En Rama’s seating is back in downtown Tacoma. Get the fresh pasta and burger
Seating at downtown Tacoma’s En Rama is back. After a six-month hiatus, the patio reopens Tuesday (April 20, 2021) with Chris Keil’s imaginative cocktails, a plate of fresh pasta or a gooey burger from Chef Josh Press.
Behold the sturdy metal awning spanning half the sprawling patio. It’ll help keep away the inevitable rain of spring. Patio reservations are a must.
The cocktail den, known for its boozy sherry concoctions, shut down its patio in the fall. Like a lot of Tacoma restaurants, En Rama muddled through winter doing take-out only. Pandemic restrictions made indoor seating at the intimate 30-seat restaurant challenging. Keil, operator of the four-year-old Tacoma treasure that celebrates its anniversary next week, opted for caution and shuttered the dining room. It remains closed. Only outdoor seating is available.
Dabbling in only to-go food and booze over winter pushed Keil and Press to stretch their creativity. They designed brunch packs, date-night-at-home ensembles, family meals to-go and a dizzying array of to-go cocktails. Take-out is not lucrative for a restaurant that specializes in being a gathering place to sip and savor, but if scrappiness during the pandemic is the new metric for rating a restaurant, En Rama triumphed this winter.
“We have lots of conversations about the fluidity of the business. We’re constantly talking about it and the landscape is constantly changing. What we’re working really hard to do is to be nimble and flexible. We feel the brand is elastic enough where we can do that. And as a general rule, when I used to play music, in the band room, you can pitch any idea and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t stick? But you still try it,” Keil told me last year.
GET THE EN RAMA BURGER
Chef Press created the best burger I ate in Tacoma in 2020 – available in mushroom-chickpea or beef versions. Last summer, he embedded Nueske’s bacon into a burger patty made from ground sirloin tip, an homage to Press’s grandmother, who was a big fan of sirloin roast. He shifted from sirloin over the winter and that patty now is made of ground brisket ($12).
Everything but the American cheese on that beef burger is from scratch – from the sesame seed bun that’s made from Shepherd’s grain high-gluten flour and baked after a double proof; to the house pickles made with a triple-pucker of mustard seeds, plus champagne and cider vinegars.
Press grew up in Virginia (which is why you see pimento cheese on the menu). The En Rama beef burger is modeled after a burger Press grew up eating at Cook Out, a regional burger spot from home.
Does a fancy burger always need fancy cheese?
Nah, says Press.
“Honestly if you’re making a good American burger that’s reminiscent of something you thoroughly enjoyed in your childhood, it’s got to have American cheese. You can’t have smoked gouda or aged white cheddar. You have to have American cheese right out of the plastic,” he said. Agreed.
Because En Rama is a restaurant that never leaves out vegetarians, Press made a vegetarian version with a portabella-chickpea patty with tzatziki ($12).
FRESH PASTA PROGRAM CONTINUES
The fresh pasta program prevails at En Rama. Along with Keil’s elixirs and Press’s burgers, the housemade pastas should be the first thing a newcomer orders. All pastas are made by hand in house, including raviolis and extruded pastas, not just the fresh hand-cut pastas. Aside from Sixth Avenue’s Primo Grill, En Rama has the most robust fresh pasta program in Tacoma. En Rama’s pasta list is always evolving, with something new on a frequently changing menu. Typically, find three or four choices, plus specials.
On the menu right now, the end-of-season bucatini should be a must order because it exits as soon as its ingredients go out of season. Springy bucatini noodles, draped in a creamy sauce, were threaded with crispy sunchokes and wild mushrooms. If your server asks if you would like a soft egg plopped on top, answer, “Yes!” Split that jiggly egg open and swipe the bucatini through the yolk river. Available in two sizes – the $24 serving was more than a meal, with a $14 serving for modest appetites.
Radiatore pasta carried early-spring flavors. Plentiful nooks in the squat noodles cradled pockets of mint-pistachio pesto. Buttered bread crumbs added a delicate crunch. Available as a smaller ($14) or larger plate ($24). Also on the pasta menu: a pork-and-beef Bolognese over campanelle ($14/$24) and risotto with ramps, housemade ricotta and English peas ($14).
SPRING COCKTAIL MENU
When Tacoma’s En Rama opened in 2017, Keil pushed the booze menu into unknown territory in the South Sound: a cocktail menu drenched in sherry (en rama, after all, is a sherry term). While a splash of manzanilla or moscatel sherry are not unheard of anymore at Tacoma cocktail bars, no destinations here meld sherry into cocktails the way Keil does.
Sherry is a valuable player, but rarely the dominant flavor, in Keil’s elixirs. He also has a penchant for mezcal and gin, which play prevalent roles in En Rama’s cocktails, as do teas and botanical-steeped infusions. Keil has been a heavyweight in Tacoma’s cocktail scene – along with Jason Alexander of Devil’s Reef and Gilman House – for more than a decade. He started slinging at the Monsoon Room, which he morphed into 1022 South before moving on to Hilltop Kitchen before he opened En Rama.
Be sure to sample Keil’s mai tai, made with a creamy hazelnut orgeat over ice with rum, lime and triple sec. Pedro Ximinez sherry turned it from lightly tropical to besotted, the drink offering enough octane to make me forget where I put my wallet ($10). If a diner is doing a night right, the evening will progress with a rideshare directly to Devil’s Reef for one of Alexander’s mai tais. En Rama and Devil’s Reef are making two of the best two mai tais in town. Both so vastly different, but equally punched with deep boozy flavors.
The Walking Spanish tasted designed for spring patio sipping, with pisco tuned up with manzanilla sherry, maraschino and house tonic ($10). A giant swath of grapefruit peel unfurls deep into the glass.
Want something that is a bit of a bridge drink from winter to spring? Get the Rum in Sherry, which was fortified with a duo application of East India and moscatel sherry with a light infusion of amargo de chile that left the drink vaguely reminding me of mole sauce ($12).
The bar’s legendary happy hour (3-5 Tuesday-Saturday) still features cocktails from $5 to $6, making it one of the best priced cocktail treasures in Tacoma.
TO NOTE: If the above is not reason enough to visit, there’s the restaurant’s generosity during a time when few restaurants can afford to do so. Hopping onto the Help Kitchen effort, En Rama is offering free meals to those who need them Tuesday through Friday nights.
Where: 1102 A St., Suite 220, Tacoma; 253-223-7184 (located inside Courthouse Square)
Reservations: A must for the small patio. Make them here – https://www.exploretock.com/enrama/
Hours: For now, open 4-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Brunch expected to resume in summer. Check social for updated hours.
CENTRAL TEXAS BARBECUE COMING TO SIXTH AVE
Did you see my story about Kyle Campisi’s new barbecue restaurant, BK’S Barbecue? It’s opening in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood and has a menu featuring Central Texas style brisket smoked over post oak. Read all about it here.