choice of meat or vegetarian options, $8.
Red Star Taco Bar
Where: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma
Info: 253-275-0550, redstartacobar.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily