New high-end Mexican steakhouse Cuerno Bravo is open in Tacoma. Here’s a first look
Opening a high-end concept restaurant in Tacoma is tricky right now, especially just after we lost the best fine dining restaurant in Tacoma.
Cuerno Bravo in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood quietly reopened two weeks ago, six months after a tentative start that came crashing to a halt due to pandemic restrictions.
This is one of those restaurants you need to have on your to-dine list for so many reasons: It’s a level of restaurant we don’t see opening here often. It has the longest and best list of premium beef in the city (El Gaucho included). It’s a beautiful restaurant with kitchen equipment rivaling the finest steakhouses.
And what if I told you that Cuerno Bravo is totally affordable if you go in with a strategy and some advice from your friendly neighborhood food journalist?
This is a flexible restaurant concept to a degree that is so needed right now. Want to drop $200 on apps, premium cocktails and Japanese A5 beef? No problem. They’ve got you covered. Want to spend $25 for two on outstanding Wagyu tacos and some housemade guacamole? No problem. They’ve got you covered, too.
But before I advise you on dining for every budget at the area’s first steakhouse of this kind, let’s explore the origin story of Cuerno Bravo.
A BEEF TRAGEDY: LOSING $30,000 WORTH OF MEAT
Cuerno Bravo has been a work in progress for two years in Tacoma. Owner David Orozco opened the restaurant briefly in March. And then came the pandemic.
“It was crushing,” he said this week. “We put all this effort into getting to work and then we get the slap in our face. And we had to shut down. We couldn’t operate take-out because it wouldn’t make financial sense.”
So, “We thought we’d open in Phase 3 when we get to 75 percent seating, but we’re stuck in Phase 2 for God knows how long.”
And so they re-reopened two weeks ago.
What makes the opening all the more bittersweet is what they overcame to do so.
Somebody – they don’t definitively know who – vandalized the outside of the building, which led to a walk-in cooler malfunction. “So they decided to pull the fuses to the compressor and it stopped working,” said Orozco. “And all of our meat that we invested and brought back, during the opening in March went bad. I’m talking about $30,000 of meat gone.”
The worst part? Due to what could only be described as a complete cluster, there was no insurance payout and he had to eat that cost.
And then a week before opening, employees arrived to find the front window broken.
Despite that, Orozco is optimistic. Tacoma turned out in a big way the last two weekends since they relaunched. “We were at our capacity all weekend,” Orozco said this week. He’s relieved to find an audience here. I’m relieved to have a beautiful new restaurant with such an unusual concept.
HIGH END BEEF AT GREAT PRICES
Orozco is the Northwest’s biggest champion of boutique beef. Food publications have broadly lauded his focus on prime beef, Wagyu and A5 meat – and his role as a premium beef trendsetter in the entire Northwest.
The lowest grade of beef he serves in his restaurants is USDA prime, which is the highest grading designated afforded by the USDA. And the prices are unbelievable for that grade of beef – like $29.99 for a 16-ounce prime ribeye. Good luck finding that price point anywhere else here.
Heading upward on the beef-grading scale, he offers American Wagyu, imported Australian Wagyu and Japanese A5 on Cuerno Bravo’s menu. Beef lovers will know those terms and for those deep-level beef geeks: Orozco even lists the prefecture source for his A5, so if you want beef from Miyazaki or Hokkaido, his menu will direct you.
If that last sentence was a mystery to you, just know that this is premium beef that is super difficult to source because it’s so damn expensive, and few restaurants offer it because they don’t want to risk the waste costs associated with a premium product.
Plus there’s this: Sourcing high-end beef in itself can become a part-time job for a restaurant.
For efficiency, restaurants typically order from a purveyor or two and a restaurant is limited to what that purveyor can get. Boutique beef is not readily available to most purveyors.
For Orozco, building relationships with beef importers is his passion and it shows on his menu.
