TNT Diner

First bite: El Tufo wine bar in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood

A pinch of cayenne in a spicy pepper aioli.

A handful of the holy trinity in a chorizo-stuffed calamari.

If you spot tweaks of Cajun in the Spanish tapas at El Tufo, that’s just Ben Marcus’ cooking doing the talking.

Marcus is a longtime South Sound chef and Louisiana native who formerly worked at the long-gone (but still talked about) Cajun restaurant in Parkland, From The Bayou, that operated from 1998-2007. His brother Matthew Marcus ran that restaurant with business partner Kevin Roy (who eventually ran it solo). Matthew returned to Louisiana, but Ben and another brother, Jonathan Marcus, stayed here.

Ben Marcus worked for about a decade at the Powerhouse Brewery in Puyallup before a few other short cooking assignments in Puyallup and Tacoma.

In March, Marcus became chef at El Tufo, the St. Helens neighborhood Spanish-themed wine bar that’s a sibling business to Stink, the meat and cheese store and cafe owned by Kris Blondin, who previously owned Vin Grotto, a wine bar downtown.

Blondin first opened Stink, the store, in April 2011, adding the wine bar in 2012. In March, she retooled the wine bar to become El Tufo — which means “stink” in Spanish — because “it was something Tacoma needed.”

“For the last four years, we’ve been a lunch place and the whole idea of changing the format was to capture some of that evening and dinner crowd, and we have. It’s been very interesting,” Blondin said.

After two anonymous visits, I can see why diners are discovering — and liking — El Tufo. The 14-item small plates menu looked downright interesting, built with Spanish ingredients tough to find on Tacoma menus.

Plates were small, with two or three nibbles, and ideal for sharing. A light meal for three easily could be had for $30, making El Tufo one of the better deals in a several-block radius. And the wine? It’s deep on Spanish bottles — and well-priced to match.

“I’ve always loved Spanish wines. For one thing, they’re fabulous. They’re also so affordable,” said Blondin, a local go-to expert on rosé wines.

Several Spanish glasses at El Tufo are priced as low as $6 and the pours were generous. Wines ranged from the classic Spanish reds and whites to two styles currently in a state of rediscovery for wine fans — rosé and sparkling.

The Jaume Serra Cristalino cava ($7) was a fizzy companion for spicy Spanish chorizo. A glass of Mia rosé, a blend of muscat and tempranillo ($6), was an uncomplicated sipper well suited for any of Marcus’ spicier dishes, but especially his Mahon cheese ($5), a dish that was so simple, yet so wonderfully satisfying, and tasted like the more interesting sibling of mozzarella sticks with marinara. Marcus dipped broad swaths of creamy Mahon cheese in an egg wash and panko crumbs, then pan-fried the milky cheese, served in a sharp tomato sauce with a light dusting of Cajun heat (Marcus called the pops of Louisiana “just enough to be noticeable”). I wanted seconds.

A duo of mushroom empanadas ($5) arrived as a melange of wild mushrooms with Manchego cheese and a splash of sherry vinegar, baked into buttery, flaky pastry. Once again, Marcus finished the dish with a hint of peppery heat.

El Tufo’s house Spanish chorizo was a cured sausage more similar to something found at an Italian salumeria than the crumbly Mexican sausage at your local supermarket. I plucked out several thick slices from the hearty white bean stew ($5) licked with smoke. That chorizo also showed up as the primary flavor vehicle for a smoky stuffing tucked into calamari tubes ($6) that had been sauteed in olive oil and sherry until tender, then served with a piquant pepper aioli.

The largest dish sampled was the flatbread ($6), a meal-for-one with a pungent, sweet topper of crisped prosciutto, veiny blue cheese and a tart grape chutney sparingly applied.

Deviled eggs are a current menu darling around town, with new versions popping up at Maxwell’s and Pacific Grill. Everyone should try the El Tufo version. Three halved eggs ($3) held a salty symphony of black olives, capers, and red peppers with just enough yolk for a creamy finish.

Looking forward, expect to see new dishes cycle onto the menu, as well as summer wine cocktails, said Blondin, who is currently on a research mission in Spain. She expects to add sangria and cava cocktails after she returns.

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