“I’m always pushing for new limits and getting better, better and better to see what they can offer me,” he said. “I’ve been traveling quite a while the last few years to all the great steak restaurants around the world. I try and find the best steak. If you go and travel, you go to big steakhouses in Vegas, Chicago or New York, you see what they’re using. We’ve been working with guys who are raising very, very craft beef. I’m always trying to push the boundaries at getting the best beef we can for the very best price we can.”
Did I mention that $29.99 prime ribeye? What if I told you that you could get a 16-ounce Carrara 640 Wagyu New York strip for $59.99. FIFTY NINE NINETY NINE. For beef connoisseurs, that has got to be the best beef beacon I’ve ever shone for you. I cannot stress how premium this beef program is and, yes, spending $59.99 on a steak is not in the cards for a lot of diners right now, but there is Wagyu on the menu for $10.99 to $16 (more on that in a minute).
STEAKHOUSES IN TACOMA: A LIMITED FIELD
The steakhouse field is narrow in Tacoma to begin with, so an opening of this kind is exciting and welcomed.
You’re more likely to find a great pub steak in Tacoma than a high-end steakhouse (see: Loose Wheel and the West End Pub & Grill, which will reopen under new ownership).
We also have the top-notch Argentinean steakhouse Asado, in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood, but it’s temporarily closed (but WILL reopen). Zodiac Supper Club, an unusual grill-your-own steakhouse concept, has been temporarily closed, but is awakening for service this week. There’s also the Brazilian steakhouse at Tacoma Mall.
If you look, you can find great steak in Tacoma’s top restaurants. Chef-owner Charlie McManus of Primo Grill on Sixth Avenue grills a killer steak along with Chef-owner Deanna Harris Hicks of Opera Alley’s Over the Moon Cafe, Chef Nathan Hawes at Midland’s Bar Bistro, Chef Gustav Froyd at Parkland’s Carne Aqui, Chef Robyn Alexander of Gilman House, and Chef Alex Anton at The Mill in Milton (which has a more robust steak list than the previous restaurants mentioned). Those are all great steak destinations, but I certainly wouldn’t call them full-concept steakhouses with a boutique list of steak choices.
Then there’s El Gaucho. The high-end purveyor of meat that has long been the go-to upscale steakhouse in Tacoma. I smell trouble. Not only is Cuerno Bravo’s come-as-you-are, minimalist decor and atmo better suited for Tacoma’s current needs, so are the price tags for premium beef at Cuerno Bravo. The selection at Cuerno Bravo? It’s better, deeper and more interesting. Look out, El Gaucho. You’ve got serious competition.
HUMBLE START IN A KENT STRIP MALL
Cuerno Bravo’s origin story is one I love to tell, mostly because this restaurant has its roots in a strip mall and my longtime readers will know that I love a good strip-mall restaurant. Orozco, whose family immigrated here from Mexico, started his food career first selling food from a pop-up stand outside a nightclub and then in a strip mall in Kent. He opened his Kent restaurant Asadero in 2015.
His Kent strip-mall restaurant Asadero is considered a regional treasure among steak lovers who revere high-quality beef served northern Mexican style. He expanded that strip-mall concept to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with Asadero Ballard in 2016 and then headed south to open Cuerno Bravo, which carries a different name and slightly different concept than his Asadero restaurants.
THE ATMOSPHERE IS DATE-NIGHT READY
The St. Helens location for Cuerno Bravo is date-night friendly, but not so fancy that you can’t hang out on a random Thursday night with your boo. Cuerno Bravo is built into a beautiful historic building, which formerly housed the Arctic Bottling Company, that’s one of those long-and-narrow spaces prolifically found throughout old Tacoma.
It reminds me of what Pacific Grill would look like if somebody had taken Gordon Naccarato’s restaurant and plopped it down in Sinaloa, shook it up a little, and imported it back to Tacoma. There’s a little glam, a lot of comfort and a deep focus on the experience.
Seating is a mix of booths and two-and-four top tables stretching all the way back to the galley, which is where the dinner theater happens in the on-display kitchen.
The dining room lighting is moody with two levels of pendants casting shadows from ceiling to floor. Two massive trees spring up from the floor and reach nearly to the ceiling, offering a spectacular flicker of visual interest.
Orozco sourced those trees in Mexico. “We wanted them to be something big and nice, but also minimalistic. I really like minimalist decor,” he said. “Those are driftwood trees.”
That’s right. The trees are built from pieces of driftwood. They arrived in pieces and Orozco and his parents put them together. “It was quite a bit of work, but when I want something, whether it’s decorations or beef, I have to get it somehow,” he said, laughing.
The 80-seat restaurant (operating at half capacity during current dining restrictions) is geared toward adult dining, but kids are allowed. And your kids love tacos, right?
COOKING WITH FIRE AT CUERNO BRAVO
Mexican steakhouses are all about charcoal grills and open flames and Orozco’s Cuerno Bravo delivers big on both those things. Sight lines are intentionally open so spectators can take in the views of the bustling kitchen full of fire from nearly every table. You won’t smell any of that in the dining room, though. Orozco spent as much in the venting system as many restaurants invest in their entire projects. The venting is outstanding.
Cuerno Bravo’s kitchen is equipped with a high-end charcoal grill and wood-fired oven, both of which generate an incredible amount of heat and sizzle. Nestled at the back of the galley is the showpiece of the restaurant: A Josper, which is a charcoal-fired grill that is the most premium of all charcoal ovens used by some of the best chefs in the world.
Orozco imports his mesquite from Mexico. The Josper, and its high efficiency charcoal, are also imported from Spain. It’s worth noting here that there are no kitchens equipped with Jospers anywhere near Tacoma. Cooking over charcoal is such a tricky endeavor, Orozco has trouble finding chefs who have ever operated one. (If you have, you need to get in touch with Orozco if you’re looking for work).
What shows up on your table is a molten-hot stone platter filled with beefy perfection. Sauces and accompaniments at a typical steakhouse might be cream-laden and derived from old-school European recipes.
At Cuerno Bravo, those sauce boats are filled with salsas and pickled vegetables that express the palate of Latin America.
Who needs grilled mushrooms and peppercorn sauce? Blistered jalapenos and salsa roja are the most exquisite of steak accessories here.
THE STEAK MENU
On the opening dinner menu, which you should expect will change with product availability and Orozco’s whims, a dozen steaks spanned the gamut of high-end beef. They are served a la carte (except for the carne asada platter). They include:
PRIME USDA GRADE: a 24-ounce Delmonico ($49.99), a 16-ounce Mexican cut New York strip ($29.99), 16-ounce ribeye ($29.99) and 24-ounce porterhouse ($59.99).
AMERICAN WAGYU: A 16-ounce carne asada platter ($26.99), a 14-ounce vacio ($30.99), a 10-ounce zabuton ($30.99) and 8-ounce ultra-grade filet ($50.99). Those last three are listed from Snake River Farms.
AUSTRALIAN WAGYU: A 16-ounce Carrara 640 Wagyu New York strip ($59.99) and 16-ounce Wylarah Wagyu ($79.99).
JAPANESE A5: A5 ribeye from Miyazaki prefecture ($59.99) and A5 filet from Hokkaido prefecture ($99.99).
CHICKEN AND FISH: A few options for steak avoiders, but no entree options for vegetarians. Find pollo asado with grilled pineapple and beans ($20.99), grilled Ora King salmon with fire-roasted vegetables and a salad ($25.99) and a trio of grilled halibut tacos ($16.99).
APPETIZERS, SIDES, TACOS AND TORTAS
Steaks are served a la carte here, except for the Wagyu carne asada ($26.99), which is served in an enormous portion built for sharing on a wooden board with tortillas, a swath of cactus and beans to assemble into tacos.
Order your sides as separately priced add-on items. The choices are delicious and also affordably built for sharing. There’s fire-roasted poblano peppers in a cream sauce ($7.99), seasonal vegetables ($7.99), a creamy rice dish that is the recipe from Orozco’s abuela ($7.99) and the most gigantic steak-and-bacon topped baked potato you’ll ever set eyes on ($10.99).
From the appetizer menu, items are just as affordable with guacamole and handmade tostadas ($7.99), a bone marrow canoe ($5.99), fancy jalapeno poppers with cream cheese and bacon ($4.99) and molletes ($5.99).
Budget watchers should look to the Wagyu vacio tacos ($16.99, for four) served with fresh handmade corn tortillas, or prime ribeye tacos ($15.99, for four). There’s also a torta sandwich served Argentinean style with chimichurri ($16.99).
THE COCKTAIL MENU
The margarita menu goes deep on mezcal with four of six margaritas made with the smoky spirit distilled from agave. The house mezcal is joven from Xicaru, the Oaxacan craft distillery founded by Fernando Santibañez. There’s a watermelon-lime mezcal margarita ($14), a cucumber-lime mezcal margarita ($13), a spicy version with habanero ($13) and a guava-habanero mezcal margarita ($14). Also find a blanco margarita made with Arette tequilla ($10) and a muddled berry margarita with the same Arette blanco with a pop of jalapenos ($10).
Also find craft cocktails such as the G-N-T with gin, tonic and a glass wrapped in cucumbers ($10) and a pisco-based concoction topped with egg foam ($12). La Catrina is a must order for theater. It’s 12-year blended scotch with pomegranate, lime and mole bitters poured tableside over dry ice for maximum spectacle ($12).
Beer and wine: A well-priced and succinct wine list covers bottles from Washington, Italy, Spain, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. Seven whites and bubbles by-the-glass or bottle are well priced with most glasses at $8 and bottles topping out at $50. Reds go deeper with 13 bottles and 11 by-the-glass. Glasses of red range from $8 to $18 and bottles from $25 to $100. I appreciated the heavy focus on Washington wines with half the list devoted to wines from Columbia Valley, Walla Walla and Yakima Valley.
Four drafts include Odin’s Gift Amber, Silver City’s Red, Reuben’s Pilsner and Ecliptic’s Starburst IPA ($6 each). There’s also the standard Mexican beers by the bottle: Pacifico, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Corona and Victoria ($5 each).
ON A FIRST VISIT TRY THESE DISHES
Carne asada platter, American Wagyu, $26.99: Piled high with Wagyu chuck eye, sliced thinly like all carne asada should be, flanked by chorizo sausage that carries an assertive blast of spice. Served with a cactus paddle, plus slow-cooked pinto beans and big, bouncy handmade corn tortillas. Enough for two and then some. Outstanding introduction to the grill and at a great price point for extreme value.
Corn tortillas: Handmade, huge, with a bouncy texture and carrying the waft of fresh-grilled corn. Order extra.
Delmonico, USDA prime, $49.99: A 24-ounce monster, served on a volcanic-level hot stone platter with a pile of rock salt (be careful, it’s molten). Steaks come here with a four-pack of sauce boats filled with salsa verde, salsa rojo, pico de gallo and pickled red onions.
Guacamole Casero, $7.99: A softball sized scoop of house-made avocado gussied up simply with lime and salt. Served with crispy tostadas, made in house.
Tuetano, $5.99: Roasted bone marrow is an exquisite treat. The marrow is roasted until nearly liquified. Spread the jiggly bone innards on the accompanying toasted bread. Lightly seasoned, scented with rosemary.
Rajitas poblanos, $7.99: A side dish of roasted poblanos and corn suspended in a rich, creamy sauce. A light lick of heat, but more creamy than spicy. Scoop it onto your carne asada tacos.
Papa loca, $10.99: I’ve spent a large chunk of my adult life in search of a great baked potato. I previously considered El Gaucho’s version at the top of my list, but Cuerno Bravo knocked them out. A huge Russet is split and topped with smoked bacon, gooey melted cheese, little baby strips of Wagyu carne asada and a heavy drizzle of Mexican crema. It’s built for two and can be an entree in itself.
Watermelon mezcal margarita, $14. Smoky, sweet and with a rim coated in Tajin. If only all Mexican beach cocktails tasted like this.
La Catrina, $12: HOLY SPECTACLE! This cocktail is assembled tableside with Buchanan 12-year scotch, pomegranate and citrus juices spiked with mole bitters. It’s poured over dry ice in a skull mug for dramatic effect.
MY BEST ADVICE FOR CHEAPER DINING
FIFTY DOLLARS FOR TWO: The best introduction to Cuerno Bravo is the Wagyu carne asada platter. It was enough steak for my dinner, breakfast, another breakfast, and tacos for two. I can’t emphasize enough what a good value the $26.99 platter is. And because it comes with fresh-made corn tortillas, a big and juicy chorizo sausage, grilled cactus and beans, you can easily treat this as a dinner platter built for two. Add two $10 margaritas and your tab will be about $50 (plus tip). If you can swing $60, you can also add a side dish to split.
Another great $50 dinner-for-two option (sans cocktails) is to do this: Order the 16-ounce prime ribeye ($29.99) to share and then add on guacamole ($7.99) and the massive baked potato ($10.99).
One last under $50 option-for-two is ordering every single appetizer – the guacamole, bone marrow, fancy jalapeno poppers and molletes bread for $24.99 total – then add two $10 margaritas. That’s a great introduction if you’re into the apps-and-cocktails experience when trying a new spot.
UNDER $20 PER PERSON: For budget seekers, look to tacos. There’s Wagyu vacio tacos ($16.99, for 4), ribeye tacos ($15.99, for 4) or halibut tacos ($16.99, for 3). Also, there’s a torta sandwich on a Macrina baguette, built with vacio steak and served Argentinean style with chimichurri sauce ($16.99).
And one of my dining partners was so smart. Instead of ordering her own steak, she nibbled off her husband’s 24-ounce mammoth porterhouse ($59.99) and got herself the oversized giganto baked potato ($10.99) that is its own meal.
More bargains on the way: When Pierce County enters a higher-capacity dining phase, look for lunch and happy hour options. Those will be where bargain eaters will really score, said Orozco.
Now serving: Dinner only Thursdays-Sundays
Reservations: None taken, it’s first-come, first-served. Put your name on the list and they’ll text you when your table is ready. Several great destinations are nearby to hang out while you wait for your table. Hop over to neighboring Stink Meat + Cheese for a glass of Cava and tapas. Devil’s Reef in Opera Alley is another great spot to grab a cocktail. Red Star Taco Bar and Dystopian State Brewing are a short walk away.
Reduced capacity: The dining room has every other table marked off. Capacity is about 40, which means there will be a wait on weekend nights.
Delivery: You can get the food delivered through Uber Eats here
COMING NEXT AT CUERNO BRAVO
Orozco hopes to launch a very affordable happy hour and lunch service, most likely when the county enters the next phase of dining and bar seating is allowed again. He also says he’s exploring turning the back room that is used as a staging area right now into a raw bar where diners can mingle before their meal and enjoy a mezcal-heavy cocktail list.
Where: 616 St Helens Ave, Tacoma; 253-328-6688
Serving: For now, dinner only Thursday-Sunday
Delivery: Uber Eats
IN THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD: DEVIL’S REEF
Have you tried the nautical-themed cocktail destination Devil’s Reef in Tacoma’s Opera Alley? It’s just a short walk away from Cuerno Bravo and should be at the top of your list for premium rum cocktails. National Iron Tikitender champion Jason Alexander is the cocktail creator. Wife Robyn Alexander is the chef. They most recently opened Gilman House in Tacoma’s Stadium neighborhood. Gilman House is the area’s finest gin bar with 25 specialty gin cocktails on the menu. Read more about that here.